Drivers zooming east and west on Monument and Madison streets this summer watched as a humongous new synthetic-turf football field was being created in the lumpy patch of grass between the two East Baltimore streets.
As for who paid to transform the beat-up old Paul Laurence Dunbar High School field into a gleaming, Texas-style, Friday Night Lights-type facility – with digital scoreboard, sound system, lights, concession stand, metal fence and wrap-around track – passersby might have to slow down to take a closer look.
There on the scoreboard and on other signage, is the corporate logo of the Baltimore-based sports apparel company that built this field of dreams – Under Armour.
The UA logo is on the players’ shoes and practice shorts and on the coaches’ gear, as well. (They’ve been using the just-completed field this week in preparation for tonight’s inaugural game with cross-town rival Carver.) When the Poets take the field, their burgundy-and-gold uniforms will have the logo too.
“It’s an amazing ballfield – this is in no way normal!” Dunbar principal Kristina Kyles said by phone earlier this week.
Lights and synthetic turf may be common in local suburban and private schools or jurisdictions in the Sunbelt, she explained, but they have seemed for years out-of-reach for this city school.
Something, she said, “just wasn’t right about that,” considering Dunbar’s proud history, sports success and, lately, high aspirations to prepare students health science careers.
Kyles said the fancy field and new computer labs Under Armour has donated “represent the new normal around here.”
Broken Glass and Needles
It’s easy to see why Under Armour chose Dunbar.
Named for a beloved former coach, the school’s William F. “Sugar” Cane Stadium has been in such disrepair that the team hasn’t been able to play games or practice there for years. Packs of motorcyclists and mini-bikers had taken to periodically ripping around on it; nearby residents were using it as a shortcut.
“Before every game we would fan out across the whole field and pick up glass, rocks and needles,” said John Shearin, a player from the Class of ’85 who came to today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. One of the speakers at the event talked about how at one point players had to walk to Clifton Park for practice.
More recently, athletes have been riding buses to use other schools’ facilities and practicing, sometimes near twilight, at nearby parks. Most of their games have been played at Poly, which has a lighted artificial turf field.
Meanwhile, the Poets’ stellar athletic accomplishments were in direct contrast to their shabby field.
A legendary basketball powerhouse that sent players like Muggsy Bogues to the NBA, Dunbar has evolved in recent years into one of the state’s top football programs. The 7-1 Poets have won eight state championships and are now in first place in the Class 1A southern region. They’ve produced college All-Americans like Tavon Austin, a wide receiver for West Virginia.
“This is long overdue!” City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said with a sweeping gesture, at today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, to thunderous applause.
Dwayne Pate, Class of ’01, said he was overwhelmed to see a school that represents all of struggling East Baltimore get such a boost: “I’ve got goosebumps.”
They Blew it out of the Water
The Dunbar field makeover is the first big project in Under Armour’s “WIN Baltimore” program. Company CEO Kevin A. Plank told the crowd today the initiative is part of their commitment to lifting up the young people and neighborhoods in their hometown.
“This is not a gift from Under Armour, this is our house, this is our community,” Plank told the students and dignitaries sitting on the bleachers under cloudy skies.
The media and nearby residents have been taking in the details of the company’s largess all week, with throngs out on the sidewalk watching the activity through the fence .
The 65 new computers the company donated, for instance, are in rooms they’ve named “the Johns Hopkins” and “the Maryland,” to symbolize two local universities they hope Dunbar students might one day attend.
The girls’ soccer team and boys lacrosse teams will also be using the field, as will community members, during specified hours.
Athletes are using sports equipment in a training room with a rubberized floor and, on the field, they have a sound system that is clearly powerful. (At a Tuesday afternoon practice, the whole neighborhood could hear their blaring playing of “The Police” and other music).
“Under Armour blew it out of the water, giving us this,” Kyles said.
But one detail Under Armour has declined to provide – how much they’ve spent on the project.
“We don’t talk about the financials,” said Danielle Cavalli, manager of global communications for Under Armour.
A Subsidy to Expand
City school officials were less sensitive about the subject. “I don’t know for sure but I would estimate it’s probably a million, at most $1.5 million,” said Keith Scroggins, city schools chief operating officer.
Scroggins said Under Armour chose the contractors (Turner Construction Co. and FieldTurf USA Inc.) and supervised the construction and landscaping work this summer.
During roughly the same time the field was being planned and built, Under Armour sought and obtained approval from the city council for a $35 million tax increment financing (TIF) package to expand the company’s Tide Point headquarters in South Baltimore. The expansion includes a sports field at the corporate campus that may not be accessible to the public.
In his remarks today, Plank thanked Council President Young and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for helping them “move through” the project: “City Hall can be a challenge sometimes.”
Asked over the phone yesterday, Cavalli said no connection exists between the two projects: “It’s not like this is something where we said ‘Oh we’re going to benefit from this.’ It really is something where we’re going to make the city better. Make it better for kids.”
Even before the field was finished, some were cautioning about the potential for ethical issues to arise as the increasingly successful company raises its profile in Baltimore.
When the company renovated “The Dome” basketball court at the Madison Square Recreation Center in June, one critic in a letter-to-the-editor raised the TIF issue and said it gave him an “eerie … one hand washes the other” feeling.
Just Get Us Gear!
At “Sugar” Cane stadium today, there was nothing but gratitude for Under Armour and an apparent thirst for more of their products, though they already are plentiful there, since Dunbar is a participant in the company’s “Undeniable” program. (Selected schools receive $142,000 worth of Under Armour merchandise.)
Principal Kyles told what happened when she asked the students how she should use some funds she had available to buy incentive-items for the school: “I said ‘We could buy iPads, we could buy phones!’ They said ‘Gee, could you just get us Under Armour gear?”
Another speaker talked about a relative who, upon hearing about the Dunbar/Under Armour partnership, threw all their gear by another maker (presumably Nike?) in the garbage.
Perhaps that kind of brand fervor is what accounts for the report about the company that made business news, by chance, today: “Under Armour sees 25 percent jump in third quarter earnings.”Quarterly revenue came in at $575 million.
Kyles said she could measure the impact of the Under Armour partnership in many more ways than attire: “the hundreds of students on the field, engaged … the smiles … test scores are up, attendance is up, SAT’s are up.”
Standing outside the fence, meanwhile, neighborhood residents said they were just hopeful that the benefits of the buffed-up field might flow down to them in some way.
“This is awesome. I live in the projects over there. I love the (marching) band,” said Tracy McCullough, who speculated that the facility might mean more people and less crime. “It’s something positive. We need that.”