It was 2021, and Will Weatherford had just been appointed to the University of South Florida's board of trustees. Curious about a sports issue, Weatherford asked around about creating a football stadium for the 50,000-student, three-campus university.
He was met with nods and agreement about the need. Leaders at USF told Weatherford, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and now managing partner of Tampa-based investment firm Weatherford Capital, which he founded and runs with two brothers, that the stadium idea had been bandied about before. But for a variety of reasons, it never got far.
Weatherford, now chairman of the USF board, decided to push for the university's first football stadium for the Bulls.
Things came together relatively quickly after Weatherford got behind it. In September 2022, USF announced it would contract with Barton Malow and Populous Architects for the design-build phase. In June 2023, USF trustees approved the plans for a $340 million stadium that could hold as many as 35,000 people.
In September 2023, the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees public colleges and universities in the state, also gave the thumbs up. In December, the USF trustees released renderings of the stadium, which will be used for football, women's lacrosse, concerts and more.
Weatherford, speaking to the Business Observer, says he is ready for game day.
"I always felt from afar that USF needed a place to gather," says Weatherford. "The university needed the shot in the arm. It will absolutely, fundamentally change the campus."
Why a stadium?
It's football that made the movement.
The USF Bulls play in the American Athletic Conference. Their fans are devoted, and talk of "Bulls Nation" fills Tampa on game day. The fan following is especially large considering the team only goes back to 1997, and doesn't have the history of programs such as Alabama or Michigan.
The Bulls rose to national prominence under its first head coach, Jim Leavitt, who led the team from 1997 to 2010. Highlights included playing in five straight bowl games from 2005 to 2009, and a No. 2 ranking in 2007. The team has played in 10 bowl games since it was founded, winning six, and qualified for the 2023 Boca Raton Bowl against Syracuse University, scheduled for Dec. 21.
Weatherford, who played college football at Jacksonville University and comes from a football-rich family, speaks with pride about the Bulls. He believes the team helps promote the university to the world, especially when the games get major TV coverage. (Weatherford's brother Drew played quarterback at Florida State.)
At home, the Bulls play in Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's an OK synergy, but it's not near the main campus in north-central Hillsborough County. And Weatherford says the campus and the Tampa region need a mid-sized venue.
Raymond James Stadium holds as many as 75,000 people. Downtown Tampa's Amalie Arena can seat 21,500. The USF stadium will offer 35,000 seats to events for musicians and other acts who might want to aim to play at a midsized venue.
"We will help fill that need," says Weatherford. "It will have huge economic impact."
Weatherford and USF estimate the Bulls stadium will generate between $17 million and $20 million a year. Those estimates likely made it easier for the Board of Governors to approve the bonding for as much as $200 million.
The rest will come from pools of money that include philanthropy, Weatherford says.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's endorsement of the project is highlighted by USF as a reason for support. Vinik says on the website that he made his donation after seeing others give.
But another reason is Tampa culture itself, Weatherford says.
"Tampa is a sports town," says Weatherford. "This is a town that loves sports."
One surprise was the stadium would defy convention and sit east to west, rather than the industry-standard north-to-south that most big stadiums sit like. USF officials told trustees that the design will allow comfort and shading for fans in the open-air stadium.
USF officials also announced the opening of the stadium would be pushed back by one year, to the fall of 2027, instead of fall 2026. One reason for the delay was widely reported to be a termination of a $15 million design-build agreement with Barton Malow.
But Weatherford denies the separation caused the delay, pointing to a need for planning and supply-chain management. He says the new time lag will allow for any delays in getting building materials, often a supply-chain reality following the pandemic.
"I always said 2026 was aggressive," says Weatherford, referring to hopes for an opening in the autumn of that year. "It's more important to do it right than to do it fast."
At the Dec. 5 meeting, USF officials said they were still working on some details around the stadium, to enhance its connection to the rest of the campus. And, they noted, there will be plenty of space for tailgating.
The project seems to be coming along a lot faster than one might expect for a public university. Growth may be a factor in that, its top booster says. Weatherford believes the timing and demand for the stadium coincides with the economic boom Tampa Bay is seeing.
"We are a big part of the revival that this region is having economically," says Weatherford.
Jim Stinson is the Business Observer's Tampa Bay business reporter and editor, having previously written about business and policy in Washington, D.C.; Rochester, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Daytona Beach. He attended Boston University for business and Indiana University for journalism.