A new nest is in the making
University officials remain committed to plans for an updated basketball facility
By John Schumacher -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Monday, May 15, 2006
Story appeared in Sports section, Page C1
This arena will not be built in Natomas, the railyards or anywhere near the up-and-coming downtown waterfront.
Instead, the idea is to build the long-awaited facility a few hundred yards from the American River, next to a football stadium and a parking structure, hoping it becomes a centerpiece that draws the community onto an often-overlooked campus.
The biggest questions are when it will be built, and who will pay for it.
For all the on-again, off-again talk of a new Kings arena, there's another proposed basketball building stirring chatter around town.
Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez announced last month the university arena project, estimated to cost $50 million to $60 million, would be separated from plans to construct an estimated $9 million football fieldhouse and a projected $63 million to $68 million recreation, wellness and events center for students, as well as those to spend $32 million to $36 million renovating Hornet Stadium.
Some took that as a setback to the university's attempt to build an arena, including some students who voted two years ago to pay $110 a semester toward the project.
Others, including Gonzalez, remain optimistic the facility, which essentially will be privately funded and is projected to have 6,000 to 8,000 seats, will become a reality, even if there is no official time frame.
"I've already started talking to people about the arena," he said. "I'm committed. I want to move forward."
While there is debate over whether the Kings truly need a new arena, it's harder to question Sac State's pursuit of a new basketball facility. The men's and women's teams play at the Hornets Nest, a 1,200-seat gym that opened in 1955 and is tied for the sixth-smallest arena among the NCAA's 333 Division I basketball schools.
That makes attracting top recruits virtually impossible.
"I'm able to talk to certain types of guys and get their attention, but it's just kind of hard to pull them in and finish the job," said men's basketball coach Jerome Jenkins, who, in his sixth season, posted a 15-15 record, the first time the Hornets have reached .500 since joining Division I in 1991-92.
"When I worked at Eastern Washington, guys driving into Cheney were like, 'Wow, see the cows.' But then they saw the arena (6,000-seat Reese Court). It was something extra special."
Women's basketball coach Dan Muscatell said the lack of an arena can be a deal breaker.
"Recruiting to our current facility is the number one objection that I try to overcome very, very early in the process," he said. "In other words, I'm telling kids, 'If you need a four-sided arena with more than 2,000 seats, this isn't the place for you.'
"When you're recruiting a higher level of student athletes, they want that 'Wow' factor. We don't have that. That's what the arena brings to us."
Young players on campus said they would love to be in a new arena.
"It would help us in recruiting a lot because somebody walks into our gym, they see it like a high school gym," freshman guard Loren Leath said. "They walk into an 8,000-seat arena, they can just imagine themselves playing in it."
Sacramento State and Portland State are the only schools in the eight-team Big Sky Conference - Northern Colorado will become the ninth member in the fall - whose regular arenas are not large enough to host the conference tournament.
"We think it's imperative that they (have one), and I think they do, too," Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton said. "We encourage them."
Athletic director Terry Wanless said he is confident Gonzalez will deliver, calling the arena the "final piece of the puzzle" to transform Sacramento State into a destination campus.
"Obviously, the decision to separate out the projects is a very logical process so we can start the building process," Wanless said. "I'm very excited we're going to start with the fieldhouse and recreation center. Hopefully that will be a source of encouragement. The arena is not just for athletes. It will enhance student life."
And maybe set up the Hornets for an eventual move to the Western Athletic Conference, whose members include nearby Nevada, Fresno State and San Jose State. Sacramento State competes in the WAC in baseball and gymnastics.
"If you look long-term, the possibility exists," Wanless said. "The university could consider elevating the program to the next level. The WAC makes the most sense because of geographic location.
"The WAC isn't going to be interested in an institution that doesn't have facilities similar to other members. Look at what's out there. It's obvious we're deficient."
Who will pay for the arena? With student fees now directed primarily toward the recreation center, Gonzalez hopes to raise private money and/or find a business partner for the arena.
And while the $50 million to $60 million price tag is a far cry from the $400 million figure mentioned for a new Kings arena, it still is serious money. And finding dollars for sports in Sacramento can be a trying task.
Brian Flajole, tournament director of the Longs Drugs Challenge, searched in vain for a title sponsor to replace Longs Drugs when the company opted last fall to move its LPGA tournament from Auburn to Danville.
"The problem they face is like every sports team or organization in this town," Flajole said. "You're always trying to go to the same companies and get a slice of the pie. And that pie doesn't get any bigger."
It's often not really a local pie, either, with many visible companies here (Intel, Hewlett-Packard) headquartered elsewhere. Longs moved the golf tournament to be closer to corporate headquarters in Walnut Creek.
"A lot of decisions on those kinds of dollars, whether donations or sponsorships or whatever, are made outside the area," Flajole said. "What you lose a lot of times is the emotional buy-in. You don't have a guy who lives there or has a son who goes there."
There are different ways to finance an arena. Consider:
* Gonzaga built the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, completed in November 2004, for $25 million, relying on private donations and a building partner fund.
* The University of San Diego opened the 5,100-seat, $17 million Jenny Craig Pavilion in 2000, with Craig providing the majority of the funding.
* Fresno State plays at the 16,116-seat Save Mart Center, which cost $100 million and opened in 2003. Save Mart, corporate sponsorships, private gifts and luxury seat licenses helped pay the tab.
* USC hopes to open the 10,000-seat, $100 million Galen Center, built with private donations, in September.
"Fundraising is always the most interesting part of it," said USD associate athletic director John Martin, who said Craig's contribution was "probably two-thirds" of the total cost.
"It always comes around you kind of overshoot what you're going to do, then draw back."
USD also used naming rights within the arena, with the fitness center, locker rooms and other parts of the building generating more donations.
Gonzalez hopes he can someday point with pride to an arena at Sac State. He notes he raised the required $25 million before student fees kicked in to primarily fund the recreation, wellness and events center. While that building could wind up with 2,000 to 3,000 seats, Gonzalez said it will not take the place of an arena.
"If we could build something like 6,000 to 8,000 (seats), that would be really good for the region," he said.
Gonzalez said reaction to splitting off the arena, which was done to save the practice track needed for hosting major events such as the Olympic Trials and NCAA Championships, reminded him of a commercial he saw recently where a woman orders a latte and immediately asks, "Where's my latte?"
"It doesn't happen that way," he said. "It takes awhile. We really are moving at light speed compared to other projects.
"This is a part of my track record. Let's see what I can do in the next couple of years."
About the writer:
The Bee's John Schumacher can be reached at (916) 326-5523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.