Commentary

DePaul clear winner with arena deal

A shiny new facility won't ensure basketball prominence, but it does provide hope

Updated: May 17, 2013, 3:27 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- DePaul University doesn't have an arena problem. It has a men's basketball problem.

A long-term deteriorating identity issue borne out of questionable leadership, vision and performance. And yes, the arena by the airport is a major part of it.

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenWithout a turnaround on the court in the next two years, coach Oliver Purnell might not be around to enjoy a new arena.

If you're into symbolism, playing at Allstate Arena is emblematic of DePaul's stature in the city since moving to the Big East in 2005. Out of sight, out of mind.

The arena story has defined DePaul in the past 10 years as the school has fumbled coaching hires and frittered away any hold it had on the prodigious amount of local basketball talent.

Now seemingly the issue has been resolved thanks to a business-friendly mayor and his agenda.

DePaul's shiny new prospective arena is the sports angle of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's $1.1 billion "Enhance Chicago" master plan to revitalize the South Loop, modernize Navy Pier and enhance the city's convention business by creating an entertainment and restaurant district around McCormick Place. And oh yeah, that casino. That would probably be important too, huh?

The plan, sans any concrete announcement on the nearby casino everyone expects to be included in the final version, was announced Thursday with two news conferences and lots of vague promises.

I don't believe in the healing power of stadiums for cities, but for DePaul? Well, a new arena is not going to magically turn the overmatched program back into a college powerhouse, but it can't hurt.

If all goes as planned, the $173 million, 10,000-seat "multipurpose events center" is slated to break ground in 2014 and open for the 2016-17 season. For DePaul to regain its title as Chicago's college basketball program, it needs to be in the city and needs to land high-caliber local players. You can do the latter without the former, but given the state of the program, DePaul needs something to market itself.

The arena gives the program vitality it has lacked for more than a decade. It gives the program hope.

Coach Oliver Purnell was on hand for news conferences at McCormick Place and at the school's Lincoln Park campus. He is naturally excited about the building and is already touting it to recruits. I'm sure he knows that without a turnaround in the next two seasons, he won't be coaching in the new facility.

Expectations for the program change as soon as the deal is official. DePaul can't expect to sell tickets and sponsorships for a program in its current state.

Despite its best intentions at failing over the years, it seems like the Blue Demons men's team is finally falling into good situations, with a new league and a new stadium in less than a year.

What did DePaul do to deserve such good fortune? Suffer.

In eight Big East seasons, DePaul's record is 27-113, which includes a three-year stretch between Jerry Wainwright and Purnell where it went 2-52. It's difficult to be that bad. When you're that bad, people wonder if they should care about you getting a new arena to begin with.

Given its Big East failures, I shouldn't be surprised DePaul was welcomed into the new Big East, born out of the "Catholic 7" fleeing what had become a reborn Conference USA, which DePaul escaped from in the first place. Someone has to finish last.

Purnell is a renowned program builder -- he can't win NCAA tournament games, but that's not exactly a DePaul problem right now -- but it's tough to recruit in the Big East when you have no recent success and you play by the airport, adjacent to a Target. He said the city arena, or lack thereof, is the first or second question he's asked when he recruits.

There has to be a hook to lure in the teenagers. Old stories about Ray Meyer don't cut it anymore.

Sports venues make for good ribbon-cutting activities, but they don't generate much in the way of permanent economic benefits.

-- Allen Sanderson, University of Chicago sports economist

"The world of college basketball has changed a lot since Ray finished his coaching career here and since Joey had some outstanding teams that made it to the Sweet 16," athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto said. "We compete in a world where major colleges and universities the size of DePaul have spectacular facilities for student-athletes and students on campus."

Of course, Marquette plays at the Bradley Center, hardly a spectacular facility, and is a jewel of a program. But let her continue.

"From that perspective, we're a little bit behind, and that's why this is a really important opportunity to elevate our program and to enhance our recruiting. And by enhancing our program, we think the byproduct would be winning."

When Wainwright was fired, I visited Morgan Park High School and its star junior guard Wayne Blackshear, who had verbally committed to Louisville. He told me he had never been to Allstate Arena. But he had been to Louisville. It wasn't about the arena, though. If DePaul were good, he would have caught a game.

It's no longer a question that, in order to right its fortunes, DePaul needed to align itself with the city and find a home.

Is it a good deal for taxpayers? Well, I can think of better uses for $33 million in tax increment financing money that is slated to help fund the project. Like, say, the public school system that is shuttering 54 schools. I'm sure the Chicago Police Department would like that money as well.

If you think DePaul will bring in new money to the city, you're wrong.

"Sports venues make for good ribbon-cutting activities, but they don't generate much in the way of permanent economic benefits," University of Chicago sports economist Allen Sanderson wrote in an email.

Any money spent on DePaul games will likely be from Chicago area residents. As Sanderson explains, "They are simply reallocating the same amount of discretionary spending within the Chicago area, so the economic impact is zero out to a couple decimal places."

We're pretty clear on that.

Is it a good deal for DePaul and its men's and women's basketball programs? Absolutely.

Now, if you follow local stadium news, you might be wondering two things: Why did DePaul get city money so quickly while the Cubs renovation of Wrigley Field has been such a soap opera, and why did DePaul turn down free rent at the United Center?

The first answer is ownership; the second is status.

The Ricketts family owns Wrigley Field, and while it pushed for a public-private partnership before that ship sailed, it was really a private-private partnership with public tax dollars. Sure, the White Sox got their stadium, but that was in a simpler time. Too bad for the Cubs, because they're the only team in town that actually brings in new revenue.

But here's the key: DePaul won't own this arena and will pay rent, reportedly $25,000 a game for the men, $15,000 for the women. As the "anchor tenant," DePaul will get 17 men's basketball dates and as many as 10 for the successful women's program headed by alum Doug Bruno. The school will also hold graduation there.

DePaul gets a wide variety of perks, like finding a naming rights partner (most likely an alumnus) and signage. It will have a dedicated locker room and offices, a gift shop and, well, a whole lot of branding.

The program will collect revenue when its teams play there, but in order to get this done, the school is also giving $70 million to the project, much of which comes from the 12-year media deal the new Big East signed with Fox, which is worth a reported $500 million. ESPN's Darren Rovell previously reported the "Catholic 7" schools from the old Big East should split around $5 million a year, a healthy increase from the nonfootball schools' share of the previous Big East deal.

[+] EnlargeJean Lenti Ponsetto
Amy Sussman/Getty ImagesDePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto says a new arena will enhance DePaul's recruiting and ultimately improve the program.

Without DePaul's $70 million, the story goes, the city wouldn't be able to spend on Navy Pier and make other assorted improvements to the area.

Emanuel and his friends swear the city needs a place to host midsize conventions and that's the main purpose of this project. And since no city official has ever stretched the truth, we have to take them at their word, right?

"It's closer to the truth that DePaul subsidizes us, rather than vice versa," said CEO at Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority Jim Reilly at Thursday's news conference at McCormick Place.

I wouldn't hesitate to say DePaul is being used to legitimize this arena, but hey, it's better than not being wanted at all.

As for the United Center, Lenti Ponsetto explained the offer was generous, but it would be tough to get practice time on the court and be guaranteed the best dates for games. And free rent doesn't mean free ride. There would be substantial operational costs.

What she didn't say was that DePaul wouldn't be able to fill the 20,000-seat venue and that the United Center came calling to torpedo Emanuel's arena plan, which would poach concerts and other events for this new entertainment district/casino paradise.

It's not like Emanuel has some great love for DePaul hoops. I bet he can't name two players all-time, and I'll give him George Mikan.

One former player was at the DePaul news conference. Bobby Simmons, a Simeon grad who played for DePaul from 1998-2001 and retired in 2012 after a 10-year NBA career, saw big crowds at Allstate Arena when he played with Quentin Richardson. He thinks the new arena could herald a return to prominence. He hailed Purnell's attempts to reach the city kids. Next season, Billy Garrett Jr., whose father is an assistant at DePaul, and Tommy Hamilton Jr., the son of the former NBA player, will play there. That's a start.

"DePaul is showing we are about Chicago basketball," Simmons said.

Simmons, who is earning his degree at the school, owns a clothing store "five minutes" from the proposed arena. Maybe the school should hit him up for naming rights. Succezz Stadium anyone?

However you spell it, DePaul wins with this deal.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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