Is it Feasible?

When contemplating a new athletic facility for your campus, consider starting with a feasibility study. This can help determine a focus—and build important consensus—for the project.

By Christopher A. Sgarzi and Dr. Matthew J. Robinson

Matthew J. Robinson, Ed.D, is Assistant Professor of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of Delaware and a former Associate Professor of Sport Management at York College of Pennsylvania. Christopher A. Sgarzi, AIA, is a Vice President for Genesis Planners and Builders in Waltham, Mass. Both worked on developing a facility feasibility project for York College’s planned athletic and recreation facility.

Athletic Management, 13.4, June/July 2001,

Reasons for building a new athletic facility usually mount over time. You can’t fit all your non-traditional team practices into the schedule. You notice some potential safety hazards—insufficient spacing between courts, decreasing resiliency of the gym floor. Your coaches are grumbling that they’re losing recruits to schools with beautiful new arenas and weight rooms. Your student body’s recreational requirements are overwhelming the current capabilities.

Wanting a new athletic facility and proving that you actually need one are two different things, however. So how do you determine if there’s a need? And, even more important, how do you convince upper-level administrators that this need is valid?

Both can be accomplished by conducting a facility feasibility study. Such a study assesses the problems of the current facility, determines the requirements of a new facility, and surveys the wishes of potential users. The process also allows the whole campus community to get involved in the potential project and ensures that the proposed solutions are appropriate for the entire institution.

This type of study can also lead you down the correct political routes. Planning for and building any new facility on any campus is a big deal. And if you don’t cover your bases—by getting others involved and making it a boon for the entire campus—the project can be doomed from the start.

While the study will vary from campus to campus depending on the needs and reporting lines at each institution, it normally follows three phases, each of which can take months to complete. These include a preliminary phase of defining the problem, a secondary phase of getting the campus community involved, and a final stage of devising a mission and specific direction for the project.

Defining the Problem
To start the process, you’ll first want to get permission from institutional leaders to undertake the feasibility study. To accomplish this, you need to define and effectively articulate the major problems with the current facility or facilities.

Depending on the bureaucracy of your institution, these major problems can be shared in an informal meeting with the CEO, or in a written report. If you feel a formal report is needed, it should include those points that would be most persuasive for your campus situation.

The best initial step is to document the current conditions. For instance, develop an inventory of all current spaces used for athletics and their sizes. This information can easily be calculated from the facility’s building plans. Also document how often spaces are being used and by whom.

It is also helpful to record what groups or individuals are not able to use the facilities and why. For example, maybe a potential aerobics class was canceled for three semesters because there was no available space to offer it. This could be viewed as a problem, as students’ needs are not being met. Or, maybe athletic teams are practicing at midnight because of a lack of space. This, of course, could impact team performance, athlete satisfaction, and academic performance.

The views of users and nonusers about current fitness and recreation facilities are helpful as well. Increased complaints by students about lack of space and overcrowding as well as a rise in the number of students who are joining off-campus health clubs are tell-tale signs that there is a problem.

Another important aspect of defining the problem is sizing up the competition. What do the schools that your institution competes against athletically and/or academically have? The findings from these comparisons may indicate that your institution is trailing its competition. Visiting these other institutions to take pictures of their facilities can provide powerful evidence if you’re trying to sell your CEO or particular trustees on this point.

You are now ready to again meet with institutional leaders. Show them you’ve done your homework, but be open to their questions and concerns. If they are responsive to your idea, ask if you can go ahead and enter the next phase, which entails getting more university staff members involved in the feasibility process.

If funds are available during this first stage, hiring a consultant with expertise in athletic facility design and planning can be helpful. Consultants can inventory the current space and help with sizing up the competition, as they may already have the visuals as well as the dimensions and features of competitors’ facilities. Also, because they have seen similar institutions and facilities, they may be able to offer perspectives that have not been considered.

An In-House Task Force
The next step is developing a task force of individuals who can address campus concerns beyond athletics—areas such as school image, circulation, infrastructure, retention, and recruitment. One goal of this task force is to begin a more in-depth feasibility study for the proposed athletic facility. A second aim—and possibly the more important one—is to get many constituents involved in the planning and ultimately build consensus on campus.

The task force should contain six to 12 members, which represent those groups that could potentially be impacted by a new facility. Besides yourself and a representative from the recreation/intramurals department, you might want to include administrators from alumni affairs, admissions, campus physical plant operations, conference services, and development. It’s also wise to ask one or two faculty members to serve on the task force as well as representatives of the student body.

The first job of this committee is assessing how this new building could serve uses beyond athletics—and how this might enhance the overall campus. For example, representatives from the alumni and development offices may view the facility as a site for receptions and functions. Someone from conference services might see a new facility as a way to increase the number of outside groups coming to the campus. A representative from the admissions department may be able to articulate how a new facility will aid the recruitment of prospective students.

This task force can also start to look at any potential hurdles to overcome in the process. For example, the development officer will have insight on how long it might take to fund-raise for the building. A representative from the physical plant will be able to consider the ramifications of a new building on campus with regard to existing infrastructure and buildings.

While each constituency may have different specific goals for the building, it’s critical that this group find consensus on some overall points. This consensus can be very broad, but it’s important that it happen. For example, the group may agree that a new facility can benefit student retention, bring community groups on campus, and help solve Title IX problems all in one swoop.

It’s at this point that you will probably have to start to rein in some of your dreams of the perfect athletics facility. For most smaller campuses and NCAA Division III schools, the reality of the situation is that a facility primarily for intercollegiate athletics won’t be found worth the cost. In other words, a $25 million building that benefits only 300 or so students may have difficulty gaining approval. But one that serves many functions and benefits all sorts of different constituencies may be more appealing from an institution-wide perspective.

Whatever consensus is found, a second report should be pulled together for the institution’s CEO. This one should define exactly how a new facility would impact the entire campus. The report should also stress that a group representing diverging interests—from faculty to admissions to athletics—have been able to agree on the major points of the project.

On A Mission
Once this consensus is built, and the CEO has given the okay to continue the feasibility process, the next step is to more succinctly define the project. In other words, it’s time to determine the potential mission of this proposed facility. If a consultant is not already involved, it is now essential to fully integrate a knowledgeable professional in the planning process.

At this point, your role may change. Because it has become an institutional project, you may be ceding leadership to the CEO or the person in charge of building projects. But this does not mean you are out of the picture. As athletic director, you should still serve, and play a major role, in the next group to form: the project committee.

The project committee is usually chaired by an institutional leader and consists of administrators from the previous task force as well as members of the board of trustees. Like the task force, it should also include one or more faculty members and possibly students.

To develop a mission for the facility, the committee should determine the exact wants and needs of the institution for this new facility. Each aspect of the campus that is involved in the project should thus compile a wish list and a needs list to be shared with the committee. The wish list is asking for the ideal situation. The needs list should contain critical items. Before beginning this task, however, people should be cautioned that they might not get everything for which they ask—this warning will curtail disappointment down the road.

For the athletic department’s part, you should request wish lists from all coaches and department staff members. Once these lists have been completed, you should meet with you staff and begin to prioritize what is most important for the athletic program as a whole. This can be done by looking at the athletic department’s long-term strategic plans and seeing how this facility can best help achieve them.

Figuring out the wishes and needs for the recreation department is often more time consuming. The best method is to distribute surveys to gather data from the campus community. (See sample questions at the end of this article.) The survey should cover areas such as demographics, current usage patterns, preferred usage times, planned usage times, whether or not a person is using the current facility (and, if not, why not), preferred programming, and preferred types of facilities.

This information should be collected and analyzed based on groupings to determine the recreation wants and needs of the campus as a whole as well as specific populations. For example the wants of students may be different than the wants of the faculty and staff.

Focus groups are also effective tools in gathering information. Potential groupings can be user and non-user students, faculty, staff, and administrators. These groups should be lead by a trained facilitator. Each of these groups should be asked similar questions and, based on the groupings, the findings may be different.

Another issue the recreation department should consider is plans for future growth. A common mistake is building for current, rather than projected, enrollment, which can lead to constructing a building that is outdated before it even opens. This is especially true with fitness centers and weight rooms because more students will use these spaces than any other space in the facility—if your student population is growing, the fitness center might not accommodate their needs.

Finally, it is worthwhile to conduct research on predicted trends in recreational activities. This ensures that your facility will meet the usage needs of future students.

The project committee’s toughest work comes next. With all the wish/needs lists completed by all constituents, prioritizing must begin. Sometimes this means defining the building to primarily benefit just one group. For example, the committee may decide that a facility to showcase the men’s and women’s basketball teams is most important, and that all other needs and wishes will come after these teams’ needs. Or, it might decide that this building should serve as many constituents as possible, and thus every area will have to compromise on its wishes.

In most cases, their priorities will ultimately be confirmed by the institutional leaders and trustees who are on the committee. Often, your biggest role at this point is to be an advocate of and educator about athletics on campus. In other words, it’s time to put away the administrator hat and put on the political hat—and lobby to get the most you can for your athletes and coaches.

Dollars & Sense
While the committee’s main focus at this early juncture is on defining the mission of the facility, there are some other looming items that should start to be addressed. The biggest, of course, is the cost of the facility and how it will be funded. Another is how the facility will mesh with the master plan and existing design of the campus.

When discussing cost, it is best to be realistic. It is also important to differentiate between total project cost and construction cost, as there is a big difference. The total project cost includes the design fees, the cost of the equipment (for example, fitness machines, furniture, computers), and the cost to study and secure the land.

Talk about raising of funds should also be realistic. Unless there is a particular philanthropic donor, it is normally a process that takes several years through several sources, which will include fund-raising, bonds, and capital building budgets.

Another decision related to cost is whether the facility will be built all at once or completed in phases. A phased project incurs more costs in the long run, but may be more affordable in the short term, as fund-raising and expenses can be spread out over time. For example, building a gym, a field house, and a pool simultaneously will cost less money. However, the institution may not be able to afford it all at once. This is a decision that the institution’s leaders will ultimately make, but your input can be important in the process.

You may also wish to start discussing where the facility should be situated. In some cases, colleges have developed a campus master plan, which is the large view of a campus that plans campus growth and evolution. It goes well beyond where an institution is currently and shows where buildings can go so that each step of development is consistent with the big picture for the campus. The master plan focuses on facilities and strategic growth and includes design, circulation, and the use of campus resources.

With regard to your proposed facility, the master plan can help answer these questions: Where is there room for the square footage of an athletic facility on campus? Where can it be put so it does not cause a traffic and parking problem and yet remains accessible to students for everyday recreational use? Where can it be placed so that it does not upset the aesthetic ambiance of the campus and does not become an impediment for future campus growth?

Once master planning issues have been resolved, you can take a really deep breath. With consensus built, a mission defined, funding sources sketched out, and an appropriate location for the facility checked off, you can consider the “feasibility” of the project a given. But, don’t relax too much—critiquing designs, raising funds, and construction are around the bend!


Recreation and Fitness Facilities Questionnaire

This questionnaire is designed to gather information about which recreational, intramural, and fitness activities are of most interest to the college community. The information provided will be beneficial to the planning efforts for a new recreation, fitness, and athletic complex. Please spend a few minutes to respond to the questionnaire and return it to the interviewer.

Place an X next to the appropriate response. Please only select one response per question unless stated other wise.

1. College Affiliation:
Faculty Member _____ Administrator _______ Staff Member _____ Freshman _____ Sophomore _____ Junior _____ Senior ______ Graduate Student _____ Other: ___________________

2. Student Status (Students Only):
Full-time Day _____ Part-time Day _____ Full-time Evening _____ Part-time Evening _____

3. Housing Status (Students Only):
College Housing _____ Off-campus Housing _____ Commuter ______

4. Gender: Male _____ Female _____

5. Are you currently a member of a varsity athletic team? Yes_______ No _______

6. How frequently do you engage in any type of physical activity for a duration of 30 minutes (e.g., strength training, aerobic machines or class, swimming, pickup basketball, jogging, hiking, walking, etc.)? 5-7 times a week _____ 2-4 Times a week _____ 1 time a week _____ Once a month _____ Never _____

7. How frequently do you engage in any type of physical activity for a duration of 30 minutes in the current sport facilities?
5-7 times a week _____ 2-4 times a week _____ 1 time a week _____ Once a month _____ Never _____

8. What time of day do you prefer to participate in your recreational activities for both weekdays and weekends? (Rank the top five times with 1 = high preference and 5 = lowest preference.)
Weekdays: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. ____ 9 a.m. to 11 noon _____ 11 noon to 1 p.m. _____ 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. _____ 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. ____ 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. _____ 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. _____ 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. _____
Weekends: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. ____ 9 a.m. to 11 noon _____ 11 noon to 1 p.m. _____ 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ____ 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. ____ 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. _____ 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. _____ 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. _____

9. What time of day do you prefer to participate in your fitness activities for both weekdays and weekends? (Rank the top five times with 1 = high preference and 5 = lowest preference.)
Weekdays: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. ____ 9 a.m. to 11 noon _____ 11 noon to 1 p.m. _____ 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. _____ 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. ____ 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. _____ 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. _____ 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. _____
Weekends: 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. ____ 9 a.m. to 11 noon _____ 11 noon to 1 p.m. _____ 1 p.m. to 3 p.m .____ 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. ____ 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. _____ 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. _____ 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. _____

10. What barriers do you see now that interfere with your participation in recreational and fitness activities at the current fitness and recreational facilities? (Mark all that are applicable)
Unavailability of Facilities at times you want _____ Lack of Facilities _____ Security _____ Too crowded _____ Lack of Cleanliness _______ Lack of Desired Programs _____ (Please list those programs: _________________________________________________ ) Other ________________________

11. Do you currently recreate at a facility other than the one on campus?
Yes _____ No _____ If yes, where? ______________________________

12. If you answered yes to question #11, why? (Mark all of those that are applicable.)
Better Facilities _____ Better Equipment _____ More convenient location _____ Less Crowded _____ Offer times that are more accommodating _____ Better Programming _____ Other ____________________

13. Would you be willing to pay to participate in specialty classes (e.g. aerobics, spinning, yoga) and to use auxiliary services such as personal trainer, fitness assessment, massage treatment, etc.)? Yes ______ No _______

The second half of the survey asks respondents to list and rank which specific activities they might participate in four categories:
1. Individual/Duel Recreational/Intramural (such as racquetball, swimming, climbing wall)
2. Team Recreational/Intramural Activities (such as soccer, volleyball, inline hockey)
3. Fitness Activities (such as free weight, aerobics classes, indoor jogging)
4. Auxiliary Services (such as snack bar, personal trainer, recreational pool, student lounge)