For the past four seasons, Stony Brook's basketball teams have played in 1,800-seat Pritchard Gymnasium while Stony Brook Arena lay dormant next door, awaiting previously approved state funds for renovation to be unfrozen. The wait ends tomorrow when university officials formally announce a $21.1 million construction project to create a 4,000-seat sports and entertainment venue.
Construction is expected to begin the second week of June, and the facility is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014. The renovations will include four luxury boxes and a VIP lounge area at the loge level with premium courtside seating, thanks to an anonymous private donation of $1 million because state funds cannot be used for that purpose. The north side of the current structure will expand toward the parking lot to create room for concessions, restrooms and a concourse.
Seating capacity for basketball will be 4,008, expandable to 4,200 with floor seating for entertainment events. Unlike the previous arena, most of the seating is permanent except for grandstands that roll back at each end of the court, where student seating is located. One of the architectural companies involved also designed Citi Field for the Mets.
The renovation comes at a time when Stony Brook's men's basketball team has won two of the past three America East Conference regular-season titles and recently announced its best recruiting class ever.
"We've had a number of sellouts at Pritchard," said Dr. Samuel L. Stanley, university president. "I think if we continue what we've been doing with our basketball program, we won't have trouble filling that facility. I think it's going to be a hot ticket, actually."
Funds for the renovation were approved over budget cycles in 2005-06 and subsequently frozen by former Gov. David Patterson as a result of an economic downturn in 2008 after the original architectural plans were drafted. Stanley credited State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, who is chairman of the Higher Education Committee, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for their help in making capital funds available again.
Stony Brook's football stadium bears LaValle's name because of the key role he played in moving the four anchor SUNY schools -- Stony Brook, Buffalo, Albany and Binghamton -- up to NCAA Division I athletics.
"The most important thing in building this athletic program has been getting the kind of facility that you need," LaValle said. "One of my first priorities when I became chairman again was to press for the money for the arena to be released. I had great support from Zimpher, who also was pushing for that money. We will have a state-of-the-art facility for the basketball teams."
As Stanley noted, the decommissioned Stony Brook Arena actually was costing the university money. Over the past three seasons, the athletic department had to recondition the arena to host an NIT game in 2010, an ESPN-televised regular-season game in 2011 and the America East championship game in March. Each drew a standing-room only crowd of about 4,400 and was televised nationally.
"It cost almost $100,000 per game to play in there, just to put makeup on the pig," Seawolves athletic director Jim Fiore said. "We were praying it didn't rain because, when it rained, it came right down on the court. We didn't tell anybody that. People had no idea how we were stressing. That place was a disaster. It was empty, cold, dreary and depressing. Those days are over."
Fiore said he already is in negotiations with several companies to sell naming rights to the building as well as prominent advertising space inside the arena. His plan is to build the season-ticket base and tie premium seating plans to donations to the athletic department.
Eventually, he hopes to hire an arena manager who will book events, such as concerts and comedians. An air-conditioning system will permit events to continue throughout the summer months.
"We think we've signed the best recruiting class we've ever signed in men's basketball," Fiore said. "We think the stars are aligning, and we have two years to upsell and make this Pritchard on steroids, Pritchard squared. Anything less than that will not be acceptable. We're going to invest in the infrastructure to sell it out regularly, not just one game."
Rather than lose the intimacy of Pritchard Gym, which has developed into a significant advantage for coach Steve Pikiell's men's team, plans call for front-row seats to be as close to the court as NCAA rules allow. In addition to digital scoreboards and video boards at each end of the court, the arena will have a lighting system that permits theatrical pregame introductions comparable to NBA games.
The upgraded facility should produce a significant increase in revenue, according to Fiore, but he assured Seawolves basketball games will remain affordable. "Not every seat will have a donation requirement," Fiore said. "There probably will be 3,000 general admission tickets. But we want to give our [donors] an opportunity to be close to the action . . . The best entertainment value is in your backyard. People that have come here know. We just have to do a better job of marketing it."
Pikiell's success has changed the atmosphere surrounding the men's basketball program, but it would be difficult to sustain if his team remained in Pritchard Gym, which ultimately will become a practice court.
"At the end of the day, we're a major research university that is playing in a high school gym," Fiore said. "It's all well and good because we're winning games, but facilities are a silent statement of your commitment to excellence."