Waves Insider: What happened to Pepperdine’s new sports arena?

The Firestone Fieldhouse at Pepperdine University is nothing to write home about. Much of the seating consists of wooden benches that look like church pews and the space feels cramped overall. The arena feels more like a glorified high school gym than the site for Division 1 college sports events in an affluent town like Malibu. 

But in late 2010, Pepperdine had plans to convert the Fieldhouse into a recreational facility and build a new, state-of-the-art university athletics and events center that would house men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, and have other uses as well. The new arena was said to feature more than 5,000 seats, a much higher number than the Fieldhouse’s current capacity of 3,104 stated on Pepperdine’s website. A new NCAA-compliant soccer field was also planned. 

Everything was set. The university had made presentations to the Malibu City Council, an environmental impact report was completed, and both the County of Los Angeles and California Coastal Commission had approved the plans for the arena and a host of other renovations to Pepperdine included in what was then referred to as the Campus Life Project. Coastal Commission documents from 2012 show that several people personally wrote to the Commission in support of the project. Kristine Hilliard, a former player on the Waves women’s soccer team, wrote in her letter that she was most excited about the athletic facilities included of the project, especially the addition of new lighting at the soccer field that would help her teammates and her work out at night and not miss afternoon classes. 

And as early as 2010 and recently as 2013, two Internet forum topics centered around the arena project. Several users engaged in conversation about the project. 

“Pepperdine needed a bigger, better venue,” one user wrote. “Good for them, good for the [West Coast Conference].” 

But the arena hasn’t come to fruition. Rhiannon Bailard, director of the Center for Sustainability who oversees the entitlements for the Campus Life Project, said the university was unable to raise the amount of money needed to build the new facility. 

The university started the Campaign for Changing Lives specifically to gather funds for the Campus Life Project. That campaign raised a just over a whopping $470 million.

Over half of that money was for Seaver College and something called university initiatives, according to the campaign’s website. A chunk of it — $78.1 million — went to the university’s school of law. The athletics and events center represented only $11.3 million of the total fundraised amount.

Pepperdine athletic director Steve Potts said the goal was to raise $50 million for the events center. 

Bailard, who orchestrated obtaining the legal permissions to develop the project, didn’t go as far as to say plans for the sports arena were scrapped. However, she did say no timeline exists for when the project would get going again, and that the arena and soccer field portions of the project didn’t represent a current university need. 

Almost no information about the arena, the field or the entire project itself exists anywhere on Pepperdine’s website or on the Internet. A link to an article detailing the architects and plans for the events center leads to a generic landing page for the fundraising campaign. Pepperdine does keep a landing page for the project on its website with a phone number people can call for more information, but those digits are now a private cell phone number of someone unaffiliated with Pepperdine. An email sent to the address listed next to phone number went unanswered. 

There is also no mention of the fact that the proposed sports arena and soccer field hadn’t reached their fundraising goals. Seemingly no announcement was made by the university or reported by any local media. 

The situation begs the question: Why was fundraising for other aspects of the Campus Life Project more successful compared to planned renovations that would benefit Pepperdine’s sports program, which is already inferior to other Division 1 programs — not only in the WCC, but in the state? 

Potts said he was not upset or disappointed that not enough money was raised for the events center, and continually pointed out that the university successfully raised almost half a billion dollars for the entire project. 

Potts added that more work needs to be done to make the events center a reality. 

“There are people working every day trying to raise enough money to move that building forward,” Potts said. 

For now, the Pepperdine and Malibu communities will watch their Waves in the same old Firestone Fieldhouse, with no clear answers as to when they’ll receive an arena worth cheering in. 

Interview requests to Austin Oaks, Pepperdine’s director of construction, were not returned. 

Waves Insider is a monthly column offering an in-depth look at Pepperdine sports. Assistant Editor Alex Vejar covers high school sports, education and anything in between for the Malibu Surfside News. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexVReporting.