From the Hall to the Farm

By Michal Dwojak

Dave Downey still remembers the emotions he felt and sounds he heard on March 4, 1963.

That day the Fighting Illini played the first-ever basketball game in what was then called the Assembly Hall.EJ

The structure was the first arena built without any type of support beam to hold up the dome and at first glance, appeared as if a concrete spaceship had landed in the middle of Illinois.

While Downey and his teammates were excited to play in the first-of-its kind arena, Downey was hesitant to the change.

“I would’ve rather stayed at Huff (Gymnasium) at the time because we were trying to win a Big Ten Championship,” the 74-year-old reminisced. “But we were excited to play in a new building. We were proud to be part of that first game.”

Players and fans weren’t used to Assembly Hall. Huff was filled with open space around the court but fans always managed to make the gym deafening.

Downey thought the new arena was much more intimate, with fans closer to the players. Levels of people stood in rows that rose until the last row of humanity was met with the concrete dome that gave the arena its new charm.

“It was fairly intimidating for the fans and the players because there had never been a building like that before,” he said. “People were in awe and it became a raucous crowd, like a concert hall.”

But the opening of Assembly Hall was not the only reason why March 4, 1963 is important to Downey.

That day was the only time his parents saw Downey play for the Orange and Blue live. They watched games on television in Peoria, but during that spring day, his parents finally saw their son play.

Now, almost 53 years later, that arena which he helped open sits under a different name: State Farm Center. The arena has a year left in its renovations but already looks vastly different from when it first opened.

College athletics, like the arena, have changed in the half-century since Downey played. While the good of the student-athlete remains the top priority for school administrators, the money that comes along with athletics and its buildings comes at a close second.

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When former Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas announced on April 29, 2013, that Assembly Hall would be renamed State Farm Center, he was cautious to note why the change in name needed to happen in order to renovate the arena.EJ

“From the very early stages of this project, it was clearly apparent that naming rights for the building would play a major part in the funding model,” Thomas said then. “This agreement complements support from campus and our students while supplementing support from the community.”

The $60 million, 30-year deal between the University and State Farm solidified Thomas’ attempts to renovate Assembly Hall. The company, headquartered in Bloomington, Illinois, would pay Illinois $2 million annually — $1.5 million to assist in the renovations and $500,000 for the naming rights.EJ

State Farm Center’s court was not part of the deal: The athletic department later decided to name the court after legendary Illinois men’s basketball coach Lou Henson.

In exchange for the annual payments, State Farm received exclusive rights for signage around the facility and on some other things, such as the men’s basketball season poster. The company can also use common areas in the arena for official company functions without having to pay a rental fee.

FOIA of the contractAlthough the deal might have come as surprise at the moment, both parties agreed that the partnership was mutually beneficial.

“Anytime you can be aligned with an international company as strong as State Farm, it builds the strength of our image,” said Paul Kowalczyk, Illinois’ interim athletic director. “It’s not just a financial exchange. There’s more to it than just the money.” EJ

“We’ve had State Farm in the area as a sponsor for a number of years. It’s an outstanding corporation that’s made its mark nationally.”

State Farm has educational relationships beyond Champaign-Urbana. Education buildings at Illinois State University in Normal and Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington bear the company’s name and there is a State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas.

“State Farm partners with a number of higher education institutions and is a proud supporter of college athletics across the country,” said Missy Dundov, State Farm media relations in Indiana and Illinois. “We have a long withstanding relationship with the University of Illinois and the state where our company has been headquartered for more than 90 years. We are proud of that relationship and look forward to many more years.”

While State Farm’s contribution to the renovation project was $45 million, the estimated $169.5 million project needed funding from other sources.

One of the first things Thomas and his group did was venture out and talk to possible donors, like Downey, former Illinois basketball player Mannie Jackson and graduates Tim and Sharon Ubben, after whom the basketball team’s practice facility is named.EJ

Each made donations for the project to have their names inscribed in the arena’s history, but they weren’t the only ones to donate. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Daily Illini obtained the list of donors who contributed to the renovation project. There were 483 donations that totaled $18,388,560.15 as of October 2015.Premium seating, pie chart, include FOIA of all the donations

The rest of the bill will be paid through premium seating opportunities and student fees. The department took out a 30-year loan in 2013 to help pay for the project. According to Senior Associate Director of Athletics Susan Young, new debt was issued to fund the project and the interest rate for the bond varies.

In 2013, students approved in a referendum to have $25 added to each student’s fee to help fund the renovation project. According to Edward Slazinik, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, the $25 will be part of the fee until the loan is paid off, about another 27 years.EJ

Slazinik made sure to point out that the amount students are paying is only 16 percent of the total cost of the project — the DIA is paying the rest of the 84 percent.

No state, city or county funding is used for the project.

Kowalczyk also admitted that although there’s been a good relationship with State Farm for the renovation project, he didn’t foresee any type of relationship coming up in renaming Memorial Stadium — funding for the south end zone has been explored for many years now and continued even after Thomas’ firing in November.

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The change in name from Assembly Hall to State Farm Center is representative of a growing relationship between corporations and universities. More schools are agreeing to deals with corporations that take away traditional names that students and alumni have come to love.

“I think it’s been a steady progression for the past couple of decades,” Kowalczyk said. “I remember when it first started happening, there was some backlash as to why this is happening on college campuses. But it’s a very common base and will continue to be so. I just think the economics of the industry will lead us down that path.”

A report published by two University of Georgia students in 2012 examined the trend.

Kenneth Chen and James Zhang noted that the Carrier Dome at Syracuse was the first corporate-named stadium in college sports when it opened it 1980. The building was the lone corporate-named building until the 1990s.

According to the report, the number of corporate-sponsored buildings increased to 38 by 2006 and the number has been growing ever since. There are 55 such arenas and stadiums today.

David Ridpath, associate professor and professor of sports administration at Ohio University, has also noticed the increasing trend in name changes.EJ

“Costs have gone up, and we’ve made the costs go up. I think you would see many years ago when leadership would say they don’t want corporate presence on our campus,” Ridpath said. “Most universities have said they need this money now and if they want to compete for this arms race, they’re going to do what it takes.”

Ridpath theorizes that athletic departments around the nation are taking part in needless spending.

Although the investment doesn’t guarantee financial profit, it’s a risk worth taking according to Ridpath. Corporations are after one thing in these deals: access to potential clients.

That access and branding isn’t only company signs placed throughout the arena and outside. Examples of the type of access companies want include activation booths where students fill out a sign-up sheet in order to receive a pom pom.

While not everyone who signs up is going to become a customer, companies hope there is a better chance than without the sponsorship deal.

The report conducted by the Chen and Zhang couldn’t confirm that this technique is beneficial.

After conducting a study with 548 college students attending a FBS school in Florida that examined the different aspects linked to corporate naming rights — attitude toward sponsor, purchase intention of sponsor’s product and willingness to attend sporting events — the report couldn’t confirm the advantage of stadium naming rights in collegiate sports and recommended further research into the relationship.

Basketball arenas are more likely to have a sponsored name because of the number of events they host. There are more home basketball games in a season than home football games.

And it’s not just limited to men’s basketball. Many of the arenas also host women’s basketball games while some even have hockey games and concerts throughout the year instead of being limited to the schedule of the football season.

This was the rationale for the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Nebraska when they named Pinnacle Bank Arena. While the city owns the building, both agreed that a corporate sponsorship made the most sense during the planning phase.

“It’s a revenue opportunity and all these buildings cost more than they used to,” said David Witty, Nebraska senior associate athletic director in marketing and communications. “If you want amenities for students and fans you have to get into those deals with corporate sponsors.”

While some fans might not like it, the trend will continue to grow in the coming decades. More arenas and stadium will lose their traditional names to corporate ones. But in the end, Ridpath doesn’t think it’ll matter.

“I think in general we really don’t care, we just want to see the games,” Ridpath said. “Honestly, I think people realize that the bills have to be paid, and you know what, we’ll get over. We have short memories when it comes to sports.”

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The name Assembly Hall still holds a place in Downey’s heart, but he isn’t bothered by the name change.

“I didn’t think that Assembly Hall wasn’t a very jazzy name anyways,” Downey said with a laugh. “The State Farm Center is fine with me. They’re a good company and they were the only logical company to get the naming rights.”

Downey can’t help but occasionally call the arena “the Hall” — old habits are hard to kick after all. He knows that the name change was necessary with how commercialized college athletics has become and in order for Illinois to compete with schools around the nation.

He didn’t want the University to tear down the building; there were too many memories and traditions underneath that concrete dome. He didn’t want suites named after him when he was approached about the possibility of donating.

Downey wanted to keep it simple. He wanted his teammates to be immortalized with him, which is why the suites are named “Club 53” — Downey’s school record for points in a game. The names of all of Downey’s teammates will be found on the wall of the suite.EJ

Downey played for the team that opened the building and his donation continues his involvement with the arena going forward.

“Pretty soon people will forget about me, I’ll be some guy,” Downey said. “Part of the reason I (donated) at State Farm Center is because it’s a center for athletes to become good students and a good citizen.”

[email protected] @mdwojak94