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The corporate takeover of college athletics

By Arlie Rahn
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 1, 1998
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Arlie Rahn

What is the going rate for 24 years of tradition?

Well, according to Arizona State University,it's $5 million.

Earlier this summer, a $5 million donation from Wells Fargo Bank convinced the ASU Athletic Department to rename the Activity Center. The building, which has housed ASU basketball and other campus sporting events since 1974, will now be known as the Wells Fargo Arena.

The $5 million puts ASU athletic director Kevin White's recent fundraising effort at $16 million, well on course for his $20 million goal to help improve the athletic facilities. But the question remains, is it worth it?

College athletics is already entering the big-time in terms of corporate sponsorship. Most major universities have large contract deals with athletic equipment distributors like Nike, Reebok and Starter. The college football bowl games have also failed to resist the calling of the big dollars. Instead of the more traditional Copper, Orange and Fiesta Bowls, we now have the, Federal Express Orange and Tostitos Fiesta bowls.

But, for the most part, the athletic arenas have taken no part in this corporate shopping spree. There are a few exceptions, like the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY, but they are by far the minority. Prior to this summer, the Pacific 10 Conference could boast of having no corporate-named basketball arenas.

Now that's not to say there haven't been temptations. Arizona's own McKale Center was in desperate need of a new floor just last year. UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood could certainly have agreed to rename McKale Center the "Pepsi Pavilion" or "Doritos Den" in exchange for a big lump of cash, but he resisted. Instead, he paid for the new floor by adding an unobtrusive Cellular One logo, all the while keeping the Arizona Desert emblem as the key feature at midcourt.

But now, in between trips to the prestigious Pauley Pavilion of UCLA and Maples Pavilion at Stanford, the Wildcats must make a trip to the Wells Fargo Arena at ASU. And that begs another question, if arenas are now on the selling block, what isn't for sale?

If arenas are, why not uniforms? Pretty soon, the Arizona Wildcat basketball teams could come out looking like a NASCAR pit crew. Or maybe the baseball team will rotate hats every third inning. Why not even rename the positions on the football team? We could have the Pepsi quarterback throwing to a wide-open Coca-Cola wide receiver.

And every time an athletic department official gets questioned, they can give the ASU answer, "Well, we certainly have great facilities."

But that's never going to happen, right? Well, 15 years ago people thought the bowl games were sacred, 10 years ago few would allow a Nike swoosh to be associated with their university, and five years ago athletic arenas were thought to be untouchable by sponsors.

It seems that each time a line is drawn, the almighty dollar forces that line to backtrack a little bit.

Look at the revenue gained through bowl games, NCAA Final Fours and TV contracts. In the '90s, everybody wants a winner, and those that consistently demonstrate that ability have the opportunity to make a lot of money. So how do you win? You get good recruits. How do you get good recruits? You have the best coaching staff and facilities, all of which cost the big bucks.

But, through all this, we need to remember the real edge college athletics has over every other sporting entity in the world. It is that each school has its own tradition, untainted by the big dollars. There are no contract holdouts or free agents. These guys (and ladies) don't play for the money, just for a chance at an education or, for a few select ones, a chance to earn their living in athletics.

When we start commercializing our schools, we lose that purity that makes college athletics such a success.

Arlie Rahn is a senior majoring in engineering.

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