Home improvement: The return of Memorial Stadium

Memorial Stadium is more than a football field — it's a capsule of Cal's legacy.

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff
Derek Remsburg/File
Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff

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From December 1922 to November 1923, a coliseum was constructed at the foot of the Berkeley hills dedicated to the fallen California comrades of the Great War. With “dimensions that slightly exceed the great Coliseum of Rome,” wrote then-UC President David P. Barrows, California Memorial Stadium was a home for 87 years.

On Sept. 1, 2012, a cannon will sound from Strawberry Canyon, marking a new chapter in the rich history of California sports. Memorial Stadium is back.

Memorial Stadium was always meant to be “more than a University building.”

That’s what Robert Gordon Sproul, treasurer of the Stadium Executive Committee and, later, the University of California’s 11th president, wrote before the Cal football team’s stadium-opening 9-0 triumph over Stanford.

But football and a grand stadium are no match for Mother Earth. The Hayward Fault runs through the middle of the stadium, creating a significant safety hazard for the hundreds of thousands of people watching and playing football. By the mid-2000s, the nearly century-old stadium had been through its share of wear and tear.

So when the regents came down in 2008 with the edict to fix it or leave, renovating the stadium was the only viable option. Memorial Stadium was home. It represents the passion for a game, the love for Cal and the spirit of California.

The seismic retrofit would keep the Cal community safe. The renovation would modernize its house while keeping the foundation, its history. And funding for the $321 million project would come not from the state or campus but from the Cal community at large.

The Memorial Stadium makeover was not just for football — it was for Cal.

There’s a controversy at Memorial Stadium, and it costs $321 million.

Under the Endowment Seating Program (ESP), the primary fundraising tool in the model to finance the stadium’s renovation, donors buy the rights to an all-inclusive seat in one of three club levels (ranging from $40,000 to $225,000) for 40 to 50 years.

What makes the plan risky is that the money can be paid out over as many as 30 years — therefore the athletic department has relatively little cash in hand — and that the donor agreement is non-binding.

The next financial quarterly will be released on Sept. 10, says Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Wilton. However, Wilton does not think the number of seats sold will change much — only 14 ESP seats were sold between Dec. 31, 2011 and March 31, 2012. That means Cal will likely still hover around 62 percent sold of the 90 percent goal.

That’s where the entire financial model comes into play. Even if money stops coming in, the athletic department will be able to pay off the debt for the time being because of the way the bonds are structured.

“Right now it looks like we have sufficient revenue to handle the debt service for at least the next 20 years,” says campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

There’s also $20-60 million of non-ESP money factored into the model. With $15 million in philanthropy already this year, Wilton says, “You could say we’re ahead of where we thought we might be.”

The Pac-12’s 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox provides Cal about $5-6 million extra in TV revenue. And money from the newly established Pac-12 Networks could be significant, says Athletic Director Sandy Barbour — though the department has been told not to count on any revenue before 2015.

Mathematics professor Calvin Moore predicts that, based on the calculation of certain assumptions and historic trends, there is a less than 10 percent chance the model won’t succeed. “Under most circumstances, the funding plan works,” he says, adding that most projections end with a surplus.

But Moore’s latest study was completed in September of 2011, and the model is ever-changing. For one, the sales effort has moved from development to the sales and service unit. The biggest change might be Memorial Stadium itself — now that people can actually sit in the stadium and watch a football game, Wilton and others expect seat sales to spike.

“Right now we’re feeling good but not complacent,” Mogulof says. “That’s not to say there isn’t a heck of a lot of work that needs to be done.”

That seat sales and philanthropy are partly contingent upon the success of the football team is cause for concern. More disconcerting is the fact that donors can back out of their agreement at any time.

Nevertheless, Barbour is confident in the loyalty of Cal’s donor base.

And time is on Cal’s side.

“As an athletic program, we will be responsible stewards in terms of continuing to monitor and adjust and be on top of the model to ensure that we have the ability to finance the debt through intercollegiate athletics,” Barbour says.

Still, some are worried that students will end up having to pay for the stadium despite the assurance that no campus funds will be used. Wilton says that, hypothetically, even if Cal does nothing for the next 20 years, there are options like refinancing and coming up with a new capital program.

“The point being that that’s not likely, it wouldn’t happen, and even if it did, you can probably contain it within athletics,” he says.

Wilton recently asked three professors from the Haas School of Business to analyze the model and look at the risks. While their conclusion won’t be out for some time, one thing is for sure: No one will know the verdict for at least 20 years.

It’s July 12, and the hot summer sun shines down on hundreds of workers in neon vests, laboring to complete what Barbour calls a “mammoth undertaking.” Workers would begin to install the Matrix synthetic turf 12 days later and the two scoreboards, 90 percent bigger than the one up before, shortly after that.
It was a job that should have taken 30 months. They finished in 21.

Despite the magnitude of the work involved, Bob Milano Jr., assistant athletic director for capital planning and management, characterizes the project as not rushed but accelerated. “You can’t just turn up the dial in the last month,” he says.

Strawberry Canyon created a natural amphitheater for Memorial Stadium, with the east side built into the earth. But the remaining two-thirds section of the stadium was vulnerable to an earthquake.

So workers cut two wedges out of the stands, on the north and south sides. In the event of a rupture, the separate structures would move independently — as much as six feet horizontally and two feet vertically.

“What’s gratifying today is that it all looks so simple,” says engineer David Friedman, calling the stadium “absolutely life safe.”

The field was lowered about four feet, allowing the first eight rows or so to see, while the previously unnavigable concourse was widened three-fold. Vendors will finally be allowed to cook in the stadium. “What we had in the old stadium was a series of little league snack bars,” Milano says.

Wheelchair seats have been added, which, along with wider aisles and roomier club level seats, caused the seating capacity to decrease from 71,799 to about 63,000.

That kind of modernization is balanced out with the history — most notably the now-restored facade.

Other football stadiums, like the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum “really don’t have facades, just backs and fronts,” says architect Darryl Roberson, who has been working on the project for the better part of a decade.

While the stadium will be game ready on Saturday, it is not 100 percent complete. Not that the average fan will notice things like missing decorations and commemorations.

It’s fair to say that fans will be, like Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, “awed with the result.”

The team certainly is. Senior running back Isi Sofele said he had “goose bumps” after practicing at the renovated stadium for the first time on Aug. 16. Head coach Jeff Tedford admitted he had “butterflies” upon walking onto the field for a recent practice.

The stadium is a part of history — and, of course, a memorial as well. Built and named in honor of the Californians who lost their lives in World War I, Memorial Stadium will be rededicated this year in memory of Californians who have died in any war.

There is not any doubt as to the product of California Memorial Stadium’s renovations in balancing history with modernity, aesthetics and safety.

“It’s great to be home,” Tedford says.

There’s no place like it.

Contact Jonathan Kuperberg at [email protected]

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  • Nunya Beeswax

    It’s more than just a football field–it’s a $500 million boondoggle.

  • sportsfan

    The new stadium is magnificent but was it the best way to spend $321 million, considering the small number of students who will benefit from this considerable investment?

    • Guest

      Exactly. What was the current budget deficit for the uni? $200 million? Hmmmm, wonder what that $321 million could have been used for…