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Concerts are great, but Texas coaches eager to showcase new $385-million basketball arena

Brian Davis
Austin American-Statesman

Everybody who green-lit the project, signed checks, wore hardhats, oversaw construction, rearranged city infrastructure and kept their fingers crossed through a pandemic all got to speak first Tuesday.

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony at Moody Center featured all sorts of public thank-you's and attaboys. The new $385-million basketball and concert venue will redefine University of Texas basketball and the city of Austin’s music scene for decades to come.

Even philanthropist Ross Moody admitted, “To have the family’s name on there, it’s a bit overwhelming.” Not to those who will work inside.

Matthew McConaughey, the minister of culture for the University of Texas, speaks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Moody Center, the multi-purpose arena that will be home to concerts and the UT basketball teams Tuesday.

“Man, it’s a great day to be a Texas Longhorn, isn’t it?” Texas women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer told the crowd gathered on the arena’s west side. 

UT men’s coach Chris Beard echoed that sentiment and added, “We’re blessed and very appreciative to play in the best arena in the world. We’re going to do our part. Hook 'em.”

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A little blessing couldn’t hurt, either. Cue Texas' minister of culture, the one wearing a full burnt orange suit, cowboy hat and boots.

“The bones of the Moody Center are in place,” Matthew McConaughey told the crowd. “It is ripe, it is ready. I understand it’s got electricity, the water pressure’s good, the speakers are wired, the concessions are loaded. The goals on both ends of the court will both be 10 feet high.

“But it’s still only a building,” McConaughey added. “It’s not a home yet. It’s not a home yet. ’Cause you’ve got to fill a place with soul if you’re going to make it a home. That’s why now comes the fun part.”

Building toward a rhetorical call-and-response finish, he said, “Yes, it’s time to bless the Mood. We’ve got to fill the Mood with soul.”

Specifics:What does University of Texas get out of the Moody Center? First dibs on schedule, for one

First look:A photo tour inside The Moody Center

Matthew McConaughey, the University of Texas' minister of culture adjusts his hat during a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday for Moody Center, the $385 million multi-purpose arena that will be home to Austin concerts and UT basketball. "It’s not a home yet," he said. "’Cause you’ve got to fill a place with soul if you’re going to make it a home. That’s why now comes the fun part.”

To which Beard quipped, “We need some new players to bless the Mood.”

Arguably the most important person in Moody Center’s backstory wasn’t there Tuesday. Gregory L. Fenves can now be found in Atlanta, home to Emory University.

Fenves, the UT president from 2015-20, was the one who correctly read the mood in 2015. City leaders were furious over comments made by then-UT athletic director Steve Patterson. He believed the city and taxpayers should help finance a new arena that would cost $500 million or more.

Left to right, Francesca Bodie of the Oak View Group, Ross Moody, UT men's basketball coach Chris Bard and UT women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer listen to a speaker during Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for Moody Center.

Fenves, along with members of the UT System Board of Regents, quickly realized that was untenable. Two years later, he hired athletic director Chris Del Conte and shared with him a rather unique, if seemingly impossible, vision.

Texas needed to build a new basketball arena, but financially speaking, it had to be free.

“I kind of looked at him and said, ‘Hey, what do you got in that peace pipe?'” Del Conte said with a laugh on Tuesday. “I was like, I didn’t know if it was possible.”

Del Conte would soon meet with Oak View Group chief executive Tim Leiweke, an out-of-the-box thinker if there ever was one. 

The Los Angeles-based company long known for building professional stadiums went all-in on a unique arrangement with a public university, a company first. OVG would build the arena on 6.64 acres, turn ownership over to Texas and manage it for the next 35 years. “F-R-double E,” Del Conte said.

More: Touring UT's new Moody Center arena (yes, we talked to Matthew McConaughey)

Texas mascot Hook 'Em looks at a picture of himself Tuesday at Moody Center. The new multi-purpose arena that's replacing the Erwin Center will house its first event Wednesday night, the John Mayer concert.

“I talked to Greg about 30 days ago and reminded him this was his dream and his baby,” Leiweke said after giving reporters a tour on Monday. “He’s the one that gave the mission statement to Chris to go figure out a way to build the greatest NCAA arena and not pay for it.”

OVG initially agreed to a projected cost of $338 million. The final price tag is $385 million, Leiweke said, plus whatever Texas paid for utilities and street maintenance. Del Conte said that final figure was about $25 million, which UT did pay for itself.

The Moody Foundation gave $130 million to the project, the largest single donation the Moody family has ever given to anything. Ross Moody was overjoyed to share the moment with sister Francie and daughter Elle, who also requested a picture with McConaughey. All three made the decision on the financial gift, Ross Moody said.

Workers set up for Wednesday night's John Mayer concert following Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new multi-purpose arena. Before the end of the month, Bon Jovi and Justin Bieber will play the arena as well.

“So from a generational perspective, it’s my big way of giving back to the state and specifically to the city and to my alma mater, the University of Texas,” Moody said. “It's something that's going to last for decades and decades that UT and the city will enjoy.”

OVG will recoup its investment by keeping all concession revenue generated by concerts for the first 10 years. Texas will get 20% of all revenue generated by the suites regardless of the event. 

Burgers are $13, Bavarian pretzels are $8 and soda is $7 in the Dell Technologies Club, for example. A 16-ounce domestic beer is $12.50 at the Stubb’s Bar-B-Q stand.

More:Courtside season tickets at Moody Center will cost Texas basketball fans $8,500 apiece

The university also is contractually obligated to get 60 dates per year, dates used primarily for men’s and women’s basketball games. Texas keeps 100% of the revenue generated at Longhorns games, and UT determines ticket prices for those events.

Oak View Group officials have been touting a slew of concerts headed to Austin, starting Wednesday with John Mayer. Bon Jovi, Justin Bieber and George Strait will all grace the stage before month’s end. 

People attend Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Moody Center, a $385 million joint venture between the University of Texas and the Los Angeles-based Oak View Group. It will be home to UT basketball games starting next season.

“You’ve got to deliver with what you promised,” C3 Presents co-founder Charles Attal said. “I think we're delivering with what we’re bringing in this first year.”

Total arena seating capacity is about 15,000. For Texas games, panels have been installed that “hide” the upper deck, reducing capacity to about 10,500. “Man, I think we’ll look back and say whoever made that decision nailed it,” Beard said.

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UT students will get the best seats in the house, three-fourths of seats closest to the court. It’s expected the building will be sold out for men’s games next season just through season tickets, student seating and opponent obligations. 

Del Conte has long called the panels “garage doors,” something that goes up and down with the click of a button. “I prefer halo,” Leiweke said. “It sounds better.” 

The “halo” feature is something Leiweke said OVG will use in new arenas going forward. Schaefer sees those panels and considers it a gantlet of sorts.

“OK, 10,500 with the garage door shut,” Schaefer said. “Let’s make it where you’ve got to open the garage doors.

“For us, it’s all about the atmosphere,” Schaefer continued. “That’s what I tell our administration all the time. We’ve got to get butts in seats, because that’s what we need to create that home court advantage that makes it so hard for our opponents. So, we’ve got to do a great job with that.”

As McConaughey said, it’s time for Longhorns fans, music lovers and everyone in Austin to get in the mood.

“It’s just a pretty cool day,” Beard said. “Feels right.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or follow on Twitter via @BDavisAAS.