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Numbers Never Lie: 6,500 is not enough

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The NCAA released its attendance data for the 2016-17 season. With Pavilion renovations already underway, we’re going to be missing out on a major opportunity.

NCAA Basketball: La Salle at Villanova Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When news of the Pavilion renovations started to spread, much excitement began to break out for the building that has stood in its original condition for the last three decades.

With the excitement came a lot of questions, including—where are the Wildcats going to play while they work on it? Are they planning to make it bigger? What's it going to look like? And most importantly, are they adding more seats?

As the finer details behind the plan made their way around the Villanova community, some of those questions were answered. A rendering of what the revamped arena might look like also emerged.

Unfortunately, not included in the Pavilion renovation project is an outline to expand it. The arena won’t be getting bigger, nor will it be adding seats—a crushing blow to everyone’s wish list of Pavilion renovations.

Right now, the Pavilion’s maximum capacity is listed at 6,500. After it goes through $60 million worth of renovations, upgrades, and a name change, its capacity will still remain at 6,500 when it opens for the 2018-19 season.

Yes, the Pavilion needs renovations. With a leaky roof, occasional spotting of mice, and a facility that hasn’t been touched since its debut in 1986, these upgrades will help modernize the arena and will enhance the experience all around—for fans, players, and the recruits that visit. The released renderings look beautiful, like getting to sport a new car after having a hooptie for a long time.

Regardless, Villanova is missing out on a major opportunity to take these renovations a step further by not expanding the current seating capacity.

Last week, the NCAA released its annual data on attendance numbers for the 2016-17 season. While nationwide attendance figures took a slight hit—down just under 251,000 for Division I—Villanova saw a jump from in average attendance from the year before. Villanova was ranked seventh in Division I for the largest jump in attendance from the 2015-16 season, going from averaging 8,119 to 9,772. This is expected when it comes to coming back from winning a national championship and the beautiful services of the Wells Fargo Center, which helped pack more people for a few games and bolster that average.

Overall, Villanova came in 44th for average home game attendance last season, falling behind fellow Big East schools Marquette (7th) and Xavier (38th).

The Wildcats deserve a better home arena. They play on a stage that they are too big for. Nationally well-regarded programs play in great venues. This is a team that just recently won a national title, has been ranked in the top 10 for the last few years, and the undisputed Big East regular season champion since realignment—with a pair of conference tournament titles to go along with it. The steep upward trend is bigger than what the current Pavilion model can support. 6,500 is too small considering that there isn’t a single Power-5 or Big East school that seats less people at their basketball games.

While it’s nice that the Pavilion has been sold out for 182 consecutive regular season games—dating back to 2001—is it all that impressive when the Pavilion is below the average Division I basketball arena seating capacity of 8,041?

Of all 353 Division I basketball arenas, the Pavilion is 191st in terms of seating capacity.

Gazing upon the final top 25 postseason Coaches’ Poll, only four schools had lower attendance figures compared to Villanova—Gonzaga, Butler, SMU, and Florida State. Of the 25 schools, Gonzaga was the only one to have a smaller home arena than Villanova.

The Pavilion’s 6,500-seat capacity directly parallels the seating numbers of the home arenas at Youngstown State, Eastern Kentucky, Morehead State, Prairie A&M, and South Dakota State. Neither of those schools have attained the same basketball success as Villanova, but that’s the conversation the Pavilion is currently in with.

Granted, a lot of these schools—particularly the ones in Power-5 conferences and ranked in the top 25—are public state colleges with the luxury of taxpayer dollars and other public funding.

These are things that private colleges like Villanova, typically do not have. Unless if you’re DePaul, who’s getting a brand new Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago, putting up about 40 percent of the $175 million costs, with the city taking care of the rest.

Some schools, like Big East brethren Marquette, St. John’s, and Seton Hall, share the building with professional sports teams.

However, there are a good amount of private schools that have paid up for their on-campus basketball arenas. Xavier, Vanderbilt, Saint Louis, Oral Roberts, Boston College, and Northwestern are private colleges that boast venues with higher seating capacities.

Like Villanova, Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena is undergoing renovation this upcoming season. The university is paying an estimated $110 million for the 8,117 seat venue. The facility had not been touched since 1983.

A couple of fairly recent projects took place at Vanderbilt and Saint Louis. Vanderbilt upgraded its Memorial Gymnasium in 2002, paying $25 million to modernize the building, which opened in 1952. Saint Louis opened the 10,600-seat Chaifetz Arena in 2008 for $80 million. Fellow Big East member Xavier opened up the Cintas Center in 2000 after the $46 million project broke ground in 1998.

Meanwhile, at Villanova, the Pavilion is going to have a nice facelift for sure, but not adding more seats is a setback. This is addressed on the Finneran Pavilion website.

Renovations will cost $60 million, and Villanova is still actively fundraising for this. According to the project’s official website, the price for expanding seating would cost twice as much.

“As with all projects on campus, cost is a significant consideration. Increasing seating capacity was considered, but a full teardown and rebuild to add seating would cost well over $125 million. With all of the other University projects currently being undertaken, borrowing for this project is not feasible. Therefore, the project needs to be funded entirely by donor support. While we have made significant progress toward our $60 million goal, we are still actively fundraising for the project.”

On top of that, the website states that expansion beyond the current footprint of the building would require relief from zoning ordinances and that this would “have delayed the project for several years.”

Renovations feel a tad rushed and a bit procrastinated. While the ‘Cats play this upcoming season at the Wells Fargo Center, could that have been extended a couple of more years while more fundraising and planning is attained?

The problem is three-fold—limited campus space, money, and time.

While the Finneran Pavilion will be flashy and have all these nice changes, the program is on a path to continue its growth and eventually, it will really be too big for the undersized stage it plays on. The seating change doesn’t even need to be significant. Obviously, doubling the seat capacity would be perfect, but adding a few thousand seats to the picture would be great too. The interest and demand for tickets is certainly there, and it’s a shame that expansion is out of the picture, because it could have paid itself back over time.

We’re locked in this current 6,500-seat model for at least another decade, it seems, and this is just putting on a band aid for a larger problem. The facelift is welcomed, appreciated, and much-needed, but we’ll be behind the curve and talking about renovations again in 2032.