BamaInsider - CECIL HURT: Is a new arena the answer for Alabama basketball?
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CECIL HURT: Is a new arena the answer for Alabama basketball?

The question won't be the first that Greg Byrne has to address. In fact, it may not be the first facilities question the new University of Alabama athletics director has to address. But it will be a question, sooner or later.

What is the future of Coleman Coliseum?

In a broad sense, it's a question for many athletic departments around the country, at least the ones that have on-campus arenas with 15,000 seats or more. As those arenas age - and Coleman Coliseum will have its 49th "birthday" on Jan. 30 - are they worth renovating? Is it better to invest in perpetual face lifts to keep those arenas looking bright and inviting? More importantly, in an age where almost every major college basketball game is available not just on television but directly on a cellphone, is it reasonable for schools other than Kentucky and North Carolina to expect to sell out such large arenas on a regular basis?

Certainly, if a school can attract 15,000 fans, that's better than attracting 7,000 on the ledger. Increasingly, though, college coaches are willing to subtract that revenue in exchange for atmosphere. Alabama is improving under coach Avery Johnson, but sellouts remain rare unless Auburn or Kentucky is in town, and even the Kentucky sellouts are problematic because of the number of Wildcat fans who pop up in preferred seats. More often than not, a weekend crowd of 9,000 fans is greeted by the social media experts who have mastered the art of televised-crowd estimation with shrugs of "terrible crowd."

The debate becomes especially relevant once a year when the Alabama men's basketball team visits Auburn. Setting aside Saturday's one-sided result, a few things are obvious. One, the Auburn Arena is a nice facility. It's not a modern NBA pleasure palace by any means, but it has amenities and comfortable-looking seating, plenty of concession stands and most of the other basics for a pleasant trip.

Second, it is much smaller than Coleman Coliseum in terms of seating capacity. The crowd that filled the arena on Saturday would, if dispersed around Coleman, be regarded as "fair."

That leads to point number three: it isn't just the numbers that create an atmosphere. Auburn students are close to the floor. The next level of seats, while not banked at the life-threatening levels of Foster Auditorium, put the paying customers almost on top of the action. Whether the accounting department would like the lost revenue of extra ticket sales, there isn't a head coach in the SEC that wouldn't rather play his home games in the hostile-but-cozy confines at Auburn.

Avery Johnson can't say that - neither side in this particular rivalry is Iikely to say that the other side has something better. I also don't speak for him, but I do listen to him when he is effusive about the "home atmosphere" Alabama experienced in front of 6,500 or so fans at a sold out Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville last December.

Facts are facts. Huge capital expenditures on basketball can be problematic when football drives 90 percent of the athletic budget. A new arena isn't, to put it in unavoidable basketball terms, a slam dunk decision. Alabama has other needs, including a new Aqua-home for the swimming and diving teams that is overdue. Spending someone else's money is the easiest thing in the world, so I am on the side of cautious expansion more so than a reckless spree by a new AD.

For many years, in terms of arenas in the state, bigger has been better, with Coleman Coliseum in the forefront. But as its 50th year rapidly approaches, the question of whether it can last another half-century, both as a structure and as a fearsome home court, need to be examined.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225

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