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Should the Bowl Be Bulldozed?
When the Yale football squad charged into the Bowl for this year’s soggy home opener against Holy Cross, they were greeted by a sea of blue—blue-painted empty seats, that is, more than 60,000 of them, or roughly seven-eighths of the stadium’s total capacity. And no one was much surprised. Last November, the athletic department had expected 50,000 spectators for the season finale against Harvard, but fewer than 35,000 showed up.
Such paltry numbers would have seemed nearly impossible when the 64,000-seat Yale Bowl opened in 1914, and altogether out of the question in the 1930s, when the 7,000 seats added to the stadium’s promenade level still couldn’t accommodate the crowds. These days, of course, big-time college sports has left most teams in the Ivy League scrambling for fans. But at Yale, the problem is particularly acute. Not only are many of the University’s athletic facilities the wrong size for today’s crowds, they are also in a lamentable state of disrepair. Indeed, the Bowl is beginning to look perilously like the ruins of the Roman amphitheaters that inspired its design, and portions of the gym are so dilapidated as to be unusable.
Restoring these facilities to their original grandeur would cost an estimated $100 million, but that would simply provide Yale with first-class buildings for a vanished era. As Forrest Temple, Yale’s associate athletic director for finance and administration, points out, “It doesn’t make sense to spend that kind of money to have a nice 1930s gym. The biggest problem we have is how to evaluate current and future needs against what the facilities were built for.” That problem is forcing the University to reassess the future of its once-august facilities—and, in a time of steep budgetary constraints, the very place of athletics in the University’s life.
At the moment, that place remains highly important. The athletic department is the College’s largest, with some 150 staff members and control of 15 percent of the central campus space. The range of sports at Yale rivals any school in the Ivy League and is far ahead of most other colleges: Yale’s total of 33 varsity sports is almost double the national collegiate average. Just under 20 percent of the student body—nearly 1,000 students—participates in intercollegiate sports.
Of course, the athletic department does not cater only to intercollegiate athletes. Larry Matthews, the associate director for sports and recreation, estimates that the department provides roughly 50,000 recreational “opportunities,” meaning use by non-varsity athletes, every year. More than 55 percent of Yale undergraduates play intramural sports, and fully 80 percent use some part of the recreational and physical education facilities on a regular basis. The department also operates the 500-acre golf course (much of which is a nature preserve), the 2,000-acre Outdoor Education Center in East Lyme, and the sailing center in Branford. The athletic program runs several summer sports camps, and this past season saw the Connecticut Special Olympics return for the fifth year to Yale (Yale and New Haven will host the 1995 International Special Olympics), as well as the launch of a union-run recreational program for nearly 1,000 New Haven children using the University’s athletic facilities.
Not surprisingly in light of those figures, Yale’s athletic and recreational facilities are among the most heavily used structures on the campus, and several have already undergone extensive renovation. A $7.1-million refurbishment and expansion of the Lapham Field House will begin after the football season, and money is in place to upgrade the Bob Cook Boathouse in Derby. Three years ago, the University collaborated in the construction of a 15,000-seat tennis stadium and 22 additional courts adjacent to the Bowl for the annual Volvo tennis tournament. And this fall, Yale successfully negotiated a deal that will bring a minor-league professional baseball team to Yale Field in return for a total renovation (and some welcome income). But despite these improvements, the burden presented by the condition of the most venerable facilities—the Bowl and the gym—is growing steadily greater, and stimulating some previously unthinkable strategies for relieving it. Says Athletic Director Edward Woodsum ’53, ’58LLB: “I don’t rule out any possibility. One has to be flexible and not turn down any potential revenue stream without careful thought.”
This season’s football fans are getting a close-up look at how a revenue stream could be put to use at the Bowl. Although the press box was rebuilt in 1987 following a fire, and members of the Yale Band repainted the 17 miles of seats three years ago, the structure is in a sorry state. Trees grow willy-nilly out of its earthen walls, capstones and cornices have fallen away, and seriously spalled and water-damaged concrete mars all the portals, toilet facilities, and the walls surrounding the field itself.
At other facilities elsewhere around the Bowl, the picture is much the same. An entire portion of Yale Field, where President William Howard Taft’s double-sized seat remains a curiosity, has been closed off for fear the walls may cave in (a situation the new arrangement with professional baseball is expected to correct). The Armory, where the polo team stables its horses, is in a state hardly worthy of this sport of kings.
Worrisome as the condition of those facilities is, it is a seasonal problem; the Bowl is used for a few afternoons each fall (and for women’s lacrosse in the spring), and the baseball and polo squads are idle most of the year. Of far greater concern is the state of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. “The cathedral of sports” (or the “temple of sweat”), as it was called when it opened in 1932, contains 12 acres of floor space on 16 levels and remains the largest facility of its kind in the world. But the world of Yale sports has changed dramatically in 60 years. There were a mere 3,500 students in Yale College in 1932, and all of them were men. There are now more than 5,000 undergraduates of both sexes, and the gym has become the focus of an explosion in recreational use by graduate students, the faculty, the administration, and members of the New Haven community. Payne Whitney now has 10,000 regular users.
Apart from the crowds, there is the problem of the condition of the facilities themselves. While the rowing tanks, the recently renovated squash courts, the fencing salon, and a handful of other special-use rooms are among the best anywhere, the rest of the building is way below par. For instance, the gym’s amphitheater houses Yale’s only regulation-size basketball court, which must accommodate not just basketball, but gymnastics and volleyball as well. (Yale is the nation’s only NCAA Division 1 school with just one regulation-size court.) This creates a scheduling nightmare for the teams that share it. In winter, the court is often in constant use from morning until past midnight, and varsity players must sometimes skip meals to attend practices. According to Jack Merrill ’67, the associate athletic director who is responsible for large-scale construction and renovation projects, the floor of the basketball court has been sanded to the nails and can no longer be refinished.
The locker facilities are little better; after games, the women’s teams must share the same shower room with their opponents. “If you’ve just gotten a spike in the face,” says Merrill, “you’d rather not have to shower next to the person who did it.”
Elsewhere in the gym the situation is comparable. Although the swimming program boasts a spectator capacity of 2,400 at the exhibition pool and a practice pool to complement the main aquatic center, it can no longer host major meets because its six-lane pool falls short of current ncaa size regulations, and there is no diving pool or platform. Water damage from roof leaks, exterior seepage, burst pipes, and humidity has caused structural damage to the building. Over the summer, the practice pool had to be closed because water damage had rusted a major support beam, pushing out the exterior walls and creating an engineering crisis. An entire floor had to be built over the pool to bring in the heavy equipment to rebuild the beam.
Other structural problems abound. Although the University spent $800,000 on utilities for Payne Whitney last year, coaches complain that its ancient heating system depletes players on hot days and leaves them icy in the winter.
According to Celia DeMarco, the women’s basketball coach, the substandard quality of the gym makes her job and that of her colleagues in attracting top athletes that much harder. “Any student athlete considering Yale is not looking just at the amphitheater, but if you take a look at the other Ivies, all but Columbia have built new facilities.”
So far, the decline of Yale’s facilities has not had a measurable effect on its athletic performance. Last year, an impressive seven teams (men’s soccer, lacrosse, and hockey, and men’s and women’s fencing and squash) were nationally ranked, and the soccer, lacrosse, fencing, and baseball squads advanced beyond all expectations in ncaa tournament competition. Several individual athletes also stood out in national swimming, track and field, and cross-country events. But if the facilities slip further, performance is likely to follow eventually.
The issues facing the athletic department are not just about facilities these days, but about what kind of athletics program it should be offering to today’s students. “Sports are changing in dramatic ways,” says Terry Holcombe ’64, the University’s vice president for development and alumni affairs. “It’s a moving target. It’s not just what to do with the aging gym, but what to do in general.” One thing that appears likely in the coming years is that Yale will do less. After slicing $1.2 million out of the athletic department’s operating budget over the previous three years by reducing staff and lopping off two varsity and six junior varsity teams, the University has now mandated an additional $500,000–cut from the department’s $12-million budget over the next three years. “There is no way to do that without raising more endowment or cutting more sports,” says Woodsum.
As bleak as the picture Woodsum paints may be, it is not without its bright spots. When the Lapham Field House—which houses lockers and space for training, equipment, coaches’ offices, and team meetings—was built in 1923, it served a handful of men’s sports, but now is used by 15 men’s and women’s teams. The changing needs of the sports program have forced the department to outfit Lapham with curtains between the men’s and women’s sections. It has also had to build an equipment distribution room out of a former common room and send duct work through the walls to vent laundry machines.
Renovating and expanding Lapham had been the athletic department’s top priority, and thanks to a $5.37-million gift from Joel E. Smilow ’54, and another $1.7 million from other alumni, the work will begin late this fall. The new facility, which will include a 10,000-square-foot addition (and be renamed in Smilow’s honor), will feature a training center to complement the recently opened Dwyer Sports Medicine Clinic in Payne Whitney. Plans also call for rebuilding the common room for team and alumni gatherings.
Rowing, too, is likely to be a more enjoyable experience in the near future. The Yale Crew Association has assembled sufficient funds to begin planning renovations of the Derby boathouse. The Ingalls Rink recently underwent a partial renovation that included installation of a new roof and refrigeration system. And as the result of investments over the past decade, other facilities, including Coxe Cage, the soccer-lacrosse stadium, the football and soccer practice fields, the tennis courts, the clubhouse at the golf course, and various areas of Payne Whitney such as the sports medicine clinic, the squash courts, the varsity weight room, and the fencing area have been spruced up to varying degrees.
Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of years of neglect and overuse of the University’s largest and most prominent athletic facilities remains a serious problem, and has prompted Woodsum to pursue what he terms “a way of looking at facilities different from the way we’ve done in the past, which was as their only user and landlord.” One example of that approach is the three-year-old partnership with the sponsors of the Volvo International Tennis Tournament, which under the agreement maintains 22 of Yale’s tennis courts as well as the new 15,000-seat stadium adjacent to the Bowl. So successful has that arrangement been that the athletic department has been actively seeking out other collaborative opportunities for its facilities.
Discussions are already under way on how Yale’s other athletic facilities might be used for—and by—other organizations. “We’re more proactive these days doing long-term planning for special events,” says Temple. The most recent success in that campaign is the agreement on the expanded use of the baseball field, an arrangement put together with the help of a group composed mainly of Yale alumni headed by
W. Edward Massey Jr. ’64, a Connecticut-based business executive. Under the terms of the deal, the backers promise to spend the $2.5 million needed to light the field, build locker rooms, and renovate the seating in time for the 1994 season.
The Bowl has already hosted several heavily attended international soccer matches, and although it was an unsuccessful contender for the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, its bid launched tentative negotiations between Connecticut state and Yale officials to “regionalize” the stadium, through a deal similar to the one that landed the Volvo, by using state money to renovate the existing structure. The state is especially interested because the University of Connecticut’s football program is seeking Division IA status, but will need a larger stadium than its current one in Storrs to meet league standards.
Bringing Yale’s major state football rival into the Bowl as a co-owner might rub Walter Camp the wrong way, but it would ease the burden of renovating the structure, currently estimated at somewhere between $10 and $30 million, and avoid the doomsday scenario of bulldozing it for a smaller stadium that would be less costly to maintain. “I’d rather see concerts than another university or pro team using it,” says Yale’s venerable football coach Carm Cozza. “It would hurt our program. No doubt about it. But if it’s the only way to keep it running the way it should, you have to go with it.”
Payne Whitney Gymnasium presents a very different set of problems. Although the $500,000 needed for evaluating the building and planning for its future has yet to be allocated, a consensus seems to be emerging that the existing facility alone cannot be adequately reconfigured in a cost-effective way to meet the University’s current and anticipated needs. Tearing it down and building a new facility—which would actually be less expensive than renovating the present structure—would take at least two years, placing a great burden on the gym’s 10,000 members and totally derailing Yale’s intercollegiate calendar. “Before you flatten it,” says Woodsum, “you’d have to have another gym up and running.”
According to Woodsum, some alumni have expressed interest in donating the funds to build a freestanding aquatic center, but the only space for such a facility would be near the Bowl, and the transportation issue makes that less attractive. “We need a user-friendly facility,” says Woodsum, “where you can walk from the dorm, have a workout, and walk home.” A more likely option is a major addition to Payne Whitney. The obvious site for such a building is on the parking lot across from the gym, but while Yale owns the land, the city has a stake in it; parking in downtown New Haven is at a premium, and Yale is under pressure not to reduce its current space.
While such nitty-gritty issues are being worked out, some Yale officials are beginning to question whether the University should not reorient its entire athletic program, increasing the emphasis on so-called lifetime sports, like tennis and swimming. Others have suggested that Yale move in the direction of NCAA Division II schools and reduce its commitment to intercollegiate athletics, since it is increasingly difficult—even with the best of facilities—to compete with institutions that offer athletic scholarships.
Whatever the strategy, no one, it seems, is suggesting that Yale rebuild its athletic plant for the purpose of pursuing big-time sports at the expense of the educational experience. “My feeling,” says Woodsum, “is that if you’re striving for excellence in the classroom and the laboratories, it makes sense to have young men and women striving to be outstanding in athletics. Combine that with the best undergraduate education in the country, and you have a pretty salable package.”
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