Last week work was started at Rice University on The Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center. Located in the north end zone of Rice Stadium, the facility will replace a large section of tarped-over seats and the current scoreboard. At a cost of $60 million, the facility will house the football team weight room, the football team locker room, meeting rooms, staff offices, and the training and sports performance offices. There will also be a new scoreboard on top of the building. It will be open to all of Rice's student athletes.
The new end-zone facility should be ready in time for the 2016 Rice football season. It'll fit right in with the new tennis courts, the renovated Tudor Fieldhouse and Reckling Park, the outstanding stadium that houses the baseball team. This is a much-needed upgrade for the Owls and something that has long been sought by the football team. But Rice isn't done. As construction was starting, Athletic Director Joe Karlgaard pledged that this was only the start to the renovations at Rice Stadium.
I have spent a lot of time at Rice Stadium over the past five or six years. And as a native Houstonian, I spent a lot of time at the place even before I started covering the team. I've seen a lot of bad football, but I always liked going to Rice Stadium. The press box has the best views of Houston anyplace in the city -- you look directly out to the Medical Center skyline, and a glance to the left gives a great view of downtown Houston and the large swath of green that comes from Hermann Park and from West University -- and since the stadium was built just to host football, there are great sight lines to the action no matter where the seat is.
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So I'd like to share a few of my thoughts on this stadium and give my suggestions for how the place should be renovated. First, let's keep the spare, utilitarian look of the place. One can enter one entrance and walk around the entire stadium under nice-size concourses yet still be able to see all of the action. The walk's not broken up by closed-up sections available only to high-price donors or VIPs. It's a great place to watch football. But work needs to be done. The restrooms need to be modernized and concessions need to be updated, enlarged and expanded. A power washing of the entire structure is required, and it needs to be repainted. Various girders need to be covered. Access to the press box and suites is in major need of an upgrade -- the one elevator is old, sold and cramped. I love the views from the press box, but the thing is huge and can probably be shortened a bit -- the extra space can be used for a suite to house important visitors from opposing schools because it's really damn annoying trying to work while there's loud cheering and screaming coming from the end of the box.
Those are all relatively minor things, so here's my major proposal: It's no longer the 1950s. Rice is no longer going to get 70,000 people out to the place for a football game. The end-zone tarps have brought down seating capacity to about 47,000, but still on game days the place looks deserted. Rice averages about 15,000-20,000 fans a game, which is a pretty good total seeing as how there are only about 6,000 students, yet the place always looks empty.
Thus Rice should tarp the upper deck. Rice continues to sell tickets to fans to sit in the upper deck, but they're always scattered, single people here and there, not grouped about. So close it down. Yes, there would probably be jokes, but it just seems ridiculous to keep that open. Sending everyone down to the bottom deck would make the stadium look fuller for TV cameras and would perhaps lend more of a game-day atmosphere. Then perhaps Rice officials should remove the tarp over the south end-zone seats and allow people to sit there, making use of the full lower bowl.
Rice Stadium is a beautiful place. Despite its age, it's still the best place to watch a football game in Houston. It doesn't need a major facelift as with Tudor Fieldhouse, and it's in a lot better shape than Houston's Robertson Stadium was when it was torn down and replaced by TDECU Stadium.