Over the past two decades, the University of Central Florida athletics program has done more with less.
Despite lurking on the outside of the lucrative Power Five conferences (Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC)—building its brand between four collegiate divisions—the Knights have accomplished hundreds of championships across 16 teams, graduated thousands of student-athletes and have built a fan base of more than five million faithful.
“Our institution is quite an advocate of the storyline and is facilitating us by sponsoring Division-I football and college athletics for the last 20 some-odd years,” said Mark Wright, senior associate athletics director for development. “Yes, we've had football since 1979, but we've been really serious about this over two decades, and we've come a long way. But it's not enough.”
The rising costs to maintain a competitive program has demanded a necessity for new facility upgrades. On Jan. 24, UCF Athletics unveiled “The Rise and Conquer Initiative,” its newest campaign of renovating and building new facilities by creating additional revenue sources to contend nationally.
The plan is part of second-year athletic director Danny White’s vision to elevate the Knights into pre-eminent status, according to a letter sent to UCF season ticket holders.
"The motive is to truly pursue a top-25 athletic program, [and] engage our fans in a thoughtful way and ask them to be part of the solution," Wright said. “Recruiting [and] retaining championship caliber coaches and student-athletes comes with an investment, and that's an investment we have to make in the process.”
Since Bright House Networks Stadium opened its doors in 2007, UCF’s annual student-athlete expenditures have risen by 60 percent ($6,848,695 to $10,949,809 in 2016), but the average UCF ticket price and donation has only increased by six percent ($52 to $55 in 2016). Those costs cover equipment, nutrition, development and strength and conditioning.
According to the campaigns site, UCF believes it can close the gap to a comparable athletics program in Kansas State University. The Big 12 member plays in a similarly-sized football and basketball venue, but surpassed UCF in ticket revenue ($15 million to $6 million) and donations ($18 million to $6 million) in 2016.
To keep pace, UCF recoups subsidies from student athletic fees that are about $185 per semester and add up to more than $21 million per year, according to USA Today's NCAA Athletics Finance Database.
“Leaders within the UCF Athletics Department are focusing on attendance maximization and revenue optimization along with creating an innovative and engaging overall fan experience,” said Scott Bukstein, director of the DeVos Undergraduate Sports Business Management Program. “Generating increased incremental revenue from corporate partnerships, ticket sales and donations is preferable to increasing student fees.”
According to Wright, UCF is committed to securing pledges from its surrounding “corporate community, the residences of Orlando and its (alumni),” as well as creating a unique game day experience.
“In my relatively short time [at UCF], I’ve never seen a period of time like I have over the past year and a half where we’ve had so many transformational level gifts,” said Andy Seeley, UCF assistant athletics director. “That’s going to allow us to do a lot of renovation to our facilities … to help us attract and retain student-athletes, coaches and staff.”
For the new football season in 2017, UCF announced it will be adding 5,000 club seats at Bright House Networks Stadium, changing ticket prices, expanding its student section, and will unveil an innovative cabana suite package near each end zone.
“We have great demand for our seats, especially on the west side between the 20-yard lines,” Wright said, which had a 95 percent fill rate. “We chose to redevelop a stadium club with amenities — [individual] chairbacks, access to beer and wine, and different food in an exclusive environment.”
UCF will convert its lower and upper concourse into a private club area that will have private restrooms, multiple bars, TV monitors and large fans amenities. Prices at its east side beach-themed club, Carl Black & Gold Cabana, are reduced from $900 per person to $500, but do not include food and beverage accommodations. Two-thousand bench back seats (sections 127-131) will be converted to chairback seats to match the upper bowl cabana seats.
UCF will also be the first school to launch an innovative luxury suite in the form of cabanas on the north and south end zones. Wright said the 2017-18 season will increase from its nine cabana test trial to 18 total. A developer has donated towards the construction of its resort-style furnishings. Each cabana is an oversized tent that offers lounges, television and room for 12 fans, each available for $22,000 per season.
To accommodate obstructed views, UCF is splitting its student section between both end zones but will preserve the student capacity of approximately 12,000 seats. Half of the cabanas have sold out already and they have passed safety requirements to prohibit risks for players and fans.
Plans for a nutrition center, a 38,000-square-foot expansion to the football operations center and construction of a headquarters for the UCF athletics department, a student-athlete leisure space dubbed “Recovery Cove” and renovations to transform UCF’s baseball facility into John Euliano Park are all listed in the initiative.
The school is seeking more than $25 million in charitable gifts and have received commitments from UCF board of trustee Bob Garvy ($1 million) to jumpstart the Garvy Center for Student-Athlete Nutrition; Euliano, Vice Chair of the UCF Foundation Board of Directors ($1.5 million); and more than $2 million of the $5 million needed to build a new home for UCF Athletics’ administration.
The proposal for the nutrition center has met more than half its financial goal ($1.7 million) which the school hopes to open in spring of 2018 pending other philanthropic gifts. The UCF Football Headquarters is targeted to begin construction this spring, and the upgraded baseball facility will soon follow after the 2017 season, which is scheduled to open by the 2018 season.
"It's not going to be easy,” Wright said. “Everybody wants it faster than we want this to happen yesterday, but we know with all of our experiences, an alumni base that's maturing, a community that has been behind us but I still believe can even take the next step with us, I think it's going to prove to be a very exciting next decade for UCF."
For more information about the initiative, visit WeRiseandConquer.com
Originally published Feb. 16