Hall's new name: State Farm Center


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CHAMPAIGN — Known for decades by fans as the Assembly Hall, the University of Illinois' landmark arena has a new name: the State Farm Center.

Thanks to a $60 million donation, the flying saucer-shaped home to Illini basketball, Broadway shows and commencement exercises is undergoing the name change as part of a major renovation to the hall.

The university announced the 30-year, $60 million agreement with the Bloomington-based insurance company Monday. Officials also unveiled a logo for the building featuring the hall's iconic domed roof and the three circles used in State Farm's logo.

UI athletic director Mike Thomas called the announcement "one of the most significant highlights in the history of Fighting Illini athletics."

"In the world of college athletics, State Farm is a five-star recruit," said Thomas, who presented insurance executives with orange "Illinois. Our state. Our team." T-shirts at Monday's press conference.

He called State Farm an "outstanding partner" with the university for more than two decades, "and this agreement will carry that partnership forward for at least three more."

Some utility work on the site may begin this summer, but the bulk of the $160 million renovation is not expected to begin until March 2014, with completion in November 2016. The campus will start using the new name sooner rather than later.

"This is exactly what the campus had hoped for to achieve when this project was undertaken a couple of years ago," Chancellor Phyllis Wise said.

The intent, she said, was to build a place "like no other" where the community could assemble together while preserving the campus's architectural and academic heritage.

"It is our academic center. It is our athletic center. It's our cultural center. It's our community center, and now it's the State Farm Center," Wise said.

The $160 million renovation calls for adding air-conditioning, more student seating near the floor, private boxes, new restrooms, entrances and more.

Thomas said from the early stages of planning, naming rights would play a big part in how to pay for the renovation.

In a referendum earlier this spring, UI students approved a $25-per-semester student fee to help pay for the project. Ticket sales also will help.

But donations are expected to cover about 75 percent of the cost of the massive renovation, according to Rick Darnell, senior associate athletic director for development.

The UI officially kicked off its fundraising campaign earlier this spring, sending information and project details to donors and season ticket holders about suite and seating options and other naming right opportunities.

Thomas said his office is beginning to get "good returns" on those efforts.

"We've had no hiccups at this point in time. We feel really good about where we are. We are confident that we will move forward as planned," he said.

Officials did not say how much money they've raised so far, but Darnell acknowledged, "We're raising money every day."

"This is a huge philanthropic project," he said.

Plenty of other naming opportunities (in the six, seven and eight-figure range) for locker rooms, entrances, plazas and club rooms remain, he said.

"In college athletics, you're either moving on an upward trend or you're staying the same," said men's basketball coach John Groce, who attended Monday's announcement. "I tell our players, 'If you're staying the same, you're really getting worse because those people on the upward trend are passing you by. I think in this case, for us to get to where we want to go, to restore and renovate this iconic building for the multi-purposes that it's used for that this was a huge, huge move in the right direction," the coach said.

People have been talking about the renovation for some time now, Groce said, looking at pictures and architectural plans "and it creates excitement, it does."

"This is just another statement that State Farm has made with Illinois that 'Hey, we're moving this thing forward; this is a reality; we're getting closer; we're taking steps in the right direction; our plan is moving forward.' The momentum of the decision to partner with State Farm is going to create even more momentum for us with the project and that part's exciting," he said.

The State Farm Center is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2016-17 basketball season.

In the Big Ten, the State Farm Center joins a handful of others with a name tied to a corporation. In late-2011, the University of Nebraska announced that Pinnacle Bank purchased the naming rights to its arena at a cost of $11.25 million for 25 years. Ohio State's basketball teams play in Value City Arena at the Schottenstein Center.

"This is our first foray into this type of opportunity. It's not that we've said no forever; it's just that we've been real careful about how we use our name," said Randall Harbert, executive vice president at State Farm.

The company purchased the naming rights to an arena in Hidalgo, Texas — the State Farm Arena — but Harbert described that as a community center. The company also has donated to Illinois State University (for the State Farm Hall of Business) and Illinois Wesleyan University (for the instructional building State Farm Hall).

"We felt this was the right place and the right time. We really like the idea of being connected to a university not only in our home state but a university we've had a long-running partnership with," Harbert said.

State Farm has been a donor to the university for years in athletics and educational programs. Many of its employees are UI graduates and students have found internships at the State Farm Research and Development Center in the UI Research Park in Champaign.

News-Gazette staff writer Marcus Jackson contributed to this report.