If athletics are the front porch of a university, as we’re often told, and football is the most visible sport in most schools’ athletic department, then East Carolina’s curb appeal has been sorely lacking in recent years because of the image portrayed by Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
It’s not that the facility wasn’t functional. It certainly served a purpose when the Pirates were members of Conference USA, especially after the expansion that added the upper deck to the North side in 1998.
But it’s hard to portray a big-time image when the most recognizable feature of the place was a press box not-so-affectionately referred to as the “Doublewide in the Sky.”
It was like plopping a trailer onto a vacant lot surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions and pretending it to be comparable to the rest of the neighborhood when ECU moved to the more competitive American Athletic Conference five years ago.
The stadium just didn’t fit in.
It should be noted that facilities don’t win games, regardless of how nice they are or how many bells and whistles they might have. It takes players, talented ones, and proficient coaches to mold them into cohesive units.
And nothing attracts both better than an impressive looking place to play.
Like the one ECU is about to have.
With the South Side Project on target for completion well before the 2019 football opener and the impressive new TowneBank Tower rising majestically over the stands where the Doublewide in the Sky once was, the Pirates no longer have to be embarrassed by the impression Dowdy-Ficklen gives to prospective recruits.
They now have a home field that’s on par with any of their rivals in the AAC.
“I think it’s a transformational structure for our athletic department, for our football program and for our community,” athletic director Jon Gilbert said last week while leading members of the media on a tour of the new addition.
“It is state-of-the-art. It is a first class facility. And I really look at it as a community asset because we will have a lot more things in this building other than football events. I can see weddings and other things in it. Obviously recruiting weekends, but also some social functions.”
While the tower is still a construction site with no paint on the drywall, wires dangling down from the ceilings, plumbing still in the rough-in stage and workers scurrying around on every level, enough has been done to get a feel for what the finished product will look like.
First and foremost, the sight-lines are great.
Despite ascending some five stories above the top row of the existing stands, it doesn’t seem anywhere near as high when looking down from the top floor where Jeff Charles will give his play-by-play descriptions of the games and the rest of the media will do its work.
On the floors below, there are four levels of premium seating — 22 Loge Boxes, 19 Standard Suites, five Founders Suites and 550 Scholarship Club level seats, ranging in price from $100,000 a year to $20,000 annually with a 10-year commitment.
According to Phillip Wood, executive director of the Pirate Club, virtually all the suites are sold out. Fans can still get in on the Scholarship Club level, which in addition to outdoor seating includes access to a spacious bar and indoor hospitality area Gilbert said will have “a sports bar type atmosphere.”
As opposed to the suites, the club level is priced so that smaller donors to afford to enjoy it.
“Originally the amount of the gift required to sit in the Scholarship Club was $5,300,” Wood said. “We made the decision as a department to reduce that down to $2,000. The seats are still $2,500 per seat. The activity that it’s created is what we’d hoped for.”
Gilbert said that construction on the new facility should be finished by July with finishing work such as furniture and graphics being done in time for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony sometime in mid-August.
The AD is also planning an open house during the annual the Meet the Pirates Day festivities so that all fans — including those that can’t afford to watch the games from the lap of luxury — can get a look at what their school’s spectacular new front porch looks like from the inside.
“It is really important for me that not only the people who have invested into this project get to see it, but I really want to have a day where anybody who wants to come and see this structure can have the opportunity to walk through it,” Gilbert said. “Not everybody can sit in it and we only have so many seats, but you will be able to rent it for a multitude of functions.”
The first game at the new Dowdy-Ficklen will be on Sept. 7 when coach Mike Houston makes his home debut against Gardner-Webb. While it’s anyone’s guess what the team will look like, the stadium in which it plays will certainly be an upgrade.
“The first thing is it passes the look test,” Gilbert said. “It should enhance our game day atmosphere and enhance our recruiting as well.”