Should IU replace Assembly Hall?

Obviously, it's not just bloggers who are feeling the late July news dearth.  This week, Frank Therber of the Indiana Daily Student took on the well-worn topic of whether IU should replace Assembly Hall, which soon will begin its 38th season as IU's homecourt.  Assembly Hall has gained mythic status even though it is younger than five of the arenas currently in use in the Big Ten (the other Assembly Hall at Illinois, Crisler Arena at Michigan, Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern, Williams Arena at Minnesota, and Mackey Arena at Purdue).  I think the IDS reaches the wrong conclusion for the wrong reason.

 

Therber leads by discussing the current construction of the basketball practice facility and expresses his hope that it's the only construsction in that area.  He then quotes Dan Dakich on the topic.

Dakich, who respectfully interrupted the caller with his disagreement, said the arena would actually hurt recruiting, in addition to the tradition and lore of the program.

"It’s iconic," Dakich said. "You will never convince me Indiana needs a new basketball arena."

Dakich, as most readers know, has seen more than his share of games at Assembly Hall.  He spent four years at IU as a player, more than a decade as a graduate assistant and assistant coach, and a few games as IU's interim head coach.  I'm sure he knows the ins and outs of the behind-the-scenes portion of the arena, the shortcuts, the secrets, and so on.  But I can trump him in one regard:  I'm pretty sure that Dan Dakich has never watched an IU game from the 16th and last row of the Assembly Hall balcony.   The story continues:

Take a look around the country at other solidified programs like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Let's take a look.  Duke, of course, plays in Cameron Indoor Stadium, a 70 year-old barn with only 9300 seats.  I'm not sure that North Carolina and Kentucky help his cause.  North Carolina plays in the Dean Smith Center, an arena that opened in 1986 and which has a capacity of nearly 22,000.  The Dean Dome replaced Carmichael Auditorium, a mid-1960s facility.  That means that during his tenure at UNC, Dean Smith coached in three different arenas, and UNC has won championships while playing in each of the three arenas. 

As for Kentucky, Rupp Arena, while dating to 1976, is a large (23,500 seat) downtown arena that replaced on-campus Memorial Coliseum.  Also, it appears that Kentucky is considering a new downtown arena

New York has Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium. Chicago has Soldier Field and Wrigley Field. Indiana has Notre Dame Stadium and Assembly Hall.

Frank, I have bad news.  The current Yankee Stadium is not the same place the Yankees played last year. (and really, the post-1970s-renovation Yankee Stadium wasn't much like what was built in the 1920s).  A flying saucer landed on Solider Field.  While the original structure of Notre Dame Stadium remains mostly intact, the mid-1990s renovation dramatically changed the interior and exterior appearance of the stadium.  And Madison Square Garden?  There have been four different arenas at three different locations called "Madison Square Garden."   At least building Assembly Hall II wouldn't involve tearing down a really beautiful train station.

Sporting venues eventually need to be replaced. Heck, there are even said to be concrete chunks falling out of Wrigley Field. But why cut them short, especially the more prestigious ones, when they still have life in them?

Well, no one is talking about knocking the place down next week.  But by 2020, Assembly Hall will be nearly 50 years old.  At this point, nearly 40 years into its life, Assembly Hall has its original seats and precious little has been done to any other part of the arena, visible or otherwise.  Merely replacing the scoreboards a few years ago probably was the most radical change to the building.  I think Assembly Hall looks great for its age, but it stands to reason that in the next decade or so, it seems likely that substantial work will be required.  The question, then, is how much money to dump into Assembly Hall.

I love Assembly Hall.  It has a great atmosphere and a unique layout that makes it immediately recognizable.  Still, it is not, and never has been, a great arena.  The bleacher seats and the first 25 rows or so are fine seats, but the balcony is awful and the last few rows of the main level are even worse.  Assembly Hall was designed long before it was built (Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1960, was part of the same project).  IU could build  a significantly larger arena without any seats as bad as the worst seats in AH.  Here's a look at Rupp:

Rupp seats 6,000 more fans than Assembly Hall, but at l would guess, by eyeballing it, that the last row of Rupp's balcony is significantly closer to the action that the last row of Assembly Hall's balcony. 

For atmosphere, I love old stadiums and arenas.  Wrigley Field is one of my favorite places in the world.  But I think it's trickier for an enclosed arena.  Wrigley is defined by its surroundings as much as by the structure.  A few years ago, the Cubs demolished and reconstructed most of the bleachers.  While the changes are obvious to those familiar with the place, it didn't ruin the atmosphere.  Because of the falling concrete mentioned in the article, there has been some talk of a complete reconstruction of the Wrigley grandstand.  While I love the fact that the current ballpark has been roughly the same for decades, it has to remain a functional facility.  Ultimately, even a completely new Wrigley grandstand would feel like Wrigley because of the ivy, the scoreboard, and most importantly, the surroundings.

A basketball arena's atmosphere derives only from what it inside, so a radical reconstruction will be more obvious.  And that's the problem with Assembly Hall.  Based on the age of the building, AH is going to require tens of millions of work at some point in the foreseeable future.  Here is a Hoosier Scoop blog entry from 2007, when the IU Board of Trustees considered these things.  As the article notes, a full scale renovation of Assembly Hall would cost at least two-thirds as much as a brand new arena.  And, of course, a full scale renovation, with the addition of luxury suites and more seating in the ends, would make the place look radically different anyway.

Again, I would be happy sitting on bleachers in a 1920s arena.  Hell, forget Assembly Hall and move back to the beautiful 7th Street fieldhouse, which was the home court for IU's 1940 and 1953 NCAA champions:

 

That isn't going to happen because it isn't practical.  Neither is staying in Assembly Hall.  As noted above, just keeping Assembly Hall running will take a good chunk of money.  Doing nothing is not an option.  Turning it into a truly modern arena would cost nearly as much as building one from scratch.  Also, the IDS article doesn't mention revenue at all.  Most schools' athletic departments are funded largely by football revenue.  IU, by virtue of membership in the Big Ten, does make quite a bit of money from football, but not nearly as much as many other schools.  IU is fortunate to have a prominent, well-supported basketball program with a season ticket waiting list.  Luxury seating would be a huge money maker for the entire athletic department.  Again, it's unfortunate that revenue plays such a signficant role, and I don't mean to suggest that IU shouldn't continue trying to upgrade the football program.  Still, IU, as a school with a strong basketball history, has to use that prominence to the advantage of the entire athletic department.  IU's tradition won't evaporate if Assembly Hall is replaced, just like Louisville's won't when the Cardinals move to their new downtown arena and just like UNC's didn't when the Tarheels moved to the Dean Dome.  Assembly Hall would be missed, but paying tens of millions of dollars to preserve a flawed arena simply doesn't make sense. 

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