We hear all the time about what things like to be in the Big 5's halcyon days, when every City Series game was played at the Palestra and had the feel of a big occasion.
The reminiscing gets repetitive after a while, and indeed tiresome. Perhaps that's because I've only ever lived here in an era when games have been played on campus sites. But then again, it's been 15 years since the full round-robin was restored.
That's more than enough time for an entire generation of Big 5 fans to have seen no other way of crowning the Big 5's annual champion - or at least, for a lot of college students to have passed through the doors of their alma maters' gyms.
Is it fair to celebrate having less than we did before? I'll admit I work in an industry that has made it an art form. Still, it has always mattered more to me that we have a full round-robin than that it gets played in a specific place.
Yet no matter which local school you attach yourself to, you know that there's something special about a Big 5 game at the Palestra. Whether the house is split 50-50 and both teams are evenly matched, or whether an elite Villanova team is blowing a bad Penn team out into the cold 33rd Street air, it doesn't matter.
We know all five coaches want more City Series games at the Palestra. We know many fans at every school do as well.
We also know a few home truths. Athletic departments value the revenue gained from parking, concessions, luxury seating (you know who you are) and television revenue.
(Notwithstanding the fact that the television networks know that the Palestra always produces a great spectacle.)
High-end fans also value parking, concessions and luxury seating (not necessarily in that order), and if a bit of home-court advantage helps narrow the gap with a superior team on paper (you know who you are too), that's great.
So with that said...
You saw what happened this past Wednesday, right?
Saint Joseph's and La Salle hosted Big 5 games against teams that you could pretty easily argue were the best and most prominent that would come to their gyms all season, and there were highly visible pockets of empty seats at both Hagan Arena and Tom Gola Arena. The former of those was especially surprising to me, to put it politely.
Maybe if Virginia Commonwealth was coming to Philadelphia this season you'd have a case against the claim, but the Rams get the Hawks and Explorers on their floor in Richmond.
I'm sure I'm missing something. Maybe it was the slightly off-kilter 6:30 and 8:30 tipoff times, or maybe it was something else. I'm sure I'll get an earful about whatever that is.
To be fair, the Palestra was not full Saturday. The announced crowd was 7,445, and because of the rain it took a while to build up.
But as La Salle and Temple brought the house down in the second half, it was impossible to wonder if there's some way, somehow, to make this happen more often.
Television would have to be the catalyst. It already is in a lot of ways - consider that just about every Big 5 game is not only broadcast, but broadcast nationally. Temple has ESPN; La Salle and St. Joe's have the A-10's combination of ESPN, NBCSN and CBS Sports Network; and Villanova has Fox.
(Allow me an aside to note that the Ivy League still doesn't have a TV contract in place for this season, and it's December, and it might be kind of consequential when Villanova and Harvard come to the Palestra even if Penn isn't very good.)
Credit to Fox Sports 1's Justin Kutcher, who called the Holy War alongside Bill Raftery, for putting it right there on the table:
Even though I knew the answer to the question, I put it to Fran Dunphy and Dr. John Giannini anyway. Here are their answers.
From Dunphy, the dean of the Big 5's coaching establishment:
Somebody had asked me what the crowd would be before the game, and I answered, "Probably 6,500." I looked up and the corners were pretty well filled, which is always the sign of how good the crowd is here. So I thought it was great. The atmosphere was great, it was loud. There's something special about the building, and I appreciate it. I've been through it a few times.
That would be smarter people than me trying to get together and figure out finances and home-court advantages and those kinds of things. But it is a special place, I will say that. By the same token, we have a pretty nice place on campus, so we have to be careful of that as well.
Sometimes you do things for the greater good, and I think what La Salle and Temple did last year, to bring the game here for College GameDay, was important. La Salle asked us if we would do the same thing this year, and obviously we said yes, because we weighed up the options of finances, exposure, all of those things.
Again, that's an administrative decision, and I'll let those guys make that decision, and for us, we're here. I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping the crowd excited, but it was fun.
And from Giannini:
I'm the only one who says I want to play them all here. What you have to do is what us and Temple did. You have to give up one home game every other year to continue one of the best traditions in basketball.
But we're electing to not give up that one game every other year, and we've made Temple vs. La Salle like Temple vs. South Florida or like La Salle vs. Rhode Island. Two good teams, but without the venue, the split crowd and the tradition. And TV likes it here too.
So we elect not to play games here even though I think the atmosphere at these games is vastly superior to a normal home court situation. And I think the students love it, the alums love it and the players love it. I don't know who doesn't love it, but someone doesn't love it.