A planned lazy river intended for use by athletes and deep-pocketed fans at the University of Central Florida in Orlando is the product of a “wrong-headed” race by universities to build extravagant facilities to gain prestige and woo recruits, critics contend.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni argues that such spending in the sports program is not likely to strengthen academics or improve the average student’s experience.
“One should never treat a donor’s generosity with anything except gratitude, but having said that, schools need to use some reasonable discretion both of what they accept and what they’re soliciting,” says Michael Poliakoff. “Schools do have the ability to shape a philanthropic vision."
A private donor is paying $1 million for the construction of the river attraction, but Poliakoff says university leaders could steer those dollars toward other projects.
University officials say donors decide where to contribute their money.
"When foundation staff meet with donors, including those passionate about athletics, they discuss UCF’s academic priorities,” spokesman Chad Binette wrote in an email. “Donors ultimately decide which areas to support, and we are fortunate that many donors invest in both athletics and academics.”
Athletic director Danny White first floated the notion of a lazy river similar to those found in resorts and water parks, in 2017, when he pitched a plan for $30 million in upgrades that would enhance the school’s athletics facilities.
Late last year, the school said alumni Tom and Stacey McNamara had agreed to give $1 million for the so-called “Recovery Cove," which featured a lazy river as its centerpiece.
Trustees agreed last month to name the addition “McNamara Cove."
But Gerald Gurney, former president of the Drake Group, which is critical of spending in college athletics, suspects university leaders have other motivations.
"The first thing I would say is, let’s not kid ourselves — the building of this facility has nothing to do whatsoever with the current athletes and everything to do with the recruitment of future athletes,” he says.
The lazy river, which is set to open in time for the 2020 football season, will be about 500 feet long, with two attached pools of roughly 1,600 and 1,000 square feet.
Along with student-athletes, well-heeled individuals and corporations will be able to buy access to the attraction.
The university plans to sell as many as 250 annual “Covegating” memberships, advertised at $2,500 per person. That fee covers access to the lazy river for three to four hours before each regular-season home game, food, drink, inner tubes and parking.
Gurney describes the project as “nothing short of just total and unadulterated waste.”
University leaders say students won’t be stuck footing the bill for an amenity most will never use and that money from the general athletics fund will not be used to operate or maintain McNamara Cove, which they estimate will cost about $200,000 a year.
Central Florida isn’t the first campus to build this type of feature or try to lure top athletes with flashy amenities.
In 2011, students at Louisiana State University voted to increase fees to pay for a lazy river in the shape of the school’s initials and other enhancements at an $85 million recreation center. The school also recently completed a $28 million renovation of its football locker room, which now houses individual sleep pods for every player.