IU’s Assembly Hall could get new name if price is right

The Indiana University basketball program is on a roll (Tuesday night’s loss notwithstanding), and Fred Glass, the school’s athletic director, is looking for ways to turn the region’s red-hot fervor for IU basketball into some long green.

IU alums and supporters might be surprised by what Glass is willing to consider to raise some cash. It’s not that nothing is sacred. In fact, Glass completely dismissed the idea of putting a corporate logo on the Assembly Hall court.

“That wouldn’t feel right,” Glass said. “The court is sacrosanct.”

The name on the building? Not so much.

Glass said if someone came forward with a large enough donation, he’d consider a naming rights deal for the 42-year old basketball venue on the north edge of IU’s Bloomington campus.

He’d be less wild about a corporate moniker on the facility and more open to putting an individual or family name on it. But it’s clear, in terms of renaming the house where three national championship teams played, that nothing is off the table. Assembly Hall, he said, could remain in the name.

There’s no naming rights deal pending, Glass said. But IU officials are certainly pondering the idea. And with good reason.

Carmel-based Conseco Inc. in 1999 paid $40 million for a 20-year naming rights deal for the Indiana Pacers’ home venue. In 2008, California-based Lucas Oil Products paid the Indianapolis Colts $121.5 million for a 20-year deal to put its name on the team’s new stadium.

The Colts and Pacers were hot commodities with fans and sponsors when they signed their deals, like IU is now. While sports marketers don’t think IU could command the type of money the Colts scored, they think the school could easily bank $20 million for a 10-year deal.

Anyone who watches IU basketball on television knows that ESPN’s Dick Vitale screams that Assembly Hall should be named for former coach Bob Knight. While Glass didn’t dismiss the notion of some rich alum paying a lot of money to put Knight’s name on the building, momentum for that possibility may be fading. A handful of big IU donors I talked to last week for a recent IBJ print story discouraged the idea.

Part of that reluctance is certainly due to the success the program has had under coach Tom Crean. But Knight hasn’t helped himself with some of his most ardent fans from years past. He has refused to take hold of the olive branch continually extended by Glass, declined to come to a ceremony where he was inducted into the IU Athletics Hall of Fame, and until late last year refused to even utter Indiana’s name on ESPN, where he works as an analyst.

The straw that broke the back of some IU followers was Knight’s appearance this month on a video played during The Ohio State University’s home game against IU. Knight is an OSU alum, but many IU backers viewed the video as a low blow.

“I used to coach a little bit, and there's nothing better than Ohio State basketball,” Knight said in the clip, which earned a roar from the OSU crowd.

“Knight was a great coach who graduated his players and I admire him for that,” said Bart Kaufman, an IU alum and former baseball player who is also a major donor to the school’s athletic program. “But the depth of his being a jerk has worn on alums. In the end, his approach eroded his brand and that of IU.”

For his part, Glass is looking forward, not back.

Glass is already realizing the riches from IU’s current two-year run of hardwood success. Through mid-February, IU merchandise sales were up 31 percent over the same period last season. Last year, IU saw a 15-percent revenue increase from the sale of its licensed goods.

Last season, IU snapped a three-year streak of substandard play and made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. This year, IU is leading the Big Ten and has spent several weeks ranked No. 1 nationally. It’s almost hard to remember IU was 6-25 just five years ago—during Crean’s first year.

Glass says student season ticket sales are at an all-time high this year (13,000 packages), and, yes, that includes the glory days when Knight led the Hoosiers to three national championships in 12 seasons.

“Things are as crazy down here as I’ve ever seen,” said Glass, who graduated in 1981, the year IU won its second NCAA title under Knight.

Support coming from alumni and program supporters – and that’s the kind of support that pays the bills – is also rising. That’s the biggest barometer of all.Giving to the IU Varsity Club rose from $7.9 million in 2011 to $9.1 million in 2012. With giving to the Varsity Club up 21.7 percent so far this year, that take is set to approach $11 million.

But there’s still more to be made, said Indianapolis sports marketer David Morton.

“Any good salesman in their position would look for new inventory to sell,” Morton said. “In this changing era of marketing, it’s time they start thinking differently.”

I think Glass already is.

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