Manny Fuentes has been a University of Miami football season-ticket holder for the past 12 years and a donor for nearly a decade.
In all his years of giving to the program, his game-day experience had never been quite as good as it was a couple weeks ago. That’s because Fuentes, a Miami native, was one of nearly 700 Canes fans who got to enjoy the new swanky, first-class experience of being a Golden Cane at Sun Life Stadium.
From prime seating near the 50-yard line to access to a private drinking and dining area with a full buffet and sports bar, nothing — not even a relatively ho-hum 45-0 rout of Bethune-Cookman on a rainy opening night — made the experience unpleasant.
“Let’s just say they’ve taken it up a notch, how about that?” said Fuentes, who spent pregame — and most of the rainy parts of the season opener on Sept. 5 — sitting in the new private Golden Canes Club with his friend, Eddie, having drinks and dining on sliders, shrimp, chorizo and a menu of food he said doesn’t compare to last year’s.
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“The stadium was phenomenal,” Fuentes said. “They did a fantastic job bringing the seats closer to the field. Last year, we sat in the club section, section 244, about the 35-yard line. Now, I’m eight rows back of the Canes’ bench on about the 45.
“Bethune was kind of a preseason game — it was rainy, it was hard to tell how loud the crowd could get. We’ll find out Saturday against Nebraska how loud it really is. Hopefully, it’ll make a difference like the Orange Bowl once did. ”
Although Dolphins fans were able to take in a couple of preseason games in the newly renovated stadium, that Bethune game was the first time Canes fans got a taste of Sun Life Stadium’s two-year, $425 million makeover. By most accounts, having 10,000 fewer seats, 65,326 upgraded seats to sit in, better food options and upgraded bathrooms, flooring and concourses was welcomed with open arms.
44,282 Average UM attendance since 2008
75,540 Capacity in Sun Life Stadium before the 2015 renovations
52,518 Average UM attendance at Sun Life Stadium in 2014
65,326 Capacity in Sun Life Stadium starting in 2015
UM coach Al Golden noted it was “louder” for him and the players on the field and he said “you could feel everybody on top of you.”
When the renovations are finally completed next year — when the canopy is up protecting about 90 percent of the fans from the South Florida heat and rain, and four large video boards are up in the corners of the stadium — UM athletic director Blake James said he’s convinced his Hurricanes are “going to be playing in one of, if not the best stadium in the country.”
Still, it’s going to require fans to show up. Last year, UM averaged 52,518 fans and has averaged 44,282 fans since coming over from the Orange Bowl in 2008. That average in what was a 75,540-seat stadium before the renovations left a lot of empty, noticeable seats for the rest of the college football world to poke fun at.
Now if the Hurricanes draw 52,000 for a game, instead of being about 65 percent full it will be closer to 80 percent full.
“That’s a huge plus for us being a private school in South Florida,” said Jesse Marks, UM’s associate athletic director for development. “It brings a level of intimacy we need. You’re going to see a pretty nice crowd on Saturday. It’s going to feel loud and feel like a Miami Hurricanes game without a doubt.”
The stadium upgrades, financed by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, have also allowed for Marks and UM to offer a much better experience to their biggest donors. There are four different levels of giving at UM, Marks explained: $15,000 for traditional Golden Canes; $25,000 for Golden Canes plus; $30,000 for platinum Canes and $55,000 for Champions.
In all, Marks said, there are more than 200 Golden Canes who fill up about 98 percent of the 700 available seats in sections 145 to 147. They sit in what Marks calls “Captains chairs,” double-padded, high-back seats they can lean back on. The 100-or-so recliners, which come with private TVs, are for the Golden Canes plus and Platinum donors. Those recliners, Marks said, are 60 percent sold out.
The Champion donors get to sit in an entirely different section — the Champions Suite, up on the second level of the stadium. There, UM’s biggest donors get to rub elbows with former players, VIP guests and UM coaches and dine on crab legs, shrimp cocktails, oysters, truffle fries, salads and tomahawk ribeye.
The Champions Suite has been around since 2013, but it has been upgraded significantly. Marks said after the opener against Bethune, three Golden Canes upgraded their donations to move up to the Champions level.
“Positive dominoes is what I call it,” Marks said. “We’re only nine months into our calendar year, and we’re in good shape. We’re pacing right where we need to be to beat last year’s fundraising numbers, which is about $10 million.
“What we did in the past for our donors was nice, but it wasn’t anywhere near the level it is now. It’s a much more exclusive experience all the way around.”