Illinois renames arena for sponsor cash

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
10:00
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There are plenty of "sponsored" arenas in college basketball; it's not like college basketball is immune to the crass commercialization that once gave us Enron Field. Still, the Illinois' athletic department's Monday release -- that the school had signed a 30-year, $60 million deal to rename Assembly Hall the State Farm Center instead -- was a bit surprising. From the school:
A 30-year, $60-million agreement changes the name of the building to State Farm Center as the structure undergoes a major renovation project that is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2016.

"We are extremely proud to announce this relationship with State Farm, one of the most respected corporate brands in the world," Illinois Director of Athletics Mike Thomas said. "State Farm has been an outstanding partner for the University of Illinois for more than two decades, and this agreement will carry that partnership forward for at least three more. The Assembly Hall is one of the most recognizable structures in the nation and, at 50 years of age, has served the UI campus, community and Central Illinois very well. This agreement will ensure State Farm Center will serve those same constituents, and even more, for many years to come."

That statement is total PR-speak, obviously, but it does bring up a valid point: State Farm is a local Illinois company based just an hour northwest of Champaign in Bloomington, Ill., so there is a local tie between the two entities. And as one Illinois fan at the Champaign Room commented, "... Assembly Hall is just a name and a boring one at that." It's also a name the Illini have awkwardly shared with Indiana for decades. This deal changes the branding, or at least makes things slightly less confusing.

My only surprise? Thirty years for $60 million. That doesn't seem like a whole lot of money, does it? I suppose the free market has spoken, but at this point Big Ten teams can find $2 million a year stuffed in the couch cushions of league headquarters. That's not really an exaggeration: In June 2012, commissioner Jim Delany announced the conference would disperse $284 million of network revenue, TV rights money, and NCAA tournament earnings to its 12 teams. Why would any team need to sell its arena name for $2 million a year for 30 years? Will Assembly Hall -- erm, the State Farm Center -- even be there in 30 years?! That building is charming and as loud as any place in the country, but I can answer that question: No. It won't. Pending renovation or not, it's old.

Still, the prevailing response from most Illinois fans seems to be "meh," and besides, those of us in Chicago are already used to defiantly refusing to call our major buildings by new names. (Don't you dare call it the Willis Tower.) So I suppose you might as well make a little money, right?

(Hat tip: Jeff Eisenberg)

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