A Battle To Be The Biggest Stadium

For decades, University of Michigan's football stadium, known as "The Big House," has had the largest capacity of any venue in the country. An accessibility lawsuit is reducing its capacity, leaving the title to Penn State's Beaver Stadium. So Michigan is spending $226 million on improvements to include more seats.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

You could kind of think of this next story as being about an arms race, only it involves football stadiums. 10 of the 20 largest stadiums in the world are located on the campuses of America's colleges and universities, and the competition among them to build the biggest and the best is fierce. Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Bill Byrne is the director of Athletics at Texas A&M University. He says many colleges are renovating their stadiums to repair deteriorating facilities and accommodate a growing fan base, and we're not just talking about numbers.

Mr. BILL BYRNE (Director of Athletics, Texas A&M University): Americans are not getting smaller, and so you saw stadium seats width of about 16 inches. Now, we're looking at an expansion here at Texas A&M. We're going to go to 22 inch centers for our seats because people are simply getting bigger.

HEADLEE: Byrne says renovation plans at these schools aren't necessarily driven by the need to be the biggest.

Mr. BYRNE: Unless you're the Big House perhaps.

HEADLEE: Oh yes, the Big House. When I went to games at the Michigan stadium as a student in the late 1990s, the game's attendance was announced over the loudspeaker, and fans were thanked for being part of the largest crowd watching a football game in America.

Mr. CHUCK UNDERWOOD (Former Radio Sportscaster, Ohio State Buckeyes): In sports, bigger is better.

HEADLEE: Chuck Underwood is the former play-by-play voice of the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Mr. UNDERWOOD: And when ABC's sportscaster, Keith Jackson, popularized the phrase the Big House in describing the University of Michigan as the largest in college in football, it instantly gave Ohio State fans stadium envy.

HEADLEE: It's so large, in fact, that only about 230 American cities have a higher population than the 107,000 or so seats in Michigan stadium. But as of this spring, the Ann Arbor Arena dropped to second in size behind Penn State.

Mr. UNDERWOOD: Stadium envy is not unlike penis envy. You don't like to talk about it, but it's there, and it bothers you all the time.

HEADLEE: Once the current 226 million dollar renovation is done, though, U of M Stadium will once again be the largest, with about 108,000 seats. They say they need to upgrade restrooms, concessions, and the sound system, and school officials insist it's not just about size.

Ms. BARBARA HANDLSMAN (University of Michigan Alumnus): They are always saying it's not because of this, or it's not because of that, and it is. We all know it is.

HEADLEE: That's alumnus Barbara Handlsman (ph). Her grandson Aaron starts school at U of M next month. He says he doesn't mind adding some seats in order to stay on top, but he doesn't like the addition of 83 luxury boxes and 3,200 club seats. He says the stadium used to be democratic.

Mr. AARON HANDLSMAN (Student, University of Michigan): It did not matter how much money you had or who you were, you sat on the same old uncomfortable seats, but it was like the spirit of, you know, it's the Big House.

HEADLEE: But University architect Doug Hanna says the luxury boxes will generate a lot of extra cash. A single suite can cost anywhere from 55 to 85,000 dollars a year. That's on top of more than three million dollars the stadium usually pulls in during home games.

Mr. DOUG HANNA (Architect, University of Michigan): Most of the seats in the stadium work on the basis of season tickets, and with that kind of a wait list right now, we're not really concerned about filling the stadium.

HEADLEE: And a full stadium is just fine by Surab Talasarah (ph). He says football games in Ann Arbor remind him of his native India.

Mr. SURAB TALSARAH (Student, University of Michigan): I come from a country which has one of the largest, I mean, stadiums in the world. I was just, I mean, a wonderful atmosphere, the leg. You have a lot of people in the stadium, and that creates a wonderful feeling.

HEADLEE: Renovations are expected to rap up in August of 2010, when Michigan fans will again be part of the largest crowd at a college football game. But how long will the stadium remain the Big House is anyone's guess. For NPR News, I am Celeste Headlee.

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