New arena to save university $30 million

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Tom Osborne hopes the new arena that will be built for the University of Nebraska takes away one of the excuses for the struggling men's basketball team.

City voters on Tuesday approved by a 56-44 margin a bond issue to help fund the 16,000-seat arena that will be the focal point of a $344 million downtown revitalization project. The project is expected to begin this summer, with the arena to open for the 2013-14 season.

The arena will save the university about $30 million in renovation costs at the Devaney Sports Center. Osborne, the athletic director and former football coach, said Wednesday that the arena, along with a $18 million practice facility that opens in the fall of 2011, will put the Cornhuskers among the top 10 percent nationally in basketball facilities.

"There's no reason why Nebraska shouldn't be very competitive in both men's and women's basketball down the road," Osborne said. "It doesn't happen overnight, but we do think we'll gain considerable momentum."

The Huskers have played at Devaney since 1976, and coaches and administrators have said poor facilities are a major reason why the men's program has languished.

Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since taking the Big Seven in 1950 and hasn't won a game in six NCAA tournament appearances. The Huskers haven't had an All-American since 1978 or an all-conference first-teamer since 1999.

The Devaney Center will continue to be home for Olympic sports, but the arena vote triggered a downsizing of the venue's planned renovation. Had the arena proposal been rejected, a $50 million update would have been required to add a parking garage and repair infrastructure, among other things.

Osborne said plans now call for a $20 million renovation that will include new entrances, expanded concourses, new seats, updated restrooms and possibly a new building exterior.

Though women's basketball is coming off its best season, finishing 32-2 and making it to the NCAA regional semifinals, Osborne said it would be difficult for that program to be a moneymaker even in the new arena.

Men's basketball nets about $1 million a year, largely because of Big 12 television money, Osborne said, and should fare as well or better financially in the new arena.

The university must pay $750,000 annually for rent for both teams and forfeit revenue streams from concessions and premiums paid for the best seats. Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the university's contribution to the arena project will actually total about $1.4 million a year if the basketball teams average 10,000 fans a game.

Nebraska will receive credits for concessions and ticket surcharges, reducing its total cash outlay to about $200,000 a year -- a figure that Perlman calls "irrelevant" when the university's total contribution to the project is considered.

Said Osborne: "We've given up [revenues] in other areas, and we do this very willingly because we think it's a good deal for us and a good deal for the city. The benefits equate to or are greater than the contribution we're making."

Osborne said he would expect a 15 percent bump in attendance initially because fans will want to experience the new arena. Eventually, the Huskers will have to produce to keep fan enthusiasm going.

"The wild card is how good is your basketball team?" he said. "If we have really good basketball, we're going to fill those seats. If not, we'll probably struggle a little bit more."