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DePaul's new basketball arena should spark outrage

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A broke city is using $100 million of taxpayer money to help pay for a $300 million arena that will house one of the worst major conference teams in college basketball.


That DePaul has somehow been deemed worthy of being handed a new basketball arena is laughable to begin with. The fact that said arena will be a $300 million state of the art facility with $100 million of the construction costs coming from the taxpayers of dead broke Chicago is a travesty.

For starters, Chicago is a pro sports city whose interest in college sports is typically limited to Notre Dame football and a handful of Illinois and Northwestern alumni who will do some mild chest-beating if the Wildcats or Illini are overachieving. In the collective conscious of the city, DePaul basketball rests somewhere in between Loyola field hockey and December walks along the beach.

Even during their so-called "golden era," it's not like the Blue Demons captivated the city's head or heart. And that golden era is about as far gone as Oliver Purnell's hairline.

Before the 2008-09 season, the Big East made the controversial decision to allow every team in the league to qualify for the conference tournament in New York. In each season since, DePaul has been the lowest-seeded team in that tournament, meaning the Blue Demons have either finished last or tied for last in the conference for the past five years. It's an achievement nearly as difficult as winning the conference in five straight seasons, but one far less worthy of a reward like, say, a brand new facility.

In March, it was announced that more than 50 public schools in Chicago would be closing their doors in an effort to combat the city's ever-rising budget pressure. Chicago Public Schools, which began the school year by making national news thanks to a massive teachers' strike, are also currently facing a $1 billion operating deficit for the fiscal year. All this being the case, it seems reprehensible, if not offensive, that the city would choose to spend $100 million of taxpayer money on a facility to house a basketball team that has gone 7-83 in its conference over the past five seasons.

And now here's where things get truly outrageous.

City officials have claimed that the arena will break even in its first year of operation based in large part off a prediction that an average of 9,000 fans will attend each DePaul home game. Considering that the Blue Demons averaged 8,000 fans per game in 2012-13, that prediction seems reasonable. Until you do some digging.

DePaul University's men's basketball team would have to more than triple its annual attendance to meet the estimates made by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (McPier) for a new event center near McCormick Place.

Attendance at Blue Demons home games in suburban Rosemont has averaged around 2,900 over the past three years, according to Allstate Arena ticket records obtained by Crain's. That's about 35 percent of the school's reported numbers and 30 percent of what McPier officials are projecting for the new arena. The city plans to spend more than $100 million in tax money on the facility to give the near South Side an economic jolt.

This past season, the official average number of fans that went to DePaul home games at Allstate Arena was even lower: 2,610 based on the Ticketmaster scan system, which tracks exactly how many people come inside.

That is far below DePaul's reported average home game attendance of 7,938 over those 16 home games. Over the course of the entire season, the school reported total attendance at Allstate Arena at 127,020. The actual attendance was 41,771.

The large discrepancy between the reported and actual numbers is due to the fact that DePaul, like many schools, uses the number of tickets sold and not the actual number of butts in seats as its "official" attendance number. The irony is that the school itself buys a large number of the tickets that wind up going unused, but still count towards the reported attendance figure.

That's all well and good if the numbers are being used solely for posturing purposes, but when they're being utilized as justification for a broke city building a $300 million arena for an abysmal basketball team that no one cares about, well, concern should be raised.

DePaul's basketball program has been at the center of jokes for over a decade now, but there's nothing remotely comical about this situation. There's also no way to justify it. A number of folks ought to be ashamed, and an even larger number ought to be outraged.