Aug. 19, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Rice athletic director Chris Del Conte doesn't need to be reminded about his bold proclamation regarding the University of Texas, the Owls, and one long-awaited football game between old Southwest Conference rivals scheduled at Rice Stadium.
Whenever he wants to relive what he said, where he said it, and the chutzpah with which he delivered the message, Del Conte can rifle through the avalanche of emails he received decrying his mere consideration of relocating the Owls' 2010 season opener against UT to Reliant Stadium. By and large, an irrepressible spirit serves Del Conte well, but in this instance the sting of remorse has him recoiling at his audacity.
Lone Star Sports & Entertainment and SMG-Reliant Park officials will announce on Thursday that Reliant Stadium will host the 92nd meeting between the Longhorns and Owls next September. Rice University will receive an undisclosed sum for relocating the non-conference contest, a figure so sizable that it nearly doubles the Owls' total revenue from their six home games played at Rice Stadium in 2008.
Del Conte had previously celebrated the opportunity to get the Horns back at Rice Stadium, where they had not played since escaping with a 38-31 win over Rice on Sept. 27, 1997. In 1994 the Owls defeated visiting UT 19-17, their lone win over the Horns in the past 39 series meetings. Cognizant of the historical context of luring UT back to South Main, Del Conte emphatically stumped for the need to keep the game at Rice Stadium despite infrastructure issues of parking, concessions and restrooms.
But when SMG-Reliant Park officials approached Del Conte this summer with a substantial offer to host UT-Rice, he took inventory of the depressed economic climate and mulled over the proposal. When the deal was sweetened to include marketing ventures and fortuitous ticket allotments, Del Conte felt compelled to do what was in the best fiscal interest of his athletic department and Rice University.
"Every single institution around the country has been put in situations where finances are first and foremost," Del Conte said. "The economic health and viability of the Rice athletic department - every day that's what I worry about. We've had some really good last couple of years, we're doing a better job (of balancing the budget), and everything is going in the right direction. But at the same time you've always got to worry about the financial health of your athletic department."
Del Conte declined to disclose specific figures, but the economics behind the decision are clear. A sellout at Rice Stadium for UT-Rice would not net the financial windfall Rice will receive by playing UT at Reliant Stadium, where it will incur zero costs. The expenses of paying for parking attendants, security personnel and additional concessionaires to host a crowd of 40,000-plus at Rice Stadium would slice into the estimated ticket receipts, and even that figure would not surpass the reported seven-figure offer SMG-Reliant Park officials extended to Rice University.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that Horns-Owls at Rice Stadium would fill all 47,000 available seats. When the teams met at Reliant Stadium on Sept. 16, 2006, 33,000 tickets were purchased on the heels of the Horns' national title in 2005. It is no secret that hosting crowds of 30,000-plus has produced some minor challenges at Rice Stadium, so the opportunity to eliminate those concerns while turning an exorbitant profit led Del Conte to make the logical - albeit unpopular - decision.
"I've talked to our board of trustees, I've talked to our athletic advisory board, I've talked to our coaches about every situation and they all understood the reasons why. So the decision was not made in a vacuum," Del Conte said. "I talked to our central administration ... - I discussed it with enough people to say, `Here's where we're headed. What do you guys think?' And they all came back and said it's a tough position, but the reality is you've got to think a little bit bigger for the program."
Del Conte was buoyed by three factors. First, he has the full support of Owls football coach David Bailiff, who views Reliant Stadium as a recruiting tool to wield at recruits. The Owls have played one game at Reliant Stadium under Bailiff: a resounding 38-14 victory over Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl last December.
"It will be great that we will be able to show recruits not only Rice Stadium, but we can bring recruits over here and show them what is considered a home game at Reliant Stadium," Bailiff said. "Recruiting is the lifeblood to what you do, and everything you do is geared toward showing 18-year-olds all you have to offer. When we can offer not only Rice Stadium but we can attach Reliant Stadium, I think that's big in recruits' eyes."
Second, accepting buyouts to relocate home games to professional venues is a national trend, not an anomaly. Syracuse announced on Tuesday plans to play USC in 2012 and Notre Dame in 2014 and 2016 at the New York Giants' and New York Jets' new stadium in the Meadowlands. Washington State has played more than a half-dozen games in Seattle at Seahawks Stadium, while Texas A&M and Arkansas will open an annual series at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington this season. Army and Notre Dame will renew their storied rivalry at Yankees Stadium in 2010. That Rice has six other home games next season, including showdowns with former SWC foes Baylor, Houston and SMU as well as academic rival Northwestern, aided the call.
Third, SMG-Reliant Park officials will intently market the game, for the onus is on them to generate a capacity crowd. UT-Rice will be promoted throughout Texans games this season and via commercials. Also, with the Owls as the designated home team, Rice supporters will get first dibs on seats. Officials will carve a two-week window in November for fans to purchase tickets anywhere in Reliant Stadium, with Rice occupying the home side of the venue. Additionally, tickets will be sold for as little at $15.
"I can't buy that exposure for our football program over a long period of time," Del Conte said.
Despite the overwhelming influence supporting relocation, Del Conte agonized over the option. In his gut he longs for the Owls to host visitors at Rice Stadium, and with a proposed end zone facility on the drawing board, he foresees a day when nothing will deter that desire. But in the interim, Del Conte decided to reverse course, going against his most base beliefs and undermining his own goal to get UT on South Main.
"That's the hardest part I've had to wrestle with, because I honestly do believe we need those type of games on campus," Del Conte said. "We're playing Texas in basketball at Tudor (Fieldhouse), we have LSU coming to Tudor, we have Arizona coming to Tudor. We have great teams that come and play at Reckling (Park), whether it is Texas, Stanford, A&M. Every big team you can conceive plays at our venues, and the same with soccer. We deserve to have a team like Texas on campus.
"If we are going to be the front porch and gate to the university, then you ought to have those things on campus. I firmly believe that. And this is where I've been really struggling and talking to people and having advice and listening because I'm just trying to broaden my scope."