Column: A bold investment in long-term future of FSU football

Florida State Athletics and Seminole Boosters Inc. (SBI) continue to announce aggressive plans for massive investments in the future, a series of football camps and a cutting-edge response to educating and helping student-athletes to capitalize on new Name, Image and License marketing opportunities when legislation goes into law. Each of these initiatives is a bold venture especially at a time when cutting expenses to balance a significant short-term deficit. 

Last week, the Board of Trustees gave SBI the green light to start pre-selling premium seating options in the Dunlap Champions Club and along the West Sideline, which will fund upgrades to Doak Campbell Stadium and “other athletics facilities.” 

This week, FSU Athletics and Seminole Boosters released plans for a new Football Operations Building (FOB), a project that has been on the drawing board and in early fundraising since 2018.

In between these two capital projects, FSU announced a series of football camps in Tallahassee and across Florida and announced a partnership with Apex to enable FSU’s student-athletes to capitalize on upcoming Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) legislation, which will take effect July 1 in Florida. 

“I am extremely proud of the comprehensive nature of the Apex program,” said FSU Vice President and Director of Athletics David Coburn. “The cornerstone principle from the start of this process was to educate our student-athletes, and education plays a central role in every aspect of Apex. We believe we are the only Power Five school in the nation that will offer two for-credit courses in NIL education. By partnering with the FSU College of Business, the Jim Moran Institute and INFLCR, we will provide a complete educational process from which our student-athletes will benefit immediately and throughout their lives.”

For more on these projects, see Osceola stories here and here. 

These four initiatives, presented within a week of each other, have raised concern in some people’s mind about how FSU can tackle these projects while simultaneously making well-publicized cuts to its current fiscal year budget. Those cuts, including layoffs and furloughs, were in direct response to lost revenue and increased testing and sanitization associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Having served as a Sr. Vice President of Seminole Boosters, and worked on such projects, I thought I’d share a baker’s dozen thoughts on the matter with you. Hope you’ll share your thoughts with me in the comments section of our message board.

1. Cutting costs while investing is not incongruous

Unlike the operating expenses FSU Athletics Director David Coburn has cut in recent years, costs like payroll with furloughs, these capital projects do not draw on athletics’ current operating budget. In fact, they likely won’t draw on future athletics’ budgets either. To begin with, both of these projects are in the planning and fundraising phase and not in the spending phase. When approved, capital projects like these typically draw planning and construction dollars from private capital campaign donations rather than from athletic revenues or annual SBI membership gifts. 

2. Operations are an expense. Capital projects are an investment

Give the Seminole Boosters and Athletics credit for looking past the current budget deficit and aggressively looking to the future by investing in the engine that pulls the train. 

Make no mistake: Football is the engine. The oblong ball that bounces funny funds more than 80 percent of athletics revenues. In that respect, football fuels the financial engine that pulls the train, which includes 19 sports. An investment in football therefore is an investment in all sports and every athletic employee’s paycheck.

3. Projects are related; timing not coincidental

The first FSU announcement, the pre-sale of premium seats in Doak Campbell Stadium, will test the strong demand for a better game-day experience, which was indicated in fans’ responses to a survey. If the demand is as strong as indicated and the project gets the green light, the revenue generated from those seats could be pledged to a bond issue on the football operations building if needed. A bond issue may also give FSU the option of sticking a shovel in the ground on the football facility sooner. 

According to the announcement: “The football facility project will continue to be privately funded through donations made to Seminole Boosters, supplemented by new revenue streams tied to recently announced seating and infrastructure concepts at Doak Campbell Stadium.”

Those “new revenue streams” could provide the backstop revenue required for a bond to fund both the seating project and the football ops facility if the Boosters decided to bond that project.

4. The projects can be symbiotic

Fundraising for one project creates conversations about the other. A person who wants to discuss the club seats on the west sideline or in the Dunlap Champions Club (DCC) obviously cares about football and has the capacity to give to the football ops facility. It’s an easy conversation. And vice versa.

I don’t know SBI’s sales plan at this point but it’s not unusual to ask a premium seat holder for a capital gift for the right to purchase. SBI did that with the DCC and with skyboxes, and it’s not unusual across the industry.

5. The Capital Campaign is going well

SBI and FSU announced the Unconquered Campaign, a five-year effort to raise $100 million, has surpassed its goal in pledges after just three years. The release also noted that over $43 million has been funded, though not all for the football facility. Seminole Booster CEO and President Michael Alford noted the campaign, which is for multiple sports as well as the football facility, will continue.

6. Cost estimates and timeline not released

The original building design was estimated to cost $60 million to build in 2018 construction dollars. While FSU hasn’t announced a projected cost for the new design, which is larger, you can imagine it will cost more in 2022 or later construction dollars. While cost estimates were not made public, it is not unreasonable to imagine a cost north of $80 million.

The timeline for completion depends on donors. If there’s a great response to the vision with an angel investor, the project will begin quicker. If the gifts are in cash, the project can also begin sooner. In a perfect world, a donor’s gift would be in cash but the reality is most donors pay their gifts over a five-year period.

A common question: Will FSU wait until all the cash is in hand? FSU may choose to do that, but typically once a campaign reaches a threshold – a high percentage of the cost of the project – they could choose to bond the project, borrowing money to start the project using future pledge payments or premium seat revenue as collateral, in order to get a shovel in the ground sooner. 

7. The Football Ops Building helps all sports.

Sounds like politically correct speech, right? It’s not. When FSU builds the 150,000-square foot football only building, it will greatly expand the resources and access available to all sports within the Moore Athletic Center. 

Here’s what Coburn had to say about that: “The new home for our football program will allow us to expand the spaces in the Moore Athletic Center for academic services, sports medicine, dining, and strength and conditioning that are shared by all our sports,” said Coburn. “It will be a dramatic improvement for all our support efforts, which has a direct impact on the experience of our world-class student-athletes.”

It’s true. Those spaces Coburn referred to were adequate when built but the number of sports and the number of student-athletes has increased. Furthermore, football had priority. If football wanted the weight room or the training room at a certain time, all other sports rescheduled or did without. With 100 football players in their own space, the other 300 student-athletes will have much more access to all those spaces.

8. The Football Only Building won’t totally isolate football

One of my concerns with the original football only facility was it isolated the players from other student-athletes. Former players have benefited from interacting with student-athletes in other sports, students who share equally demanding schedules. Heck, many of our student-athletes found their spouse while here at FSU. 

Under the current design, football players will continue to eat their meals in an expanded Figg Dining Hall, where other student-athletes eat as well. They will also share Academic Support facilities with other student-athletes, which will be expanded within the Moore Athletic Center.

While not mentioned in the press release, the Moore Athletic Facility will connect to the football ops facility and the Dunlap Athletic Training Complex by a common plaza. 

9. The football only facility drew consensus

I have to be honest. I was an advocate for renovating the Moore Athletic Center for football and for building space elsewhere for the other 19 sports. Why? Because I thought Bobby Bowden field provides an oceanfront view for the football offices; the money shot for recruits when they visit. 

But what do I know?

Jimbo Fisher wanted a football only building away from the Moore Athletic Center. Willie Taggart seconded that motion and Mike Norvell did too. Strike one, two and three. There was unanimous consensus to move out of the Moore Center.

My fear was if FSU built it anywhere but within the Moore, our very next coach would ask, “Why didn’t you build it overlooking Bobby Bowden Field?” Our very next coaches didn’t ask that question. In fact they answered it.

The Venn diagrams of their answers have a common intersection: focus. There’s just too many distractions in the Moore Center with all the different sports and College of Communications students too. 

10. The View will be impressive

While on a visit to Dallas to study their premium seating options, I had the opportunity to visit The Star, which is the Dallas Cowboys’ Practice Facility in Frisco, Texas, which is a long way from AT&T Stadium. 

The 91-acre complex is phenomenal, of course. The one takeaway, however, that applies to FSU is the view. While the view is not the same as looking out at the game day field at AT&T Stadium, it’s still pretty darn cool.

No one understands this better than Mike Alford, who worked for Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys for several years at about the time these facilities were built and knows exactly how it is monetized. 

As you look at the renderings of the proposed FSU facility, imagine the view you’ll have of the FSU practice fields from inside the building, with Doak and Dick Howser Stadium looming in the background. As you look at the front elevation, imagine what that will look like as you are driving up Stadium Drive, with Doak and the football only building side by side. The plaza that will connect the two will also be impressive to recruits on an official visit, as it captures the essence of the complex with everything you need in one complex.

11. Front elevation makes statement, takes real estate 

The previous design lacked panache. The building looked like an afterthought, stuffed between the practice field and the raised roadbed of Stadium Drive. 

Populous was made aware of the issue but was limited by space. After looking at alternative locations, they came up with a solution to build a wing that created the front elevation you see in the current renderings but required Mike Norvell to give up about 20 to 30 yards of one practice field.

Having sat in some of those kinds of meetings with FSU’s previous head coaches, I was curious to know Norvell’s reaction.

“He was great as the benefits far outweigh the loss of space,” Alford said. “It will have no effect at all in practice because we have that great indoor facility. If we didn’t have the indoor field, it would not have been an option. Plus there’s a 40-yard turf field on the second floor that ties the 13 position segment rooms together.”

FSU had a similar “turf room” in the 1990s, which was right outside the segment rooms. I was surprised when Jimbo Fisher converted it into a player’s lounge, which was also needed at the time. The turf room allowed position coaches to watch film with their segment and then go right out onto the turf and run a drill if they wanted to reinforce what the players had seen on film. This room will restore that functionality.

12. The design incorporates essential elements to attract recruits

We all buy with our eyes and facilities like these speak volumes to recruits and their parents about the program’s commitment to their sport. Yes, it is an arms race and you either run with the big dogs or you get left behind. 

In addition to passing the eye test, the extensive list of features included in this facility should serve the important function of developing incoming student-athletes for the rigors of college football and give them the best chance of maximizing their potential. 

Position meeting rooms, indoor walk-thru areas, coaches’ offices, walk-thru recovery pools, underwater treadmill pools, cryotherapy, hyperbaric chambers, high altitude rooms, virtual reality areas are not just eye candy. They help kids stay healthy and recover from the wear and tear of the sport to maximized performance and professional potential.

13. Just what the fundraising staff needs to close the campaign

“People give to people for causes they believe in.” That was George Langford’s belief when he formed Seminole Boosters almost 50 years ago and a belief the organization has lived by since. These projects extend that philosophy.

A program has to create a vision people can believe in and these two projects will be exciting to those who have committed to the Unconquered Campaign and to those who have been entertaining proposals but waiting to commit until they could see what the project would become with Norvell’s input.

Now that they have the renderings, the Unconquered Campaign is likely to gain fresh momentum to build the engine that drives football ticket and Booster revenue for all FSU athletics for years to come.