TAMPA — Saturday night's kickoff marked the beginning of the University of South Florida's 18th football season at Raymond James Stadium.
For nearly as long, USF officials have dreamed of bringing Bulls football closer to campus with a stadium the school could call its own.
Now the area near USF is poised for a massive makeover that could reinvent north Tampa as an innovation district attractive to high-tech business and young, educated workers. The linchpin of that plan is 80 acres of Hillsborough County-owned land just across the street from the university that currently houses the Museum of Science and Industry.
There are those who believe the museum site would be perfect for a stadium. It's the right size, the team's practice field is across Fowler Avenue and a pedestrian overpass links the two sides.
"Whenever a football stadium is located on campus or adjacent to campus the attendance is much more stable and consistent," said Hillsborough Commissioner Victor Crist, a USF alumnus. "It helps build on student life and, after school, alumni life."
But a stadium near USF has always been a tough sell. It would cost in the tens of millions of dollars. It would be less than four miles from the cushy digs of an NFL stadium that costs USF less than $1 million a year to use.
And the new direction the county has planned for the area might not gel with a large sports complex.
"At some point," said Mark Sharpe, executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, the private group fueling the Fowler Avenue redevelopment, "we're going to have to have a very comprehensive conversation about a football stadium and where it might fit into a dramatically different landscape than what you see today."
That talk will be complicated.
Where and how much?
MOSI is seriously considering an invitation from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik to move to his $1 billion development near Amalie Arena.
USF has not publicly expressed a desire for a new stadium at the MOSI site, should the museum pack its bags. But enough trial balloons were floated through back channels that two commissioners lashed out against the speculation during a May board meeting.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said USF and its consultants are also looking at University Mall, which is on the doorstep of the campus and is slated for an ambitious renovation under new ownership.
USF's on-campus golf course is another possibility, but there are environmental hurdles to that option, Crist said.
In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, USF's athletic department said only that it is "currently conducting our due diligence regarding the possibility of a football stadium both on and off-campus, and will pursue the best course of action for our athletics program and our valued supporters."
The university is working with California-based Barrett Sports Group to conduct a preliminary stadium feasibility assessment, athletic department spokesman Brian Siegrist said.
Officials who have worked closely with USF's past efforts to build a stadium said athletic director Mark Harlan and the administration are keeping their cards much closer to the vest this time as they line up a viable proposal.
The case for a stadium on or near campus is largely about the environment it could create as USF continues its transition from a commuter school to a traditional, residential university. This year, 18.6 percent of USF's 32,000 undergraduate students live on campus, its highest mark ever.
A mid sized stadium close to student housing could create a much more intimate and exciting experience for fans and players than Raymond James and its 65,000 seats. Even at its peak, USF could not consistently fill that.
"The argument for an on-campus stadium is that it is much more conducive to a college atmosphere and will bring more students to the game," said Joel Maxcy, a sports economist at Drexel University. "Maybe from that atmosphere there are some payoffs: Maybe donations go up and alumni are happier and the school becomes more prestigious and gets more applications.
"All these intangibles are what they're hoping for."
Rarely, though, is there an economic benefit from a new stadium if a university can pay rent to play at a municipal or professional venue, Maxcy said.
Even a modest stadium can cost upward of $50 million. It's not clear where that money would come from. Crist suggested a public-private-university partnership could work, where "the county puts up the land, the university puts up the money for the stadium and the private sector puts in for (on-site) research facilities and hotel beds."
Meanwhile, the Tampa Sports Authority, a publicly funded agency, recently presented $25 million in upgrades to Raymond James Stadium needed before the facility hosts the 2017 NCAA title game and to position the stadium to bid for future Super Bowls. The authority is negotiating a renovation agreement with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to determine how much each side will pay.
In lobbying for a stadium, USF will have to explain why a venue that's good enough for Super Bowls and a college football championship isn't good enough for the Bulls. USF pays the Tampa Sports Authority a fee of $142,500 for games when attendance is less than 24,000, and $153,000 per game when it's above that threshold.
"If you were a private business and it's a financial decision, you would say it just can't work," Maxcy said. "But the thing is, colleges aren't really businesses."
If you build it, will they come?
Advocates for building on-campus stadiums say there are plenty of successful examples.
The poster child is Baylor University, a Big 12 program on a recent winning streak. The school has had little trouble filling its new $266 million stadium after moving out of a stadium just three miles from campus.
But there are failures, too.
In 2009, Akron University, a Mid-American Conference school, spent $70 million on a new facility in hopes of attracting better recruits and new fans. But the team has failed to live up to its impressive stadium and attendance has been abysmal.
Results often are mixed, especially for teams outside the five major conferences, Maxcy said.
The University of Central Florida, an American Athletic Conference school like USF and an in-state rival, moved closer to students in 2007 when it opened its Bright House Networks Stadium, a $55 million, 45,000-seat venue.
In 2014, a year after the school's first BCS bowl victory and amid another conference-championship season, attendance fluctuated from a near sell-out to a season-low of 30,920 for the home finale.
Another conference opponent, Tulane University, opened its new stadium last year after decades of playing in the Superdome in New Orleans. The home opener sold out all 30,000 seats. But by the last home game, with the team 3-8, about 20,000 people bought tickets.
There's usually a novelty effect when new stadiums open, said Timothy Kellison, a professor of sports management at the University of Florida, but it wears off if the team can't sustain success.
That's a relevant concern for USF. The Bulls drew an average of 44,716 fans to Raymond James Stadium in 2007 when they played in the Big East and went 9-4. Last year, though, the team saw 17,700 people come through the turnstiles per game during a 4-8 season. It was the worst attendance in 14 years.
"I want it to happen," Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan said of a new USF stadium. "But when you've got one of the worst Division I programs in the country and your attendance is falling by 25,000, your priority should be to improve those before you start seriously discussing a stadium."
Can it fit?
Hillsborough County expects to spend $2 million on a master plan for the area around USF with hopes of creating a so-called "innovation district."
The idea is to attract a mix of established companies and startups that can grow off the various research institutions and economic engines nearby, including USF, Florida Hospitals, the Moffitt Cancer Center and Busch Gardens. That would generate tax revenue from the 80 acres the county owns in that area.
There also will be space for collaboration, and for young workers drawn to the jobs to live, work and play.
Should a college football stadium be a piece of the puzzle?
"Until we do the master plan, we don't really know where the best spot is to do anything," said Merrill, Hillsborough's administrator. "For once, we want to look at that rich geography holistically and not just look at individual real estate deals."
Crist thinks it could work. The county-owned land there is large enough to build a stadium and parking and still leave plenty of space for corporate offices or other uses, he said. He produced overlays for the county that show a football stadium — and a baseball stadium, too — could fit, at least logistically.
Crist said a well-planned stadium could also incorporate classrooms, labs, meeting space, and a boutique hotel. Sharpe, who has preached keeping all options on the table, said it's "certainly feasible."
"You're beginning to see a lot more stadiums that are part of a much larger purpose," Sharpe said. "Ultimately, a stadium conversation would be part of a larger conversation about the type of industry and business we want to bring to this area."
Senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.