Structural beams are in place. Walls are up. A roof overhangs.
Construction on the 75,000-square-foot Ty Tucker Tennis Center is nearing completion next month, the latest building to sprout in the northwest corner of Ohio State’s campus known as the athletics district.
Increased revenues and expanded fundraising efforts over the past two decades have allowed the athletic department to launch a variety of multimillion-dollar facilities projects, including the $23 million future home of the Buckeyes tennis teams.
But the looming question is whether the building boom can continue amid the financial challenges confronting college sports due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The early signs point to a slowdown in the months ahead, according to current and former Ohio State athletic administrators who spoke with The Dispatch.
Athletic director Gene Smith said planned projects, including an ice hockey rink and indoor track, have been put on hold. Ground won’t be broken on a $21 million lacrosse stadium until at least late next year, delayed from an earlier target date.
"I'm not concerned about it down the road," Smith said. "It's easy for me to hit ‘pause’ because we have to focus on the present and deal with the pandemic. But eventually, in one year I don't know when that is, none of us can predict that we'll get back to working the plan."
That involved a rapid building pace in recent years. Last summer, Ohio State opened the Covelli Center, a 3,700-seat arena for the volleyball and wrestling teams. Six months earlier, it finished the Schumaker Complex, a training center for all Olympic sports athletes.
The facilities projects combined for almost $100 million in construction costs.
While the pandemic’s impact on the football season this fall is seen as the largest threat to athletic department finances, wiping out revenues from the sales of tickets, concessions and parking, Smith has other considerations in assessing the future of the athletics district.
"We know we may not have football," Smith said. "We know we may have football with no fans. But that does not impact our ability to raise dollars for lacrosse."
The health of the U.S. economy could prove more critical, as capital campaigns have funded previous projects. Revenue from football is set aside for coaching salaries, travel costs and recruiting budgets.
Current economic conditions add challenges to fundraising. Since the spring, Smith said, the department has been "sensitive" when seeking donations and is actively raising money only for the lacrosse stadium. He estimates about $13 million has been committed to the project.
Due to social distancing measures prompted by the pandemic, it’s difficult to even meet with prospective donors. In recent months, Ohio State has held donor events conducted over Zoom, enlisting several high-profile Buckeyes.
Urban Meyer, now an assistant athletic director for athletics initiatives and relations, entertained about 500 boosters on a series of sessions in June. They re-watched clips of the final three games of his team’s 2014 national championship season. Former quarterback Cardale Jones joined them for a replay of the Big Ten title game.
The facilities expansion began prior to Smith’s arrival.
When Andy Geiger interviewed for the athletic director position in 1994, he first listened to then-president E. Gordon Gee push for a new on-campus arena that could house the basketball and hockey teams, as well as serve as a venue for concerts.
Four years later, the Schottenstein Center opened at the corner of Lane Avenue and Olentangy River Road.
Geiger oversaw the completion of other new projects, including Bill Davis Stadium for the baseball team and Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for the track and field teams.
As the area morphed into the athletics district after his retirement, Geiger said he anticipated continued expansion.
"The passion is amazing," Geiger said, "so you're going to get naming gifts, you're going to get tremendous support, because the pride in the program, the pride in the university in the state of Ohio, is like none I've ever seen anyplace else. I mean, there's good, strong places, but Ohio State stands alone."
Two decades ago, the scale of expansion was unusual. Some athletic department staff members referred to that stretch of campus as "Andyland." But the building boom ultimately signaled the start of an arms race across the country in which schools raised gobs of money for new complexes for Olympic sports in addition to lavish football upgrades.
Former Ohio State associate athletic director Jim Smith now ribs the numerous Southeastern Conference fans he comes across in Atlanta, where he runs a consulting firm.
"I always say Andy was about 25 years ahead of the SEC in investing in facilities," said Smith, who was one of Geiger’s top lieutenants from 1995-2000.
Facilities expansion came at a time when Geiger also added sports, such as women’s ice hockey and women’s rowing, growing one of the nation’s largest athletic departments.
With more teams, it gave Ohio State all the more reason to upgrade facilities.
"I think he naturally believed Ohio State was a premier program and very much believed that the student-athletes should have the best competition facilities," Smith said.
No plans to cut sports
The Buckeyes still boast 36 varsity sports, and although other schools have cut teams in recent months, citing financial losses from the pandemic, Smith said there are no similar plans in Columbus.
Instead, he hopes future facilities projects will bolster teams’ success.
If completed, the lacrosse stadium will include a heating system underneath the field to help clear snow during the winter. The feature will allow the men’s and women’s teams to practice outside more often when they start their seasons in January.
Smith said the indoor field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center becomes too crowded in the colder months, with teams jockeying for access.
"It’s 24/7," he said.
The lacrosse stadium will seat 2,500 people and provide an intimate game-day hub for the teams. It also figures to be used for high school tournaments and summer camps for area youths.
Beyond fundraising obstacles, other factors could stall some expansion plans.
David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, believes Ohio State could be constrained by fears of bad publicity amid a financial crisis across higher education.
In June, then-OSU president Michael Drake called for $58 million to be cut from the university's budget for the first two months of the 2021 fiscal year, and further belt-tightening could be on the way.
"It's just more of an optics thing," Ridpath said. "Even if something is bought and paid for which is rare in higher education, but sometimes you have a substantial amount of funding or somebody has forked over a check it just would look really bad."
Construction schedules for future projects, such as the lacrosse stadium, are subject to approval from Ohio State’s board of trustees.
If there is a slowdown in the expansion of the athletics district, no one expects it to be prolonged.
That includes Geiger, who began the growth on the plot of land on the northwest campus and raves about the Buckeyes’ large base of donors.
"It'll slow it down, but they'll get there," Geiger said. "The program just has enormous power economically. It's as good as there is in the world."