South Alabama’s On Campus Stadium Is the Talk Of the Town, So What Do We Know?

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to South Alabama football and their new plans for an on-campus stadium. We’d be remiss to not mention the past, present, and future…

Ladd Peebles Stadium (Past and Present)

I’ve already talked some about the UAB Blazers, their history with the ancient and beyond-repair Legion Field, and their future as it pertains to the new stadium being built as part of the convention center complex overhaul.

South Alabama’s football program is far younger than UAB’s, and they’ve got the benefit of being able to make their university decisions autonomously throughout their history, but there are similarities.

They currently play their home football games in a stadium that is very old, very outdated, and arguably has more in the way of basic needed renovations than it’s worth, let alone the expense necessary to bring it into the 21st century. They’ve also seen attendance continue to decline, though that’s not a trend exclusive to Mobile and maybe Steve Campbell can stem that tide.

Ladd-Peebles isn’t in as dire a condition as Legion Field, mostly because it’s about 20 years younger and is only about half the size. However, for a football program that is aspiring to bigger and better things, continuing to throw money at a stadium that is currently facing a ledger of $15 million in deferred maintenance alone is far less than ideal.

What this means is that the city of Mobile has been doing the absolute bare minimum in maintenance for so long that there’s a backlog of $15 million dollars just to clear out the basic maintenance to bring the stadium facilities up to code and reach a point where day-to-day maintenance is all that’s left.

Of course, that number isn’t truly accurate. When you defer that much maintenance, a few things happen; one, the maintenance itself goes up in cost over time (due to inflation if nothing else). But the maintenance itself also becomes less effective and/or more extensive.

It’s like your car windshield. If you fix the chip in the windshield right when it happens, you spend $50 and you’re done. If you wait too long, you eventually have no choice from a safety standpoint but to spend the $300 to replace the entire windshield.

To that end, Mayor Sandy Stimpson recently said that over the 20-year period that they are asking the city to contribute $10 million to their new on-campus stadium, Ladd would need about $33 million worth of upkeep (both general maintenance and necessary upgrades/repairs), which is in addition to that $15 million figure.

Speaking of that other stadium…

Vince Dooley Field at Airbus Stadium

We’ll start off simple here. USA has done a lot of work to get their supporters eager and excited about this project to generate as much buzz and support as possible, including lots of renderings of what they intend it to look like (aka a lot like Ladd but newer and a bit more modern).

This is all good. The university has already moved the intramural fields to accommodate this stadium, and perhaps projects like updating the intersection of Old Shell and Hillcrest can help things like traffic concerns over this new structure. Heck, a construction fence has even started going up in order for concrete removal to happen.

But it’s not literally all good.

The Reality of the Situation

It is never as simple as “Old stadium is old, too old to fix. Need build new stadium. Ok, good.”

You have to take in the larger context, and boy is there a lot of it.

One major sticking point here is the same discussion as in Birmingham; the city council (and certain sections of the city’s population) are wanting this process to slow down because they are convinced that the new on-campus stadium will lead to the demolishing – or worse, to the neglect – of Ladd Peebles Stadium, thus sucking the surrounding neighborhoods of Maysville, Leinkauf, and Rickarsby further down the economic rabbit hole.

These concerns have already caused the city council vote over whether the city and county should contribute that $10 million to be delayed twice so far, with no guarantees on the horizon other than a public forum today with city councilman Levon Manzie.

This is where things get strange: Manzie and others express concern over the future of the two stadiums becoming entangled, and that it would have been easier to settle each of these issues had they remained on their own.

But here’s the thing: they can’t be discussed separately, nor should they be.

If the South Alabama Jaguars and the various bowl games all move to the new on-campus stadium (which they will), then the only future for Ladd without major changes is as a 40,000 seat high school football stadium with $15 million in backdated maintenance and $1.6 million per year in regular maintenance, a veritable money sinkhole that the city would continue to throw money down because its citizens and leadership can’t agree on any better way to memorialize it than to leave it standing.

Those expenses would be covered by even less revenue, and there would be nothing to replace that because Mobile is not a city that has ever invested in its sports (at an administrative level).

See, the Mobile BayBears, which have been in the city since 1997 and are the AA-ball affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, are leaving town after next year because new ownership found a town that will build them a new baseball stadium.

Hank Aaron Stadium is only 22 years old, but it has had minimal renovations outside of the ones the park just received in the last year and a half once ownership changed and the threat to leave arose. Hank Aaron – one of the all-time greats in Major League Baseball and a Mobile native – gets a stadium named after him that gets shoved next to the interstate in a part of town where nobody lives.

The franchise got two years behind on its rent payments to the city, which the city didn’t strictly enforce because they hadn’t made the necessary improvements (which finally came in the last 2 years). That game of “pay rent or we won’t fix things” chicken may have cost them the franchise, and they are now unsuccessfully scrambling for replacement tenants.

Add in the run-down civic center, and these two plus Ladd give the city three little-used civic and athletic facilities that contribute to a total of $83 million in deferred maintenance. This doesn’t seem like a city that is terribly interested in investing meaningful funds in Ladd or anything else – or a city that will catch up any time soon due to its refusal to bridge this gap through taxation.

South Alabama is aware of this situation, which is why their current proposal includes giving the city $2.5 million towards whatever repurposing plan they choose for the Ladd Stadium area, something they are under no obligation to do.

They are also seeming to become tired of this situation, as they have suggested at least once recently that public funding will only determine whether the stadium gets built on their currently desired timeline, not whether it gets built at all.

What Comes Next

The Jaguars are still a young program, and they don’t have the alumni donor base necessary to do something like this expeditiously without public funding. The city doesn’t possess the funds or organization to successfully do anything to an area as old and to-date-uninvested-in as Ladd and its surroundings without some sort of help, like the kind USA is offering. This pairing should work.

The folks in these neighborhoods are understandably concerned that the “one good thing they have” in the area – as far as an attraction that draws the crowd to support the other businesses and residents there – are ignoring the fact that such a descriptor is proof of the problem.

Big-name football leaving will give them the opportunity to take money from the university and use it to repurpose the area into something (or things) far more useful than a giant concrete blob that is occupied 10 times a year, one that is declining as a destination.

The Jaguars have only had 22,000+ fans on 10 occasions in their nine seasons, and seven of those occurred at least six years ago. While they’ve drawn big three times in the last four seasons (38,129 vs. Miss St in 2014 and 30,837 vs. Troy in 2016, 10/20/16, and 26,487 vs. Oklahoma St last year), those games represent almost a quarter of attendance over that span.

Mobile is a very different city now than it was 70 years ago, and it’s silly to assume either that it still has the same needs or that those needs can still be met in the same way. The South Alabama Jaguars have done exactly what they hoped to do and outgrown Ladd Peebles Stadium.

The school needs to invest in and work with the city to ensure its move doesn’t cripple the place that it leaves; the city needs to take the school’s gift as a chance to repurpose and revitalize an area long overdue for it.

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