The Daily Pennsylvanian asked me to write a piece on the recent controversial decision by Penn to name the Palestra floor “Macquarie Court” and the accompanying disappointment from the Palestra community with this action. Howard Gensler, one of Penn basketball’s most ardent supporters, wrote a column on Philly.com that’s a good read on the changing environment in the Palestra. The DP’s Theodoros Papazekos also wrote a column critical of the decision. I tend to agree with both of them and am concerned that the naming sets an unwelcome precedent.
It is not an exaggeration to say the Palestra court is sacred to legions of former players and fans throughout the Philadelphia region. We all know the storied history that has enabled the Palestra to be referred to as the Cathedral of College Basketball. To place a corporate name on its floor tarnishes that image and detracts from the pureness and spectacle that has made the Palestra experience unduplicated. The Palestra is unlike any other arena in the country and keeping it unique adds to its reputation.
The sometimes fractious relationship between commercialism and Ivy League Athletics goes back decades. In their attempt to keep Ivy athletics “pure”, Ivy Presidents have often disdained corporate partnerships. Until recently, some Ivy schools did not allow any corporate signage inside their athletic facilities. During my tenure as Penn's Athletics Director, the Presidents prohibited us from creating an Ivy television package if it was funded by advertising dollars. The AD’s successfully lobbied to overturn this policy, arguing that showcasing our stellar student athletes to the public was a greater good than the evil of commercialism.
The Ivy Presidents as a group can sometimes be inflexible (i.e. Ivy prohibition of football competing in the NCAA playoffs). But they are right to insist we maintain our core principles and values even when it keeps us apart from the rest of Division I.
I assume that the University’s senior leadership participated in the decision to name Macquarie Court. Since Penn is fortunate to have outstanding senior leaders who do understand and are sensitive to institutional history, it is surprising that, in this case, dollars seemed to outweigh sentiment and tradition.
No one knows more than I do about the challenge of funding an immense enterprise like Penn Athletics and Recreation. In fact, I was approached several times about naming the Palestra floor. Once, a senior University official approached me about a potential donor who was considering making a $25 million gift to Penn, the caveat being it had to include the naming of the Palestra. I admit I was initially tempted, but ultimately told the official that the Palestra was not for sale.
Collegiate sports have been totally consumed by commercialism ranging from the never-ending number of media timeouts to historic football bowls now being named Chick-fil-A, Tostitos, and Weed-Eater. It is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish a college game from a pro game.
The Palestra has hosted more college basketball games than any other arena. Franklin Field was the country’s first two-tiered stadium and the oldest stadium still operating for football games. The Penn Relays is the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States. We are so lucky that these treasures all belong to Penn.
However, with these blessings come responsibilities. The Palestra court, Franklin Field turf, and Penn Relays name should never be shared with any corporate entity. Otherwise, we’ll be like everyone else. Is this the outcome we desire?
I do not want to see our marketing and advancement efforts handcuffed. I’m sure there are other ways to utilize the Palestra and Franklin Field in revenue enhancement strategies, that don’t come at the expense of cheapening our classic venues.
Steve Bilsky was Penn’s Athletics Director from 1994 to 2014. He graduated Penn in 1971 and was an All-Ivy guard for men's basketball and is a member of the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame and the Big 5 Hall of Fame.