Arizona Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke has been on the job since April. But most of the artwork in his windowless office has yet to be hung.
One wall does feature printouts depicting new locker rooms being built elsewhere in McKale Center — plus a black-and-white photo of Arizona Stadium when it opened in 1928.
The latter serves as a reminder that Heeke’s work is just beginning. A massive renovation of the stadium will begin in earnest in January. Construction of the new indoor sports center across the street could start by late winter.
Both should help boost attendance and improve the fan experience at football games — topics that consume and concern Heeke and his staff on a daily basis.
Despite the team’s recent winning streak — and the emergence of sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate — Arizona did not get the turnout Heeke was hoping for in last week’s homecoming game against Washington State. The announced crowd of 42,822 was the second lowest of the season — and would have been the second lowest last season, when the Wildcats went 3-9.
How to enhance the game-day experience was among several topics Heeke discussed in a Q&A with the Star on Tuesday. Others included late start times, the football team’s turnaround, Tate’s breakout and selling beer and wine at UA sporting events:
No one has had more nighttime starts than Arizona. What are your thoughts on all the late kickoffs? It seems like fans aren’t happy about it.
A: “The later start times are a common struggle for people around the country. I don’t think this is just Tucson. I don’t think this is just the Pac-12. Nationally, you see more games being wedged into those key evening slots, which is putting stress on people (in terms of) how you continue to fill your stadiums, how you continue to keep people engaged and wanting to come. That’s a trade-off between the exposure, the revenues and then your in-game (experience). And how you marry all those three together … it’s complicated.”
Do you think the late starts adversely affect attendance?
A: “I think it’s one component. It might be the hot dogs are cold. It might be it’s hard to park. It might be the game isn’t what we want or the team isn’t where we want it to be. And it might be because of television — the late starts generally caused by television selections. The good side of being on at 7:45 (at USC on Saturday) is we’re on a flagship. We’re on ESPN. We’re on a national broadcast. There’s real good value to that.”
What’s your assessment of the home attendance so far?
A: “I’m confused a little bit. I have to say I’m a little disappointed. And I don’t understand exactly why it is what it is. But I’m the new person. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time listening and learning and hearing what people have to say. I’ve spent a lot of time at our games wandering around, seeing how it goes.
“As we go forward, everything’s on the table. We can’t just sit back and go, ‘Oh, it’s this that causes us to struggle in attendance.’ We need to look at the whole thing. So we’re going to do that as a staff. I’m going to make sure that we look at everything, from food service to access to in-game entertainment, the way we structure our events. We’re going to look at it all.
“Saturday in Tucson needs to be about football. We need to fill the stadium for the future of our programs — all of our programs.”
Last week’s attendance doesn’t look that bad in a vacuum. But the optics aren’t good. Will the Arizona Stadium renovation change that at all?
A: “The focus going forward is to provide a better environment. Part of that is providing better seating, more space, more access, wider concourses, wider entry and exit points, chair-back seating. All of that will use up some of the room and invariably will reduce capacity.
“I think our sweet spot is in the high 40s to 50 (thousand; current capacity is 55,675). We’ll see where we get. All of that is a byproduct of the construction, different things that we can or need to do or are forced to do.”
Is there any complaint that seems to be the most common one among fans?
A: “That’s the challenge. There’s a lot of different reasons. I go back to the hot dogs, the parking, the bathrooms, the popcorn, my seat, the Wi-Fi, the start time. It all gets thrown into the pot.
“It starts with upgrading the overall stadium. We’ve seen the success in the north end zone with the Sands Club and the (upgraded) seating area. People enjoy that experience. It’s very comfortable. It’s been incredibly positive. We need to address our environment.
“There’s no quick fix. We’re not going to change this on Monday morning or by next Saturday’s game. But we want to try to do the very best with what we have.”
When you came here, the talk was that Rich Rodriguez was on the hot seat. Now he’s a candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. What’s your take on the football team’s rapid resurrection?
A: “I’m really pleased with the effort of our kids and the team. What they’ve accomplished has been terrific. In my time around them in the spring, when I was first here, and then all of fall camp, I felt like there was a lot of positive energy. There was a desire to prove that what happened last year is not the way it’s going to be.
“It’s played out really well. It’s been really exciting. I’m looking forward to the future to see what we can do.”
Have you had any discussions with RichRod about his future?
A: “Just like everything, we wait till the season’s over, have a conversation then and talk about what the next steps are.”
Have you seen anything similar to what Tate is doing? It’s basically unprecedented.
A: “If I have seen something like that, you’d really want to know who it is. He’s been remarkable. And it’s uplifted our entire team. Our defense has fed off that energy. Our entire team has fed off the success and the energy and the positive momentum. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
What’s the latest regarding the liquor license at McKale Center?
A: “We’ve applied for a liquor license through the state of Arizona. We’re in that waiting period that allows for public comment (through Nov. 12). And then the city council will ultimately make the decision (on Dec. 5). They’ll vote on whether to issue the license or not. We fully anticipate that that would be granted. We’re looking forward to utilizing that as an opportunity to enhance the environment for those people who are interested in that.”
If it works for basketball, is it something you’d look to do at football games as well?
A: “Sure. It’s something that we’re exploring for all of our venues. We’ve done that at Hi Corbett for baseball. We’re hopeful that we can introduce it at McKale.
“This is not an opportunity to solve all of our budget problems. This is not about making enormous amounts of money. It’s about another amenity – something that people kind of expect when they come to an event.
“But we have to be careful to do it responsibly. We have to be able to monitor it. We’ll have well-trained professionals in the service areas. We’ll go slowly, but we’ll look to put that in other venues — one certainly could be football.”
- Arizona cracked the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night, but that’s not the team’s ultimate goal. “We were definitely excited about that,” freshman DE-LB Kylan Wilborn said. “But you gotta put that aside. It’s rankings at the end of the day. It’s just a number on a board. It doesn’t mean much. You’ve gotta keep going, keep grinding.”
- Rodriguez said the common thread among his top quarterbacks — from Pat White to Denard Robinson and now Tate — is that they all had a “game competitiveness and game speed.”
- Rodriguez on Tate today vs. the Tate who made his first career start as 17-year-old vs. USC last October: “He’s a completely different player now.”
- Brian Knorr, who coaches the Wildcats’ edge rushers, is looking for DeAndre’ Miller to step up. “Now’s the time,” Knorr said. “He’s had a good week of practice. We need him.”
- A handful of Arizona coaches will visit Los Angeles-area high schools to recruit Friday night, taking advantage of the SoCal trip and the late Saturday start.