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Finley focus is on UTC
Finley Stadium was built with the intention of being the home for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football games.
That’s finally the case.
Since its debut in 1997, the 20,668-seat facility has been recognized more for hosting the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision title game than housing the Mocs, who became synonymous with losing seasons. The NCAA announced Feb. 26 that the FCS title game will move to the Dallas suburb of Frisco for the next three seasons, leaving UTC as Finley’s main act.
“Happily, we’ve got an improving UTC program that gives us a chance to demonstrate that the community will support what it was initially conceived as,” Stadium Corp. board chairman Bryan Patten said Tuesday. “When we built this stadium, we didn’t have hosting the championship game on our mind. It’s a shock and a disappointment that we aren’t going to host it, but at the same time it sort of refocuses us on what we thought it would be to start with.”
Tuesday marked the first Stadium Corp. meeting since the NCAA nixed its 13-year relationship with Chattanooga. The FCS title game brought an economic impact as high as $2.4 million to the city, but Finley Stadium executive director Merrill Eckstein said there was no financial windfall from an operations standpoint.
Eckstein added that most years resulted anywhere from a $10,000 surplus to a $5,000 loss for the Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee.
Chattanooga was awarded the FCS (then I-AA) championship in February 1996, about 20 months before Finley’s dedication game between UTC and Tennessee State. Finley’s debut drew a crowd of 22,642, which stood as the record until the 2006 and ‘07 FCS title games involving Appalachian State resulted in crowds of 22,808 and 23,010.
The FCS title game produced Finley’s top audience each of the past 12 years.
“I look forward three years from now to competing again to get that championship game,” Patten said. “We want it back, and I want Chattanooga playing in that game.”
Such a comment was laughable after the Mocs went 1-11 in 2008, but they went 6-5 in coach Russ Huesman’s first year. The surprise surge resulted in an average UTC home attendance of 10,503, the highest for a full season at Finley.
The Mocs averaged 11,576 in three home games in ‘97.
Board member Ryan Crimmins said 8,450 was determined as the break-even figure for Mocs games before Finley had been completed. UTC surpassed that last season for the first time since 2000.
“There is no telling what a playoff game would do,” Crimmins said. “Our first goal should be to sell out this year’s opener against Appalachian State.”
UTC was unable to move its opener to a Thursday night but still could produce a stout crowd on Sept. 4. The Southeastern Conference has a weak opening slate that includes San Jose State visiting Alabama, Louisiana-Lafayette visiting Georgia and UT-Martin playing at Tennessee.
Though Mocs football is the headliner, Eckstein said there will be more than 100 events this calendar year at Finley, Finley’s Stadium Club and the adjacent First Tennessee Pavilion. That includes two high school football games (Baylor-McCallie and Central-Sequatchie County) and a four-day prep jamboree in August.
“Now, more than ever, this is a community stadium,” board member Jerry Summers said. “We ought to go the extra step to get those games in here. A lot of these kids never have a chance to play in a college stadium, and the non-monetary worth is immeasurable.”
There still will be a reminder of the FCS title game with the “Wall of Champions,” which contains plaques of each winner since ‘97 and is located on the facade below the press box. A plaque of Villanova, the ‘09 champion, is expected to be installed by the end of the month.
“I would see no reason to take it down,” Eckstein said. “We should be proud of our heritage with 13 years of the game.”
Eckstein projected a $17,000 deficit as a worst-case scenario for the current fiscal year. The Stadium Corp. received $20,213 more in concessions from UTC games than Eckstein projected, but $46,309 already has been spent on building maintenance, and only $21,000 was budgeted.
Board members are pleased with the overall picture considering the economic times.
“We have more funds raised (through the Friends of Finley) than we have pledges,” Gordon Davenport said. “We need to raise more, but we have a very solid foundation.”
Said Mike Davis: “There are a lot of nonprofits that would like to switch places with us.”
Before Tuesday’s meeting adjourned, Dan Thornton, the manager of real property for the city, mentioned to Stadium Corp. members that the new owners of Parkway Towers may ask for assistance in their goal of turning the rundown building into an area that could contain retail space and condominiums. Part of the massive renovation would include temporary use of the gravel lot next to the pavilion that is in a 40-year lease agreement with the Stadium Corp.
Chattanooga Times-Free Press