Ashamed maybe, but not surprised.
Penn has allied itself with an asset management firm at the expense of the student experience. Penn Athletics thought about its wallet before its student-athletes.
Is anyone else seeing a trend?
The latest move, announced Tuesday afternoon at the Cathedral of College Basketball, stripped the remaining holiness from the space with one swift stroke of the pen. Athletic Director Dr. M. Grace Calhoun announced that Penn Athletics has reached a “landmark” sponsorship deal with Macquarie Investment Management, a “global asset manager” part of the larger Macquarie brand with almost $400 billion in assets.
The deal puts two ads on the Palestra floor and gives Macquarie the naming rights to the court itself. Penn basketball is now presented by Macquarie and they play on the Macquarie Court at the Palestra.
This all leads to two crucial, unanswered questions. Exactly how much did Penn decide the sanctity of the Palestra was worth? And why?
The Palestra is the biggest recruiting draw Penn has. People want to be on a court and in a building imbued with history in the way the Palestra is. There’s something about the presence of the space. Last March, I wrote about how you can feel the ghosts of the place come alive in big moments. That was true then. Hopefully it will still be true on Nov. 9 when men’s basketball hosts Rice to christen their new court ads.
Sports occupy such an important place in so many of our lives, and they cheapen the experience when there are ads attached to them at every turn. That’s true everywhere. The drama and emotion of sports — the ritual surrounding them — are lost when the walls and floor are covered with ads.
Every court and stadium in the world is chock-full of ads, but even still, the sports world’s most sacred places remain relatively unscathed. Yankee Stadium is just that: Yankee Stadium. The same goes for Soldier Field, Lambeau, or the LA Coliseum. The Palestra no longer is.
Yes, people will still call it the Palestra, and nobody but Penn Athletics will care about the new name once the immediate anger dies down, but it still hurts to see the administration sell one of its most cherished and historic venues. It will hurt to hear ESPNU call it the “Macquarie Court at the Palestra” at the top of their broadcasts. Wouldn’t it have hurt to see Darnell Foreman’s iconic three-pointer in the Ivy League Championship sullied by the name of an investment management company under his shoes?
But the worst part is that it didn’t have to be this way; there are other ways to fundraise. Penn Athletics launched a huge fundraising campaign last year that was wildly successful. The University has literal billions in its back pocket. If Calhoun had come to alumni and said, “Look, we need donations or else we’re going to put ads on the Palestra floor,” the alumni would have responded.
It’d be another conversation if Penn went the route of Duke and named the court after a program legend while keeping the historic arena name intact. The issue is that it’s an ad.
Perhaps in an attempt to preempt the backlash they must have predicted, Penn has allocated some of the funds from the sponsorship towards community programs like the Young Quakers Community Athletics program and National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Those programs are great, by why couldn’t Penn fund them out of pocket? What happened to the fundraising money they campaigned for all of last year?
Thankfully, Calhoun drew a line in the sand. The Palestra name, now representing only the building and not the court, will stay for good.
“We will never name the Palestra anything other than the Palestra. There are things like that which we just won’t do. But we felt a wonderful step forward was to do, as we have done, the Macquarie Court at the Palestra.”
I don’t want to diminish how important that statement was, but it is important to note just how little was protected. Franklin Field’s rights are on the table. Talks with a sponsor for the Penn Relays are currently in the works.
Want to hear a scarier quote?
“In our partnership with JMI Sports, from the signing of that relationship now about two and a half years ago, we went through every inch of every facility that we have and agreed to all of the things that would be eligible for sponsorships and those things that wouldn’t, and we had an early conversation about the Palestra court.”
Why is Calhoun’s staff scouring “every inch of every facility” for ad space? Why does Penn feel like they are so cash-strapped? Penn Athletics faces a mental health crisis dating back years that is only now beginning to be addressed, and an ongoing bribery investigation. Instead of spending all her time focusing on how to fill the company coffers, why not think a little about the students whose lives she wields power over? Instead of selling off the Palestra, why not try selling it out?
The bottom line is that ads don’t belong between the pews, much less on the altar. That’s true of cathedrals everywhere.