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Drawn on a napkin: How the Ragin’ Cajuns landed $15 million stadium naming rights deal

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 9, 2021

Click here and scroll down for photos about the story.

The idea was pitched early in March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic started spinning out of control.

Over drinks at POUR Restaurant & Bar, a Lafayette establishment on Degaulle Square in ritzy River Ranch, UL deputy athletics director Nico Yantko drew his vision for a renamed Cajun Field.

In blue ink. On a napkin.

“I’m a terrible artist,” Yantko said.

Good enough, however, to get a deal signed.

Yantko recalls sitting with Duke Walker, vice president of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, and then-CEO Bryan Lee.

What started as a rough sketch morphed into a $15 million over 15 years naming rights deal for UL’s football home, now known as Cajun Field at Our Lady of Lourdes Stadium.

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‘A perfect marriage’

The influx of cash gave new life to a long-planned major renovation project at the soon-to-be 50-year-old stadium, where the Ragin’ Cajuns play their 2021 home opener Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN3) against Nicholls.

“We laid out the structure … and drew out an idea of what that could look like,” Yantko said of his napkin drawing.

“We had a blast really just kind of thinking through, ‘What does big look like?’ ”

The deal, Yantko told the medical center executives, was needed to kickstart a much-needed Cajun Field makeover.

The $45-65 million project was initially planned in 2013, but still – due to a series of setbacks including a downturn in the local oil and gas economy, the pandemic and other fundraising issues including the lack of a name sponsor – has not yet been executed.

Conceptual ideas for the stadium and a larger-scale, multi-use development project designed with year-round use in mind were discussed.

Yantko said he pitched “how we truly want to create this sports complex that is more of an entertainment village than it just is an event (venue) you use six times out of year.”

The idea of Lourdes even having clinical space at the renovated stadium – which also will house new stadium suites, club seats, loge boxes, a new press box, UL athletics department offices, a student-athlete dining facility and more – was thrown around too.

Why Lourdes?

The hospital has a high-profile presence in Lafayette.

It already was a major-gifts provider to UL, having teamed in 2020 with Park Place Surgical Hospital to spend $250,000 to fund the UL athletic department’s use of Catapult Sports performance data and analytics tools.

The naming-rights deal could be the next step – a giant one – for further Lourdes investment in UL student-athletes.

“This was just a perfect marriage,” Yantko said.

But the big question in Yantko’s mind, even as he took pen to napkin, was this: “Could they see the value of it, and could we make it something that was attractive enough for them?”

Keeping the vision alive

Not long after that night in the restaurant, however, COVID-19 shut down schools and sports throughout the country. It also turned Lourdes’ world upset down.

Even amid tumultuous times, however, dialogue continued.

UL president Joseph Savoie and athletics director Bryan Maggard blessed the deal.

Maggard later called it a team effort that should spur completion of the crown jewel in an eight-year-old athletic facilities masterplan initiative that already has seen renovation work at venues including UL’s baseball and soccer/track stadiums.

“We think that, certainly, renovating this football stadium is kind of the last piece of the puzzle from a facilities standpoint,” Maggard said.

But Lourdes still wasn’t hooked just yet.

The napkin idea grew into a whiteboard presentation.

“With that we threw the number to them,” Yantko said, “and they bit.”

In December 2020, before Lourdes had been reeled in, however, CEO Lee left to accept a position of president of a health system in Richmond, Virginia.

Walker kept the vision alive as UL officials made a formal presentation to the hospital during a time of transition. In February, Kathleen Healy-Collier took over as Acadiana Region market president for the Lourdes system and immediately was enthusiastically on board.

“She has absolutely energized, and brought a vision, to this project in a big way to really help get this going,” Yantko said.

The deal born on a napkin was announced in June.

UL had what it called its largest “philanthropic gift” in university athletic department history.

The Cajuns also announced Thursday it has received a “seven-figure donation” from MacLaff, Inc., which owns and operates multiple McDonald’s throughout South Louisiana, that will “support the renovation of Cajun Field and secure naming rights” for the stadium’s victory bell tower. 

Shovels for stadium renovation still aren’t in the ground, but with a lead donor in place the project was able to move to its design phase.

“It’s going to be something that not just changes the trajectory of our football program,” Yantko said, “but the entire landscape of our athletic department.”