TAMPA — USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford understands the risks of building a $340 million on-campus football stadium. The Bulls could continue to struggle on the field and in the stands, weighing down an athletic department with $200 million in debt.
“But I believe the risk is greater to not do it,” Weatherford said. “We run the risk of falling behind.”
Which is why USF charged ahead Tuesday when the trustees approved a plan to erect a 35,000-seat stadium north of the practice fields in time for the 2026 season. The vote is not the last step; the board must authorize the final budget when a team led by design firm Populous and building company Barton Malow present a guaranteed maximum price next spring/summer.
But it’s the Bulls’ biggest milestone so far since Weatherford renewed the push to move USF from Raymond James Stadium to campus 21 months ago.
“It’s a historic day,” athletic director Michael Kelly said. “It’s been a lot of work to get to this point, but people associated with the university and fans of our athletic program have envisioned this for two or three decades and hoped for it. Quite frankly, this is the time.”
To pay for a facility that’s been discussed since before USF held its first class six decades ago, USF authorized borrowing $200 million over 20 years at an expected interest rate of 5.5%.
The other $140 million will come from various sources:
• $50 million in donations through the school’s private fundraising arm, the USF Foundation
• $31 million from the capital improvement trust fund (which generally pays for facilities through student fees)
• $59 million from other funds, including the sale of broadband equipment and licenses, administrative overhead and transfers from campus-wide auxiliary funds like parking, food services and the bookstore.
But trustee Jenifer Jasinski Schneider — the Faculty Senate president — voted against the stadium in part because of the faculty’s fears about other, hidden costs that could be diverted from academics. The price tag does not include the $18 million USF expects to spend to move intramural fields from the stadium’s site, or $26 million in infrastructure and safety updates to the east part of campus.
“I know that’s not the end…” said Jasinski Schneider, citing future expenses like utilities, technological updates and security. “It’s a huge endeavor. We’ve built buildings, but not something like this.”
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But that, stadium proponents say, is the point. USF has never had a place like a state-of-the-art stadium for students and alumni to gather on campus. The football team has never had an operations center like the one the stadium will include, allowing the Bulls to have their offices and training spaces in one tidy, efficient footprint. Generations of students had to trek across town for games, which hurt the on-field results and hindered the growth of a fan base.
All those are set to change in three years.
“This is a transformational project,” president Rhea Law said.
And its effects will transcend athletics. USF has held more than 50 meetings with stakeholders — students, staff, fans and community members — to hear other uses for the building beyond football and the new women’s lacrosse program.
It will give the region a concert venue for acts that are too small for Raymond James Stadium but too big for Amalie Arena. It could host NCAA championships in lacrosse or high school state football championships. USF Foundation CEO Jay Stroman suggested it could be a soccer venue to accommodate a growing sport.
Those possibilities are one reason why the board took another major step Tuesday by certifying a direct-support organization, the USF Athletic Association. Once finalized, that group — similar to ones that control athletics at Florida, Florida State and UCF — will run the stadium and book events more efficiently than the Bulls can in their current setup.
The stadium is also expected to have more direct ties to academics, like housing hospitality management classrooms and holding commencement ceremonies. Stroman envisioned a welcome center to start campus tours.
“Lots of people are asking for space,” Stroman said. “Can we get it all in there? We don’t know.”
There are other questions still surrounding the stadium, too, even after Tuesday’s monumental meeting. Jasinski Schneider wondered if the school can identify and install a firewall between the athletic debt and academics in case the Bulls can’t service the $17.8 million in annual debt. Is the time for a stadium finally right, as Kelly said, or is USF a decade or two too late? Will the building help USF join a major conference in the next round of realignment? Or has that time already passed?
The unknowns add up to undeniable risk for one of the biggest investments in program history.
A risk USF decided it can’t afford to pass up.
Times staff writers Divya Kumar and Charlotte Varnes contributed to this report.
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