Practice Makes Perfect: The Boom in Athletic Training Facilities

When Kansas University’s basketball coach Bill Self began discussing terms of a new contract after winning the 2008 NCAA Championship, he set his sights on more than just personal compensation. The building of a basketball-specific practice facility was an important part of the negotiations. “We’ve tasted success,” he told reporters, “I just want to make sure we have the opportunities to continue tasting it.”

A year earlier when Bob Huggins took the head coaching job at West Virginia University, one of the athletic department’s first moves was to press forward on design and construction of a new practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball. “You look around the country and everybody is getting one,” Huggins told the school’s athletic Website. “Everybody who has a legitimate basketball program has one or is in the process of getting one.”

Athletic training and practice facilities represent the fastest growing segment of the sports design world. Collegiate or pro, these facilities are becoming a vital component in a team’s long-term success.

“Distinctive, well-planned training and practice facilities reflect the unique qualities of not only the athletics programs, but the institutions themselves,” said Jon Niemuth, AIA, design principal with sports architecture firm Ellerbe Becket. “Not just for practice, these facilities afford athletes and coaches the flexibility to review game film, lift weights, rehab injuries, study, unwind, and contemplate the road to their next championship.”

While attracting new students is essential for any college or university, recruitment is most certainly the lifeblood of collegiate athletic programs. Top facilities are not limited to stadiums and arenas, but to the training and learning areas as well, aiming to attract the parents of these athletes as much as the students themselves. Schools must offer the best available in programs and facilities in order to recruit the best talent.

“If you can tell a kid you’ve got a key card or you can put your thumb in the key pass and go in there and shoot whenever you want to shoot, that would be a big selling point for me as a player,” Huggins said. “Players today want to work on their game. They want to get better.”

The new practice facility at West Virginia will incorporate the best components of training facilities from collegiate and professional sports organizations. Ellerbe Becket is building upon trends and innovations incorporated into the recently completed practice facility for the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers.

The West Virginia facility, scheduled for completion in August 2009, will include two full practice courts and four three-point courts with ample run-off space on the end lines and sidelines. The entire facility will integrate a state-of-the-art coaching video system allowing video to be accessed at any time or place within the structure.

Housing both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, the new facility will include Hall of Fame exhibition spaces to showcase the history and tradition of Mountaineers basketball. With a site as picturesque and dramatic as Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby Fallingwater, the project will combine a palette of concrete, stone, and glass to capture the stunning views while clearly identifying the structure as uniquely Mountaineer.

Room to Grow
Title IX represents an influential element of change in collegiate athletics as well. The explosion of women’s sports is bringing recognition to schools across the country. In turn, it has impacted facility planning as schools scramble to provide needed practice space for their burgeoning athletic programs.

Ellerbe Becket professionals, having programmed, designed, and built numerous academic facilities, say there are two crucial elements during programming: flexibility and technology.

Flexibility is not limited to the design of the building systems and functional organization. During the programming and preplanning phase, areas of common activity are identified, which can be shared by the users to allow for greater space maximization in a building type with traditionally low space utilization. During programming and planning for University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s (UNLV) basketball practice facility, officials realized the space could perform double-duty as an athletic training facility by day and an intimate entertainment venue by night. The University secured a naming rights sponsor, and the Cox Pavilion was born. The 3,000-seat venue houses UNLV's volleyball and women's basketball programs and also features a practice facility for the men's basketball program. The Cox Pavilion's 23,000 sq. ft. also are used for academic functions, concerts, keynote addresses, trade shows, and parties.

The naming rights trend is one that is helping to fuel the development boom. Unique to collegiate sports is that both business partnerships and alumni donor relationships result in facility naming opportunities. Many times it is the revenue derived from these opportunities that represent the critical funding component making the projects possible.

Technology and telecommunications planning must create a framework that allows for flexibility and changing/evolving technologies. Early in the process it is important to determine the technology infrastructure of the campus and the unique linkages required. Use of the aforementioned all-access video systems in practice facilities has already made a significant impact on the way coaches implement modern teaching methods.

The “Prolegiate” Advantage
Since the start of the sports facility boom in the 1990s, Ellerbe Becket has been tracking a development trend in collegiate athletics. The firm uses the term “prolegiate” to characterize amenities typically expected at the professional level that have become part of the mainstream collegiate athletic facilities landscape. This prolegiate response is the manifestation of a high-level consumer expectation for quality in a collegiate sports experience.

The consumer expectation born in new generation professional facilities is now driving programming, design, and technology trends in collegiate stadia, arenas, and practice facilities. In simplest of terms, the consumer market for collegiate sports is now a sophisticated market.

Doug Beichley, AIA, is a senior project manager and associate for Ellerbe Becket (