Are You on Team Legacy or Team Emergent?

From Program to Program, University Athletics Have Differing Expectations for Their Venues

November 25, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

In many institutions of American higher education, athletics are closely identified with universities and campus life. Graduates of a particular university may not recall the name of academic buildings, but many most likely vividly remember tailgating at the stadium or cheering on the basketball team in the campus arena.

The traditional model of the legacy institution, with storied sports venues steeped in history — for instance, the basketball programs at Duke, Indiana, Kentucky, UCLA and others — remains the most visible. Yet today we also see many regional and commuter-based schools that have grown in size significantly and now require infrastructure upgrades and facilities to support their students and student-athlete populations. Competing at the highest level of collegiate athletics often is a key component of their vision for brand growth and establishing a more traditional campus model.

These emerging institutions present a completely new set of challenges for college athletics and their facilities. The challenge is to deliver the same feeling of authenticity as a legacy sports venue, while providing a more campus-oriented program and flexibility for the venue itself. Therefore, a “one size fits all” approach to the design of sports facilities no longer works for modern university athletics. Universities today have very different needs and goals.

On the one hand, the established programs, with strong sports brands and legacy venues, are looking to transition their facilities for the next era of recruitment and fan experience. On the other hand, emerging institutions are looking to grow their brand into a national legacy program or international stature by making competitive athletics more visible and designing new athletic facilities.

These two groups have distinct community, financial and cultural needs which require different approaches and skill sets. More importantly, they require a sensitivity and understanding of the role athletics plays in the overall educational mission of the campus, and of how this role varies widely among institutions at all levels of development.

Each of these programs present different challenges and opportunities:

Legacy Program Emerging Program
Legacy facilities embody existing brand value and cherished amenities.
The culture and legacy of the athletics program forms the foundation of facility design.
Renovation presents an opportunity to combine legacy brand value with modern amenities while retaining authenticity.
The highest value is the tradition of the experience. The challenge is to meet the needs of past, present and future generations of fans.
The visibility of the athletics program presents an opportunity to grow and define the university brand.
Facilities must balance athletics with community events, student recreation, academic use, commencement and other functions.
Facility design must focus on the university’s overall needs and future vision, rather than on legacy and history.
Venues require greater flexibility and a design that can expand and adapt over time to continued growth and changing demographics.

Recently retired Tennessee athletic director emeritus Joan Cronan eloquently summarized the brand value of a university’s athletics program at this year’s NACDA conference in Orlando: “If the university is a home, then athletics is the front porch.” That front porch not only defines the look of the home, it provides a welcoming, accessible way for outsiders to enter. Sometimes the porch needs just a little upkeep; sometimes it needs to be constructed from the ground up. Though athletic and campus needs differ from institution to institution, in each instance, they define communities and bring people together.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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