Loren Tate: AD makes sense of seating

Loren Tate: AD makes sense of seating

Nothing raises hackles quicker for die-hard Illini basketball fans than (1) being forced to move from longtime seats and (2) paying more for the same season tickets.

This isn’t Indiana and Kansas, where the seating arrangement changes every year. This is Illinois, where some season ticket-holders have held the same seats for a half century.

But renovation carries us into a hopping new world. State Farm Center’s 30-year mortgage — to be accomplished with no public funds — calls for roughly $10 million in annual payments (on bonds), with nearly half of that from premium seating.

That’s $4.8 million from the suites, loges and club seats ... every year for 30 years. So if you, as a longtime donor and season ticket-holder, are suffering ticket shock, there’s a reason. For all the payments of State Farm ($2M per year) and students ($2.1M per year), 48 percent of the load must be carried by those renting premium seating.

It’s an old story. If you want to fly with the eagles, you have to spread your wings. Call this a test of how the UI intends to fend off the surrounding basketball challengers in Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri and beyond, all of whom are making heavy investments in their facilities.

Today, with help from athletic director Mike Thomas, let’s take another shot at breaking down the projected seating arrangement for the Illini faithful.

A closer look

When new seats replace the old in C, there’ll still be about 10,000 up there. The emphasis in this article will be downstairs.

When the new bowl is finished in 2015-16, some 1,100 students will be courtside on north, east and south. No more empty seats for the cameras to pan into.

With new capacity reduced to 15,564, and discounting players’ families and recruits in the lower bowl, that leaves about 4,400 highly desirable seats ... including 216 cushy ones with armrests and drink holders in 12 suites seating 14 each (requiring multiyear campaign gift pledges of $500,000 and more). Corporations and a few wealthy fans will occupy the suites.

Basically, we’re left with 4,000-plus loges and lower- bowl seats.

Courtside west is the most misunderstood. These are called priority, not premium, and they have no access to a club, no lounge in which to socialize and watch TV. Just seats, and they’re the only ones at courtside not occupied by students. There are 604 right next to the court, and another 808 further back in what is now B Section.

They’ll be dispersed next February on a point basis to I-Fund members, based on a combination of longtime giving and current contributions.

“This area is not considered premium,” Thomas said. “We have held these seats back for I-Fund people who aren’t interested in premium seats and won’t have access to a club. Bricks and mortar (construction) may not be their thing, but they still want to support the I-Fund and are giving at a high level. When the February deadline comes and we rank all our I-Fund members by club level and priority points, that will dictate how the seats are allocated.”

Since each fan buys, on average, 2.74 seats, that would require just over 500 season ticket-holders for these desired sections. Those who don’t make the 1,400 cutoff will begin in the first row of C.

Expensive options

Now we’re down to fewer than 3,000 premium seats consisting of four-person loges, the Traditions Club and south end zone Legacy Club, all of which have access to lounges, elevators and VIP lobby. That’s nearly 3,000 seats requiring heavy donations from roughly 1,100 individuals or corporations.

Yes, it’s expensive. For example, a gift pledge of $4,000 per seat would merely put the donor in position to participate in the loge selection process.

There are tax advantages, but it’s an old story. If you have to ask how much the lobster costs, it’ll be too expensive. If you count the cost of each round of golf at the country club, you shouldn’t join.

And so it is with State Farm Center. The best seats go to those who can afford them, or those with a long history of giving. It can’t be done any other way. Thomas and his nine fundraisers have already lined up multiple donors for naming rights ... those who feel driven to help this giant endeavor.

It is a long, hard pull, but it appears to be on pace financially.

November 2015 problem

Thomas discussed the problem of not having State Farm Center available until Dec. 1, 2015, before which the Illini usually play an Orange and Blue scrimmage, two exhibitions and four or five games at home.

“We’d either have to play on the road or play home games in our geographic footprint,” he said.

Asked if nearby Illinois State might be an option, he responded: “We could play Illinois State there or play someone else at Illinois State. We are studying options, and it could be either. We are researching venues more than opponents for that time.”

Pushing 2015 games back into December is another option, although finals and holidays interfere. One thing is certain: The Braggin’ Rights game with Missouri in St. Louis won’t be changed from its pre-Christmas time. And the Big Ten/ACC Challenge will be played on the opponents’ site in 2015 after Illinois hosts next season.

“We could offer different ticket packages, and maybe a partial package in 2015-16,” Thomas said. “We’d prefer not to play nonconference games during the Big Ten season.”

Suite deals

Switching from a dozen 14-seat basketball suites to 44 football suites that handle roughly 18, Thomas said:

“Our football suites were down a couple when I arrived, and they are still down a couple. There are 44 suites, and we’ve had roughly two to four unsold. We’ve sold some suites since last season. If they’re not full, we try to sell those on a game-by-game basis.

“The president and chancellor will occupy the same suite for basketball. We are on pace. We only have a few left at this time. I feel confident and fairly certain we’ll sell all the basketball suites.”

State Farm does not have a suite. Other than the athletic director suite and the president-chancellor suite, there are 10 remaining of which “several” are available with a year and a half to go.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.


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DaisyJ wrote on March 30, 2014 at 11:03 am

After we start paying the players, the cost will really go up. This backwards in that we spend all this money so fewer, fewer with money can watch in person. With all the architects that graduated from the U of I, surely we could have built something that can house 18000 and not have to be held up to watch a game