CSUN May Find Grand Stadium Out of Reach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Northridge's ambitious plans to build a large, new football stadium appear to be slipping under the weight of economic reality, with some faculty members even suggesting that the school's lackluster pigskin program may not warrant one.

Campus officials have acknowledged that they have begun looking at more modest schemes after learning that the 10,000- to 12,000-seat stadium under discussion could soak up most of the revenues CSUN expects from redeveloping its North Campus.

In quiet discussions that are reopening debate over the commuter school's commitment to football, some faculty members and administrators are arguing that renovating the campus' 52-year-old, 6,000-seat stadium should suffice.

"I don't think a new stadium is a foregone conclusion," said economics professor Dan Blake, who sits on a six-member panel that is reviewing development plans for CSUN's little-used land at the old Devonshire Downs horse track.

The 65-acre North Campus site between Lassen and Devonshire streets includes the existing football stadium--a relic built as part of the racetrack in 1944. The site would also hold any new athletic complex under the school's current plans.

But opposition to an expensive new stadium is mounting, particularly after public hearings on campus last week in which four building proposals and their projected revenue were outlined in detail. As a result, campus officials seem to be focusing on a smaller stadium in the 7,000- to 8,000-seat range.

"If they want a new 10,000-seat stadium, let them go out and get their boosters to raise" the money, complained a top CSUN administrator in reference to the school's athletic staff. The official, who requested anonymity, predicted that a large, new stadium would remain mostly empty, as the existing one has for years.

Next Monday, a university panel is scheduled to recommend one of four schemes for developing the North Campus property. The choice made by the panel--officially known as the North Campus/University Park Development Corp.--could lend direction on a new stadium, which has been discussed on and off for the past two decades.

The issue also reflects a broader dilemma for the 24,000-student university: How great a role should football have on a campus where most students are working to put themselves through school? Some regard the sport as an important asset for any major university. But others argue that CSUN should drop the costly program, as the school has considered doing and as the CSU campuses at Fullerton and Long Beach already have done.

CSUN this year spent about $4.1 million on its 19 athletic programs, including the largest expenditure for football--just under $700,000, officials said. That amount is due to grow over the next two years by more than $300,000 because of the school's commitment to increasing football scholarships as a requirement of membership in a new football conference. The $1 million spent on football will be equivalent to the federal funding the university has been receiving--and is in danger of losing--for its renowned National Center on Deafness.

CSUN President Blenda Wilson seemed to resolve the football debate last year, when she launched the school into a higher-profile athletic conference this coming fall. The hope is to overcome five consecutive losing football seasons, plummeting game attendance and widespread student apathy about football--and in turn reap higher visibility and greater alumni contributions.

But the ever-controversial issue has resurfaced amid discussions of what to build on the North Campus and how revenue generated there should be spent.

In an interview last week, Wilson, who also serves as head of CSUN's North Campus panel, declined to say exactly what approach she will favor. She said, however, that she did not feel locked into a new, 10,000-seat stadium. When asked, she agreed with some other observers that a properly renovated stadium might be all that's necessary.

"It would be silly for me to say it has to be this or that. I don't feel that way," Wilson said. The president added that she agrees with faculty who argue that a "significant" portion of the North Campus revenue should remain available for nonathletic programs.

After CSUN was accepted into the Big Sky Conference for an initial three-year period, campus officials said they had agreed--although not in writing--to push for a new, at least 10,000-seat stadium to meet conference demands. Some athletic officials on campus, including interim Athletic Director Paul Bubb, suggested a 12,000- to 15,000-seat stadium.

With 6,000 seats, CSUN's current stadium will be the smallest among the nine universities participating in the conference this coming fall. Other stadiums range up to 23,000 seats. But CSUN and Big Sky officials acknowledged last week that the conference has no specific size requirement that CSUN must meet.

"If they had a new, 8,000-seat stadium and it was a great place to go, that would be fine," said Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the conference, based in Ogden, Utah. Likewise, Fullerton said, an enlarged and renovated existing stadium could suffice.

The Big Sky Conference is regarded as the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s preeminent second-tier football program, a notch below the division in which major athletic powers such as USC and UCLA compete. Members will include CSUN, Montana and Montana State, Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Portland State and Weber State universities.

Big Sky is also the only conference at its level that televises its games on regional cable. Although nothing has been negotiated yet with a Los Angeles-area outlet, there is the potential for CSUN's games to be similarly broadcast, Fullerton said. That could bring the school unprecedented visibility and more financial support.

In past months, CSUN officials seemed confident that they could build a large, new stadium with money to spare from the North Campus project. But when the developers submitted their proposals last month, the projected revenue was less than expected.

The school acquired the North Campus site in 1967, but it has never been fully developed. Plans to develop the site into an elaborate, $200-million mixed-use project--a years-long process with Watt Investment Properties of Santa Monica--collapsed in 1992. The project included plans for a large, new stadium, but it was never built.

The current development proposals range from an upscale shopping center with movie theaters to an athletic complex complete with tennis courts and health club. Some developers have offered a choice of upfront payments of up to $9 million or annual ground-lease fees as high as $1.4 million.

Yet campus officials estimate that a new, 10,000-seat stadium could cost $12 million. If the university were to finance that cost over 20 years, the annual debt service could approach $1.2 million, leaving little for other programs.

In contrast, one developer has proposed a 7,000-seat stadium that would cost about $8 million. In that case, annual debt service would consume less than $800,000 of the university's projected revenue, leaving hundreds of thousands for other campus programs.

Bubb and other staff in the athletic program see a new stadium as critical to reviving the campus' foundering football program. Without it, they say, the university will be unable to compete with other schools, and will ultimately have a program that fails to boost CSUN's image and finances. But Bubb acknowledges that he has no research to support the need for a 12,000- to 15,000-seat stadium.

Others argue that those plans are excessive for the campus. Even with a new stadium, some believe that CSUN lacks enough of a football tradition for the school ever to become a formidable presence in the crowded Los Angeles market, where USC and UCLA fans reign and so many other attractions are available.

Even Fullerton, the Big Sky Conference commissioner, conceded that creating a big-time CSUN football program would be a struggle. Although other conference schools pack their venues, CSUN is not Montana State--where football, as Fullerton put it, "is the only game in town."

"My feeling is a 7,500-seat stadium would be adequate," said Woodland Hills developer Mark Steele, one of the North Campus finalists whose latest proposal calls for a stadium of that size.

Even with the move to the new conference, Steele said, "it's not like they're going to be playing Stanford, USC or Penn State."

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