Tate: Illini find good neighbor
The UI’s Assembly Hall, as is fitting for its iconic status, has received the largest corporate athletic gift in the country in exchange for a new name.
Not to be further confused with Indiana’s Assembly Hall, the 50-year-old building is State Farm Center. As of now.
Payments toward a $60 million gift over the next 30 years will begin after the UI Board of Trustees gives its stamp of approval for a $157 million renovation project at the May meeting.
The announcement was made Monday afternoon on the floor of the venerable facility.
“It now has a name rather than a description,” UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise said.
“The intent is to build a place like no other, where the community can assemble and, at the same time, preserve the architectural and academic heritage while renewing and rejuvenating it for future generations. It is our academic center, our athletic center, our cultural center, our community center and now it’s the State Farm Center.”
Interest on bonds could bring the 30-year cost to $270 million, requiring payments of about $9 million per year. The combination of outright philanthropy, the State Farm gift and student fees approaching $2 million could cover half of the annual amount.
Athletic director Mike Thomas said the remainder will come from 12 planned suites and other premium seating, two dozen additional naming-rights opportunities and gifts.
Nor are there long-range financial concerns, not with Big Ten broadcast income increasing by leaps and bounds. Maryland President Wallace D. Loh informed his constituents that, according to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, each conference member will see an increase in broadcast revenue from $24 million to $32 million by 2015, and on up to $43 million when new contracts are signed in 2017.
“We’ve had no hiccups so far, and I’m very confident as we move forward,” Thomas said.
“In State Farm we have acquired a worldwide brand from a corporation only 50 miles down the road. I’ve been on the clock to take our financial plan to the board for approval, and we are staying right on schedule.”
Seeds had been planted in State Farm’s garden for many years, UI senior associate director Warren Hood maintaining close contact with company leaders since the Memorial Stadium project and before.
“Since 1995, we have met on a regular basis every few months,” Hood said. “They’ve had personnel changes in the marketing department, and we’ve had turnover as well. But there were no surprises. We never approached anyone else. We popped the question in December and had an answer before the first of the year.”
According to A.M. Best, the largest insurance rating agency, State Farm Group has in excess of $50 billion in U.S. property and casualty premiums, more than doubling runner-up Allstate Insurance.
Undeniably, State Farm knew this was coming and planned for it. The idea of obtaining naming rights for $2 million over 30 years had circulated in the rumor mill late in the Ron Guenther era. While that is a lot of money, it is just a small portion of the company’s $670 million outlay in annual media advertising. Randall Harbert, sales and marketing officer, said Monday the corporation has 80,000 employees and agents.
“We are proud to be a part of this effort to modernize a truly iconic facility,” Harbert said. “The driving force in our decision was to benefit future generations of students, athletes, fans and the general public.”
Thomas emphasized that State Farm has been a partner with the UI for two decades and “this agreement will carry that partnership forward for at least three more.”
Since naming new head football and basketball coaches, the Assembly Hall project has dominated the AD’s workload.
“A day seldom goes by without some aspect of it coming up,” Thomas said recently. Thomas spent April 19-20 in Los Angeles to, among other things, study the renovation of UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
“Everywhere I go, I learn something new,” he said. And speaking from the podium Monday, he reiterated:
“The new State Farm Center will include enhanced amenities, premium opportunities, 21st-century technology for all who attend Illini basketball games and many diverse offerings. It will present a more intimidating environment for Illini basketball teams, enhance recruiting opportunities for coaches John Groce and Matt Bollant, and serve year-around for university and community events.”
With the planned start of major construction in 11 months, State Farm’s allocation will flow well in advance of construction costs. The renovation should be completed by the fall of 2016 without interrupting home basketball games for the Illini men and women.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.