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Naming rights for NIU arena will go to highest bidder

DeKALB – You never know what investment opportunities could be walking around the concourse of the Convocation Center at Northern Illinois University.

The university announced last week it’s soliciting bids for the naming rights to the 15-year-old, $36 million facility, and prospective investors are encouraged to attend a kickoff event at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday – a walkthrough featuring a tour, the facility’s specs and more.

Monday morning, Chuck Schramm, a member of the 1981 men’s basketball team that came one victory short of the NCAA tournament, was walking the track, getting his heart rate up. It accelerated when he thought of the opportunity to tie history to the arena. Given the university’s financial aspirations, maybe it’s not feasible to name the arena after John McDougal, the late, beloved Huskies basketball coach on whose bench Schramm served when the team broke through in 1982 and made the tourney.

But what about naming the locker room after McDougal?

“That’s a nice touch, and a classy touch,” Schramm said. “You see that at a lot of facilities nowadays. You build a new gym, a new court, a new room, but you don’t forget your ties to the past.”

Athletics Director Sean Frazier said bids can start coming in at the end of the month, and that many groups, including some from DeKalb and Sycamore as well as national entities, have expressed interest.

Frazier said local individuals, groups and businesses have as much of a shot at the arena’s naming rights as international giants such as State Farm, which is a few years into its 30-year, $60 million deal with the University of Illinois.

In fact, if the offer was right, you get the feeling Frazier would jump at the chance to partner with a local, or at least regional, entity.

“We want a partner which matches our visions and goals,” Frazier said. “We need a partner with a history of service – someone who serves the university, the community and, frankly, the Chicagoland area.”

“We want to make sure we have a partner who understands and believes in what we’re doing, and isn’t just writing a check,” he said.

That check, however, could be crucial to the university which, as are other state institutions, is at the mercy of uncertain state funding. Also as are other state universities, NIU has seen steady enrollment decline the past few years. Spring enrollment numbers recently released show a 4.7 percent enrollment decline compared with spring 2017.

“The Convocation Center was built with student fees built into the funding model,” said John Cheney, senior associate athletic director/internal operations. “Obviously, as student enrollment goes down, so do your fee hours. You have to find other ways to generate revenues.”

Cheney and Frazier both characterized the arena’s financial state as a break-even operation, which boosts the important of sponsorships. Aside from the arena naming rights, through its partner Learfield Sports, NIU sells sponsorships of virtually every aspect of the operation – from the court to ads in programs.

“Anything we in athletics can do to be more self-sustaining and self-sufficient will reduce the amount of institutional support we need,” Cheney said.

If you’re interested in sponsoring the digital scoreboard that hangs over the court, however, you might want to hold off. The university will seek approval at the Feb. 15 board of trustees meeting to replace it, and the hope is to have a brand-new, state-of-the-art scoreboard in place by the 2018-19 basketball season.

Cheney said aside from outdated technology, the facility is in fine shape. A hole in the roof caused the men’s basketball home-opener to be postponed Nov. 11, when insulation thawed and dripped onto the court, but Cheney said the hole has been fixed and there are no other pressing issues.

Frazier said 215,000 unique people visit the Convocation Center every year.

“We know what we have here,” Frazier said. “It’s got a rich history, from big concerts to area high school graduations to trade shows and monster trucks. The facility has been so important to so many. But, getting an entity and partnering someone who brings some energy to it would be great.”

Schramm commended the site selection: right on Route 38, where you can’t miss it as you come into town.

When you see it, however, it lends a lot to the imagination.

“It’s a blank canvas,” said Frazier, who said the goal is to have the partnership not only in place but up and running by the fall.

Frazier said in making the process public, the university is blazing a path.

“If you went around the country, you’d be hard-pressed to find [a request for proposal] in a naming rights process,” he said. “We wanted to make sure, whoever the final partner was, that we’d gone through a public process that could be brought up and reviewed.”

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