South Alabama Stadium Might Cost Mobile Their Bowl Games

For the past few years, I’ve been a resident of Mobile, Alabama. I’ve also been down on South Alabama football, at least when it comes to all the things that occur off the field which either directly or indirectly affect the on-field product.

Recently, university president Tony Waldrop released a letter to inform the team’s fans about the latest news regarding the long-discussed on-campus football stadium. In thinking about this plan, I have gradually come to realize that I’ve done a poor job of delineating my disdain for the city of Mobile and how it has taken care of Ladd-Peebles Stadium from the university, it’s football team and it’s facilities.

So let me lead off with this hopefully coherent thought. If this plan goes forward in anything close to its current set up, it would indicate that the university is fully aware of how poorly the Mobile community has invested itself in USA athletics, especially football. It also would indicate that they are more than willing to return the favor.

Ladd-Peebles Stadiun

Let’s start with the older of the two problems. L-P Stadium is 68 years old this year, and it shows. This is partly because it is 68 years old, but also because the stadium has only seen $10.6 million worth of significant renovations, $2.5 million of which has happened in the last 19 years, none of which has happened since the summer before USA played their first game in 2009.

That last $2.5 million renovation? They sandblasted and repainted the stadium, took the hedges off the sidelines, replaced all the rusted out fencing, and closed off the 120-seat, upper-deck club level into pricier luxury boxes. If you walk around the stadium, it’s quickly apparent that “additional luxury boxes and a handful of coats of lipstick” is all that have been done in almost 20 years. I’ve said before that L-P would be the worst stadium I’ve ever visited were it not for Legion Field in Birmingham.

On the surface, that may not matter a ton as long as people continue attending games, which they more or less are if you look strictly at the announced attendance and never sit in the stands and look around. But there’s more than that – the city has the Senior Bowl and the newly-rechristened Dollar General Bowl to think about, as well.

An on-campus stadium for South Alabama

This matters because of what now appears to be the university’s plan for their ideal on-campus stadium:

  • It would be built on the current site of the intramural fields, which is not news since that was one of about two logical places for it to be on campus.
  • It would cost anywhere between $85 and 115 million dollars depending on the exact specifications; the university has always said they would like to have a good chunk of funding secured prior to any actual planning, let alone construction, so this changes nothing other than giving them an actual rough dollar goal.
  • The stadium will have 25,000 seats while being constructed in such a way that it would be easily expandable in the future.

You’ve decided on the more central of your two location options and you now have at least a range to aim for when it comes to raising the money you want to raise once you start doing so. That’s great. But why are you building a 25,000 seat stadium?

Sure, the South Alabama Jaguars as a team have a historical average of about 17,500 fans per game and have had more than 25,000 fans exactly one time in their 44-home-game history. But they’ve also been hosting two bowl games for forever and those are a different story. Last year’s Bowl saw 28,686 in attendance, which was the lowest ever and only the second time in 17 tries they’ve had less than 34,000. The Senior Bowl has had similar success, regularly topping the 35,000 plateau.

Even if you’d like me to admit, having attended these events, that those numbers are likely paid attendance and not actual butts in seats, that doesn’t change the fact that a 25,000 seat stadium has just lopped off 10,000 seats worth of revenue if these bowl games are going to be held in these locations.

That would suggest that they aren’t, in which case we might have an issue. The Senior Bowl has already flirted with leaving town in the past for a variety of reasons, and I don’t think that being left behind to keep on keeping on at L-P while the Jaguars take their act to a new facility would really help that continuously tenuous situation in the slightest.

While it’s debatable as to exactly how much revenue either of those events generates for the city and county of Mobile, I don’t think that the big picture of how it helps the region can handle the hit of these events leaving town, especially if it’s due to something as simple as the USA administration deciding to not make room for them.

While these bowl games do represent a not-insignificant financial boost for the city, the university itself doesn’t see much if it, and that is unlikely to change appreciably even if they’re hosting those events in the middle of their own campus.

I would imagine that the athletic administration would see the annually declining attendance and see a city that supports them less and less (both through alumni donations as well as actual athletic event attendance) and perhaps consider the act of giving back to the city of little interest to them. That’s what hosting these bowl games would be, since the city would see most of whatever economic windfall occurred.

Is this the right move?

And yet there’s this odd but true statement: this stadium plan manages to somehow simultaneously undershoot and overshoot the school and city’s potential when it comes to FBS football.

This university has made campus-wide improvements in their facilities and overall campus appearance in the last decade to the point that my wife barely recognized the place when we moved back despite only 6 years away. That kind of well-planned and well-executed vision can only serve as a positive for a football program which, located in a middle-class town and across the bay from multiple wealthier towns, could easily grow into a team that regularly fills a 40,000 seat stadium.

At the same time, even the foolish artificial limitation of a 25,000 seat stadium looks like something that wouldn’t regularly sell to capacity given the current state of support for the Jaguars in Mobile. This is a school that has needed so much help with alumni giving that you only need to take 26 credits there before you are considered an alumnus. Yet they still struggle with donations, because both Mobile and the surrounding areas are filled with people who have plenty of money but no connection to and therefore no interest in giving that money to South Alabama.

I’m o.k. with the school’s vision for its own programs not matching that of the general public, but it simply seems odd for them to limit themselves so severely before they’ve even got the project started.

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