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New arena craze has extended to Division III schools

Even NCAA Division III schools are involved in the ongoing battle to have the newest (and finest) arena in their league.

Division III athletics has evolved quite a bit in recent years. Their championship games are now televised and just about every school has its own radio or internet deal for (at least) its football, basketball and hockey teams.

The D-III schools are also part of the latest trend: dueling each other for the finest arena around. Take the Centennial Conference, a 11-member loop based in Pennsylvania and Maryland. The schools there are falling over themselves with new arenas designed to lure athletes to their campus.

For example, Gettysburg wants to be known as more than just the school next door to where one of the most memorable speeches in our country’s history was given. Accordingly, the school has just broken ground on a $25 million architectural gem that will feature its own competition pool, a warm-up pool, a hydrotherapy spa, a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, a rock-climbing wall, and space for yoga, Pilates, spinning and martial arts.

No to be outdone, Ursinus, spent $13 million on a field house with multiple basketball and tennis courts, batting cages, and a six-lane track in 2001.

In 2005, Haverford College opened the sparkling stone-and-glass $30 million Douglas B. Gardner Integrated Athletic Center, featuring basketball and squash courts, workout rooms, and a 100-machine fitness center with large-screen TVs.

Franklin & Marshall is in the midst of a multiyear plan to build new sports facilities on two former industrial sites next to the campus. Buying and developing the land will cost $70 million, paid for with public, private and school funds.

And Dickinson College has a new basketball arena in its master plan after outgrowing a 28-year-old building.

So why are these schools that don’t give out scholarships for athletics doing this?Without modern facilities, said Gettysburg SD David Wright, whose school is next to the famed battlefield, "it could be potentially difficult to attract the best students."

Jack Maguire, a college consultant based in Concord, MA is even more succinct. "Schools more and more are investing in image," he said. "They are building [all kinds of] facilities to make them more marketable."

Before Haverford replaced its 104-year-old gym with the Gardner Center, students worked out in a small, non-air-conditioned cinderblock basement.

"We never brought people down there on tour," athletic director Wendy Smith said. With the new building, "we want them to come in and say, ‘Wow.’ It reflects on how the college does things. This says we do things top-notch."

And this makes recruiting a problem for schools like Swarthmore, which spent $3 million for a tennis and fitness center in 2000 but plays basketball in Lamb Miller Field House, which was built in the 1930s. (The school doesn’t even list a picture of it on its website.)

Any time a rival puts up a new building, "you have to wonder how it’s going to impact you," said Swarthmore AD Adam Hertz but a new field house will have to take a backseat to other priorities.

"I don’t think we’re lagging significantly," Hertz said. "But I’d be foolish to say we don’t look over and wonder what our place would be like with newer facilities also."

It’s the price of progress.