I love Gampel Pavilion, some of my greatest sports memories took place in that building, and on its best day I would argue that Gampel stands up to any other arena in the country in terms of crowd noise and game atmosphere.
I say that first to preface what might not be a very popular statement, but it's a fact that we're going to have to confront sooner or later. Gampel is starting to get old, and the time may be coming for the university to begin preparing to replace it.
Next month Gampel Pavilion will turn 24 years old, and it's really starting to show its age. The roof is beginning to fall apart, it has no luxury boxes and few amenities, the lighting system is outdated and it basically looks like a giant concrete spaceship from the Cold War era.
At some point soon, UConn is going to need to make some upgrades at Gampel to keep the place in serviceable condition, but from a long-term perspective, a more permanent and comprehensive athletic facilities solution is needed. Fortunately, athletic director Warde Manuel has already brought in some experts to study UConn's athletics facilities situation and help formulate a plan.
From Mike Anthony at the Hartford Courant:
UConn remains in the exploratory phase, having hired architectural firms to conduct feasibility studies for athletics and as part of a more global university plan. Prolonged deliberation will eventually give way to prolonged fundraising. UConn, which will play all Hockey East games at the XL Center for a few years, has an agreement with Hockey East for a campus facility plan to be in place by February 2016.
"We're looking at all the options," athletic director Warde Manuel said. "Nothing is imminent, but I would say in the next year or so we'll have more solid plans."
That was written back in April, and there have been a couple of noteworthy developments since then. First and foremost, the basketball practice facility is almost complete, but more importantly, the university recently approved plans to build a gigantic new $100 million student recreation facility to replace the existing one currently adjacent to Gampel Pavilion. The facility will be built on the former site of Farmer Brown's parking lot near Ted's, and it is expected to open in 2016.
One way or the other, UConn is going to need to embark on a major facilities project around that time to meet its obligation to the Hockey East conference. Realistically, the university has two choices: build a 5,000 seat arena specifically for hockey – likely a scaled down version of Penn State's recently opened Pegula Ice Arena – or conduct a major renovation of Gampel Pavilion.
In my opinion, the school would be foolish if it doesn't upgrade Gampel, because if you tear down Gampel and built a state of the art new arena in its place – or even if you just conducted major renovations of the existing building – you're going to get a lot more bang for your buck than you would just by building a separate new facility for hockey.
Think about it, if you upgrade Gampel, you can install the necessary equipment needed to make it hockey ready while also upgrading the lighting system, adding luxury boxes, amenities and potentially expand capacity by a couple thousand people. In one fell swoop, you could not only create an unparalleled hockey viewing experience, but you could take basketball to the next level too.
Expanded capacity means higher potential ticket sales, and luxury boxes would bring in even more revenue and some serious sponsorship opportunities. If the money is good enough, it might even mean an end to UConn's loathsome contract with the XL Center (which could use some work itself) and the school could finally host all of its home games on campus where they belong.
Having luxury boxes would also give UConn a new place to wine and dine its rich donors and VIPs who currently occupy the best seats courtside, potentially freeing up those seats for an expanded student section. You thought the student section made an impact during Monday's game? Imagine if they had been surrounding the court like Duke's fans do at Cameron Indoor Stadium?
As for upgrading the lights, this would make a huge difference in the arena's entertainment potential compared to what Gampel currently offers. Right now, Gampel doesn't have the ability to shutter its lights on and off, and when the lights actually get turned off, it takes like 10 minutes for them to turn back on again. This is why they always have the two basketball coaches give speeches between the player intros and the skills competitions during First Night, so the lights have enough time to come back on.
With upgraded lights, the athletic marketing people wouldn't be limited by the arena's technical capabilities and could prepare some truly epic pregame hype presentations, like this one.
Kill the lights. Play the music. Crowd goes wild. This would pay benefits beyond athletics too, it would enhance the experience during events like Lipsync and the Spring Concert, and it would make Gampel a better concert venue in general, which might help attract better acts.
Bottom line, if you do all of this, you maximize the potential for both sports while giving hockey a chance to become a huge draw on campus. I know right now it might be hard to imagine any hockey game garnering anywhere near enough interest to fill up Gampel Pavilion, but if the men's hockey team becomes a contender in the Hockey East, it will happen. I promise you that.
From a timing perspective, this is the perfect time to begin preparing for a major Gampel project. As I mentioned earlier, the basketball facility is almost done, hockey needs an on-campus facility, and the new student recreation facility should be complete by 2016. Once that project is done, the university would then have the flexibility to tear the existing recreation building down and utilize the space in the new designs.
That space could be used to build an upgraded natatorium for the swim team, an upgraded track facility for the track and cross country teams, nicer locker rooms for all the teams that use the turf field behind the building and new offices for all the coaches, which all could be connected to the new Gampel like the existing recreation building is.
Whatever space is left over afterwards could then be converted into parking, ideally some kind of central student parking deck. Frankly, this is something that's sorely needed anyway. It's insane how far away students have to park sometimes just to find a spot certain times a day.
As for the Freitas Ice Forum, you could pretty much leave it the way it is right now and continue to use it for the women's team's games, as a practice rink, for the club teams and for students to use for free-skates.
How much all of this would cost? I have no idea, but it would definitely cost a lot, tens of millions for sure. The money could come from any number of sources, (the most convenient being extra television revenue from a future ACC or B1G invite), but either way, the university has time to fundraise and could hopefully aim for construction to begin by 2017 or 2018 after the recreation facility is done.
How long construction lasts would surely depend on how extensive the renovations are. If the work lasted more than year, it might become necessary to play all of the school's home games in Hartford for at least that year. As much as that would suck, I'd argue that it might be tolerable if the trade-off was that when the new facility opens, it brings in enough revenue that the school can finally move all of its home games back on campus, or at the very least only play in Hartford/Bridgeport during winter and spring break when nobody is on campus anyway.
This would be an ambitious plan, but I hope its one the university winds up considering. Gampel Pavilion helped propel UConn basketball (and by extension, the university itself) to new heights in the early 90s, and the time has come for the school to plant the seeds for the next arena to help carry the school to even greater heights going forward.
I'm sure all of you have thoughts on this issue too, feel free to weigh in down in the comments with your ideas of how this could get done.