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Several reasons to renovate the Marriott Center, but BYU can't forget the students own half of it

BYU fans cheer in the first half of play as BYU and Baylor play Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 in the Marriott Center in Provo.
BYU fans cheer in the first half of play as BYU and Baylor play Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 in the Marriott Center in Provo.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — The Marriott Center wasn't built to make a ton of money. Its reason for being was to pack people in seats for myriad activities, one of which just happened to be the ever-popular sport of basketball.

But money, comfort and safety are issues today as the university tweaks the seating inside, a move that will impact a lot of fans.

Before the Marriott Center, basketball was so popular with students that there were many complicated plans for ticket distribution to ease a demand that had people camping overnight and perching in long lines in the days of the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse.

A look at history provides insight into why BYU moved to make the latest renovations. The basics? To increase comfortable seating, move student seating, expand ticket price choices and make basketball games more profitable.

Two items stand out in this move that have made some unhappy.

First, students have been a huge part of the history and have contributed big time financially.

Second, four decades after the fact with an athletic budget between $30 million and $40 million, BYU needs more revenue from popular spectator events, and in that regard, part of the purpose and utility of the building has evolved.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, BYU students got in free to all athletic events because they paid an "activity fee" in addition to tuition. It was mandatory to pay this fee. In the catalog, it was called "Tuition and Fees." This student fee was used for concerts, theater, athletics, student government, student dances, the Daily Universe newspaper and so forth. Years later, the fees were merged into just "tuition" and students were then charged extra for athletic tickets, concerts and the like.

When BYU built the Marriott Center, the administration had a "building fee" that helped pay for non-academic buildings. Donors paid for half the Marriott Center and student building fee revenue paid for the other half. I'm told the total cost was about $7.5 million.

This big building came about because the Smith Fieldhouse simply could not accommodate BYU basketball fans, especially students. The university also needed a place to hold as many students and faculty for devotionals. For Smith Fieldhouse hoops, many students would camp out overnight in the west annex, and when the doors were opened for the ticket line, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students could not even come inside to get in line.

Tickets to Smith Fieldhouse basketball games were free with a photo ID student card. A similar plan worked for faculty members.

In planning for the Marriott Center, an imperative element on the agenda was to take care of students — pack in as many as possible.

Then student body president Paul Gilbert, now an attorney in Phoenix, was on the planning committee, and he insisted the building accommodate a ton of students.

Designers placed bleacher seats on the north side of the arena because three bleacher seats took up the same space as two chair seats. This is why half the Marriott Center seats are bleachers — for students who were admitted free of charge. Those bleacher seats were reserved for students and later, students began paying for those seats. As student attendance went down, the bleachers were offered for sale to the public.

Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Center was almost finished when BYU began planning the Marriott Center, and the planners decided to use the same architects who designed the Ute arena.

In the original configuration, the teams sat right in front of the students, but visitors complained, and it was reversed. Now it's going back to a design where teams will be on the north sideline as students are moved to the west chair seats on the baseline.

Bottom line of all this?

BYU students have been a significant part of the Marriott Center, both in financial contributions and in physical support. That support has spiked the past decade under the program of coach Dave Rose.

Event planners cannot forget the students, even if they are being displaced; they have ownership in this building and, over time, paid for half of it.

I'll call it the Gilbert Plea — take care of the kids.

On the other hand, if things remained as we've seen the past four decades, with prime seats locked up by original donors for two generations, there is no way BYU can approach accommodating a growing, paying public fan base.

And that is a real issue.

There are potential season ticket holders who had no avenue to purchase great to good seats — even if they had plenty of cash to flash around.

There simply wasn't room at the inn.

So now, students will be moved. Some are not happy, and it's understandable.

This is also a sign of the times — part of the gears that turn these days in this kind of sports economy when a franchise and brand can create revenue.

Athletic director Tom Holmoe says 75 percent of seats for sale are at the same price or cheaper than before. But it's also true some longtime season ticket holders will pay more if they want to stay in their traditional seats.

It's a complex issue.

It'll be interesting to see how this plan is executed in coming months, and if students embrace it with the passion witnessed the past few seasons come November.


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