By Mariel Turner
Men have been the face of DePaul University basketball for decades. But for the past 10 years, the women’s team has been slowly stealing the spotlight, and the construction of a new basketball arena near the McCormick Place convention center could accelerate that trend.
“Some might call them the most successful college basketball team in the state of Illinois – men or women,” said Greg Greenwell, director of athletic communications at DePaul.
The female Blue Demons were the 2014 champions of the Big East regular season and tournament. The team has made 12 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and reached the Sweet Sixteen three times. The program ranks in the top 50 for attendance among women’s basketball teams in the NCAA’s Division I.
Rick Burton, a professor of sports management and faculty athletics representative at Syracuse University, says a new arena for the Lady Blue Demons is part of a national trend.
“Right now, women’s basketball is a growing property. Everywhere by every measure, women’s basketball is doing really well. The tournament at the end of the year is getting bigger and bigger. The TV ratings, the crowds, in general, are growing.”
Despite its success and high attendance, the team currently plays in the small, 3,000-seat McGrath Arena, housed in the Sullivan Athletic Center in Lincoln Park. Even though the men’s basketball team has been plagued by low attendance numbers–averaging only 1,900 fans per game— its games are held at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, a 18,500-seat facility. Supporters of the new near South Side arena believe it will give the women’s program some overdue recognition.
“The biggest difference with the new arena for both teams is that it will be a facility that both programs can play in that is a complete ‘DePaul building,’” Greenwell said. “Our current situation has the women’s team in our on-campus facility that has limited space.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and DePaul officials announced the $173 million, 10,000-seat arena and event center in the spring of 2013. DePaul previously rejected a proposal to play for free at the United Center, the West Side stadium where the Chicago Bulls play their games.
Critics were upset about Emanuel’s plan to use tax-increment financing dollars to supplement DePaul’s $70 million contribution to the arena’s construction cost. The mayor referred to it as a public-private partnership; critics viewed it as using taxpayer dollars to subsidize a private Catholic university. The arena plans were released following the closure of 55 Chicago public schools, which resulted in 3,168 layoffs.
The DePaul Alumni Against the Arena organization called the plan “outrageous” and said that it amounted to an attack on unions. The group was particularly angered that the city intended to give “millions of dollars to a private school that turned down free rent at the United Center.”
After protests about funding and a court fight over adjoining land, the mayor responded with a revised plan this winter. Some $55 million in TIF funds will be used for a 1,200-room hotel and the city will absorb some of the development costs, according to Jim Reily, the outgoing CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place. The hotel will be built a block east of the arena, on the northeast corner of Cermak Road and Prairie Avenue.
In addition to its $70 million contribution, DePaul University will pay for the arena with ticket sales, TV reveneue and by selling the naming rights to the facility. Other money will come from fundraising. Still, the new arena could also be a risky investment Burton warned.
“There is a correlation between the facility and attendance,” said Burton. “There are better amenities, people who feel like the seating is more comfortable, or the food is better, but there is also a risk. If the attendance doesn’t go up and the arena looks empty, because they built it too big, then you run the risk of it looking like it’s not the hottest ticket in town.”
Certainly for students on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, getting to the new facility could be a challenge. A trip by public transportation Lincoln Park to the planned arena is at least 43-minutes, according to the Regional Transit Authority’s “Trip Planner” website. DePaul officials have not commented on whether the university will provide buses to the arena for home games.
Supporters argue that positive impact of the new arena outweighs any negatives and will benefit not only the female Blue Demons, but all of women’s collegiate basketball.
“There’s a real value to showing that this program matters,” said Burton. “And that’s a great step forward for women’s basketball and a statement about the enhanced relevance of the sport.”