Vanderbilt’s football stadium has been the topic of some debate this last week. Vanderbilt Stadium, the stadium that once dwarfed Neyland Stadium, a stadium that was the first dedicated football venues in the South, is now the butt of many jokes. It’s not undeserved. The stadium is old and looks every bit its age. The concourses are bad as well as the concession stands. The restrooms are cramped and small. Coaches have pointed to it as hurting our recruiting, which in turn hurts our product on the field.
Naturally, many Vanderbilt fans were excited to hear about the prospect of a new/renovated stadium come up. While Vanderbilt runs it’s own poll, we ran one here. I polled AoG readers giving them four choices for our stadium situation. Their choices were: (A) The current stadium is fine, (B) Upgrade the current stadium, (C) Build a new stadium, on-campus and (D) Build a stadium off-campus. As of this writing, there were a total of 485 votes. 84.7% of all respondents want a new stadium on campus or to renovate our current one. Add in the 3.7% of voters that want a new stadium off-campus, and we get 88.4% of our readers would like to see some change to our venue. However, the poll ALSO shows us that 96.3% of our readers prefer football to stay on campus.
The purpose of this poll was to highlight something to Vanderbilt decision makers - there’s a world of difference between asking fans what they want in a stadium, and where they want said stadium. So when you ask fans how they feel about better amenities, the answer you will get is yes. What you fail to ask us is whether we’d prefer those options AND being off campus. To which the answer is no. Vanderbilt is missing the key question - what would we prioritize.
Personally, my priority list would be as follows:
- Refurbished Old Stadium
- New Stadium On-Campus
- Keep Stadium as is
- Trepanning me without anesthesia
- New stadium off-campus
I guess I’d have to be in need of trepanning with the time and support I pour out towards a school that has consistently spat in our faces. One of the biggest draws of a college football game is being back on campus, tailgating with friends and family. Vanderbilt’s donors may not care about that, but we do. I enjoy spending the day seeing the same old lecture halls alongside the new ones. It adds to the atmosphere of the celebration of Saturday, a huge factor in my enjoyment of the game. I’d rather have no new stadium than a new one off campus.
What Vanderbilt seems to not understand is that the biggest draw of fans isn’t padded seats. It isn’t a better view. It isn’t game rooms. It’s not cover from the rain. it’s not better parking or more luxury boxes. It isn’t even the locale. The biggest draw to the games is the team. Win games and more fans will show up. That’s all there is to it.
I live two hours door to door from Vanderbilt Stadium, yet I went to ONE game last year. Even then that was because I was coming home from Thanksgiving through BNA (though I chose wisely!). I spent my four years at Vanderbilt going to football games painted head to toe in black in gold. I spend a lot of time considering season tickets. I haven’t bought them, and it has nothing to do with the stadium. It has everything to do with not wanting to schlep myself four hours by car just to watch us struggle against WKU. Vanderbilt Stadium may be in poor condition, but I’d not care if we were just playing better. The stadium could literally be falling apart and I’d not care if we were winning 8-10 games a season.
There’s tons of fans in my same position. Add spouses and children to that equation, and you get even more of the fans’ money. While a huge majority of Vanderbilt fans want to see things improved, a plethora of sins are forgotten with improving the product on the field. The gameday experience could certainly be improved (and welcomed), but that’s not why the stands are empty. Vanderbilt isn’t filling the stands because we’re not consistently winning.
The bigger concern I have with the MLS stadium initiative is that it’s completely tone deaf. The solution Vanderbilt is offering just creates a much broader problem. In the past I’ve joked that if Vanderbilt were to make a new stadium, it should play entirely into our reputation of being a rich bourgeois school. I’ve advocated making every seat a luxury seat and make it a display of avarice that Midas could have only dreamed of. It was always a sort of half-joke, one that has been twisted into an evil genie wish in recent months. I really need to remember the lessons The Twilight Zone taught me.
It’s a terrible idea to get to glitzy. I didn’t think it was possible to make us look even more out of place in the SEC, but that would certainly be a solid step in that direction. What better way to confirm to everyone that we’re snobs that don’t care about football than to move it to an off-campus soccer stadium. It alienates our own alumni and our “sidewalk fans” alike. We have enough of a fragile relationship in getting them to games, why exacerbate it by essentially saying their desires to keep football on campus aren’t worth anything? That really, when it comes down to it, the only people that matter to Vanderbilt are those with the most money.
Let us look to the New York Yankees, who literally did just that. The “new” Yankee stadium has a section in the infield that is possibly the most ostentatious display in all of professional sports. The infamous “premium suites” (they’re not suites) take up the front sections of the field level from behind the plate to the shallow infield. Even at the season ticket pricing, you’re paying as much as $1,600 a game to be in the “Legend Premier” area, the front row of these sections. What’s that, you only make a million a year? Fear not, you can take a seat in the Legends area for anywhere from $600-$800 a game if you’re willing to sit a row back. Still too much? The Yankees have a few sections at the ends of the “premium seating area” where you can go to games for as little as $300 a game! That’s right, for the price you’d pay getting two NY Rangers playoff tickets off StubHub, you can watch a regular baseball season game alone!
So what do you get for that money besides a padded seat and free parking? You get waiters who will answer your beck and call, literally putting your order into iPads and your food appears from other servants in minutes! Free soda and water through the game! Legends get access to free 5-star dining experience including top rated NYC chefs. That’s right, if you can afford $1,600 a game, you can literally be served duck, sushi, and any other assortment of luxurious multi-course dinners right at your padded seat. Yes, there’s even a full wine list, but you have to pay for your own alcohol. The lowly plebs in Champions only get free stadium food like hamburgers, soda, and hot dogs.
How about the environment of the premium area? Don’t worry, Mr. Carnegie, being in the premium section puts you next to out of touch executives that give you dirty looks for cheering and literally don’t know what a home run is. In addition, your seat will be featured throughout the game, in full view of the fans watching at home. Of course, the seat will be empty because it turns out that even when people buy those seats, they just stay in the air-conditioned restaurant watching the game on TV. They’re important people, watching the game is for middle and (pshh) lower class peasants, who wants to associate with them, anyway? I bet their Shelby isn’t even super-snaked!
Joking aside, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “So there’s an area of the park where the super rich continue to act like a bunch of aristocratic snobs, how’s that any different from any other stadium?” Well, my fellow Commodores, the Yankees literally built a moat inside the stadium to separate our betters from us, the commoners. That's right, a literal moat. Read that again, I’ll wait.
I can’t post an image of the moat here because of SBN rules, but google it and you’ll find plenty. It’s a gaping chasm of concrete that separates the still expensive “regular” field level sections from those in the premium section. It’s not just there to prevent fans from sneaking in and partaking in some free food and sitting in seats they don’t belong in. Turns out the Yankees are furious that non-rich people may get into the premium seating area. They’ve gone so far as to fight ticket resales, and banning print-at-home tickets. Yankees COO Lonn Trost made himself fairly famous about a year ago with his opinion of the matter:
"The problem below market at a certain point is that if you buy a ticket in a very premium location and pay a substantial amount of money. It's not that we don't want that fan to sell it, but that fan is sitting there having paid a substantial amount of money for a ticket and [another] fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half and sits there, and it's frustrating to the purchaser of the full amount."
Trost then added a comment that raised eyebrows on social media because of its seemingly elitist undertones. "And quite frankly," he said, "the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location. So that's a frustration to our existing fan base."
That’s right. It’s not just that the super rich dude just there to impress might find out that he (drastically) overpaid for his seat. It’s that someone may come into that section and... CHEER. Where is my fainting couch? I NEED TO LIE DOWN!
To be fair to Mr. Trost, I understand where he’s coming from. After all, the kinds of people who pay $1,600 a game aren’t sports fans. They’re there to be seen and to impress others with their presence. The people who can afford that kind of thing aren’t generally people who will scream at their team or even cheer a good play. It’s a fact of any stadium that the richer the seats, the less involved the fans are. Unless your name is Spike Lee, and every rule has exceptions.
The rich-poor divide in Yankee stadium is so absurd that the salespeople will literally use the “you can avoid the riff raff” pitch to sell you premium area seats. Even fans who’ve had seats in their family for 80+ years, and can afford the seats have optioned out. There’s also the simple optics like Babe Ruth’s granddaughter not being able to afford games. I’m sure the Yankees are happy to trot her out every now and again for Old Timers day, but otherwise stay on your side of the moat, peasant!
All of this has had an impact far beyond just the embarrassment of empty seats on TV every game. Many Yankees have commented on how the stadium has nowhere near the energy it used to. Visiting teams have even joked how it feels like playing a home game. Even ex-Red Sox skipper Terry Francona commented about how easy it is to play there now. Yankee stadium used to be the most feared venue in baseball to play in. Out of greed, they turned it into a joke. Just last night, the Yankees posted their lowest attendance in 13 years, 25,556. Impressively low considering how great the Yankees are playing, surely it has nothing to do with pricing out fans and treating them like second-class citizens, right?
In building an off-campus stadium, Vanderbilt would be sending the same message to students and fans as the Yankees are: poor people stay away. You might as well build a real moat with the divide you’ll be creating. Sure, the MLS stadium isn’t going to be as absurd as “new” Yankee Stadium, but you’ve sent the message nonetheless. You can run all the shuttles you want, you can even make the ticket prices reasonable, but you’ve signaled whose priorities matter. The rich donors need their castle away from campus, and think the people in “new downtown” will make up for it. If the Yankees, the most successful franchise in sports history, cannot get away with such a blatant disregard for their fans, what makes Vanderbilt think it can get away with it?
Yes, Vanderbilt Stadium has plenty of things that I’d love to improve. Widen the concourses, remodel the concessions and give them more options, remodel the bathrooms, dress up the bare concrete with some iconography or placards of Vanderbilt players in the pros. The sound system needs to be upgraded and enhanced. The seats having backs would be nice but not necessary. These are all things that we can all agree can be improved without going “the Yankee way”. We don’t need some foppish heated recliner at a football game, we don’t need some sort of game rooms, we most certainly don’t need a dome or covering. It’s football.
Plenty of schools have gotten away with gradual upgrades over the last century, but if we must build a new stadium, build it on campus. Having spent much of my Saturdays at Vanderbilt trying to corral students to the game, I understand all too well how apathetic our students can be. It’s just an unfortunate reality of being a nerd school that also has a long history of losing. Putting football off campus is just going to make that already bad problem worse. I’d like to believe that the planning committee knows it won’t work either, as we’ve already seen with experiments at Nissan Stadium.
If Vanderbilt doesn’t care about the students, then why should we as alumni continue to allow it? While academics should always be far and above our highest priority, football is an integral part of our experience. Vanderbilt seems fine with robbing their students of it, just to appease some mega rich donors. I implore Vanderbilt to consider the message it’s sending to students and alumni when it makes the decision.