Three days before the University of Utah hosts its first Pac-12 football game, Utes Athletics Director Chris Hill visited the Salt Lake Chamber Capitol Club to discuss the opportunities that come to our community thanks to the move.
Hill says the opportunities for the state that reach far beyond the five conference football games.
“For better or for worse, the athletics program is the first impression people have of the university,” said Hill. “We want the economic development. We want this to be a boost to the economy.”
The U is going to great lengths to make fans and alumni feel welcome in Salt Lake City. He says even parking attendants have been trained to welcome guests with a smile.
“We are a whole different deal than we were a year ago,” said Hill “We’re jumping from non-BCS to a BCS conference. It is essential that our experience begins with the airport, and continues to the parking lot and into the game.”
Part of the new experience is to make a Utes game more than just three hours at the stadium. Hill’s off-field team is working with the business community to make a Utah game a 48-hour experience. Programs like Paint the Town Red encourage downtown businesses to decorate their buildings in red during home game weeks, and UNight, a program that brings local business leader together with influential alumni from fellow Pac-12 schools, are both part of the Red Movement.
“This is an opportunity to align ourselves with Seattle, Phoenix and Los Angeles,” said Hill. “We were associated with Colorado Springs, Albuquerque and Wyoming. We want to make the most out of this new opportunity.”
Hill also discussed some of the challenges his athletics department faces. The Utes have the smallest budget in Pac-12, just $4 million compared to $13 million for a school like the University of California at Berkley. He says to compete, every resource has to be used to the fullest.
“We’ll never have USC money, but we are out raising money,” he says. “When you move up a step, things cost you more.”
Hill says the Pac-12 is impressed with Utah, but both the conference and the Utes know they have “a lot of work to do.”
For now, that doesn’t mean expansion of the stadium. Some Pac-12 schools are actually planning to reduce their seating capacity. Hill says there will be improvements to the football facilities, specifically a media center to accommodate national broadcast requests and an updated sports medicine facility.
TV money will be a big boost to the Utes. The new Pac-12 TV deal kicks in next year and jumps the Utes’ take from $1.2 million last year in the Mountain West Conference to $15 million by the fourth year of the new deal.
Hill will gladly take the money, but the real benefit comes in notoriety.
“This is a boost to student and faculty recruitment,” he says.
Hill also discussed the international element of the move. To compete in some sports, the Utes will have to recruit from other countries. He believes the Utes and the Pac-12 will have a significant presence outside the U.S., specifically in the Pacific Rim.