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Villanova's public Pavilion "plans" raise more questions than they answer

A report from the Associated Press attempts to talk about Villanova's plans for the Pavilion, but what are they?

Drew Hallowell

"Villanova has major plans for Pavilion upgrades," is the headline that the Philadelphia Inquirer used for an Associated Press article about the Main Line arena. The University has long-realized that their on-campus facility is sub-par for the level of basketball that the men's hoops team aspires to -- and has achieved under head coach Jay Wright's tenure.

The aging 6,500-seat facility was close to obsolete on the day that it opened in 1986. It was certainly much roomier than the Jake Nevin fieldhouse that it was built to replace, and allowed the Wildcats to host more than the occasional game on-campus. For that purpose, it was a step forward for a school that has often been a decade (or more) behind the curve when it comes to athletic facilities.

Lately, the athletics department has spoken more openly about doing something about the oft-maligned Home of the Wildcats -- they want to renovate.

Extreme Makeover: Arena Edition might make for great programming on ABC, but the 'Cats may need Ty Pennington to step in and come up with a plan.

Despite some ideas about what the Pavilion re-do would entail, Villanova doesn't have many specifics to offer. They can't tell you when they would start, how long it would take, or even which amenities they want to include. The fundraising goal? That's undecided as well.

What they can say, is that they won't significantly add to the seating capacity, and probably wouldn't go as far as tearing the current building down (more about that shortly).

The Associated Press article offers some ideas of what could be included in the Pavilion re-do: video screens (already have them), more bathrooms, concession stands, souvenir stands, and premium suites. Vince Nicastro offered that the school wants "to create an arena that brings it up to current standards," but doesn't say even what those minimum standards are.

The lack of a concrete plan has to be frustrating for most alumni. The question of the facility's future is a matter of chicken-and-egg; administrators want to raise money first before planning, while donors want to hear some specifics before opening their checkbooks.

While Nicastro noted that the university needs "leadership gifts" as part of the redesign process, the prospective major gift-givers are the type of business leaders who expect to see a well-thought-out plan. If Villanova athletics were making this pitch to the uber-investors like Mark Cuban who appear on Shark Tank, they would likely be denied.

A renovation won't be cheap. The state-of-the-art Chaifetz Arena at St. Louis University cost over $80 million to build -- and even a smaller-scale project like St. Joseph's Hagan Arena renovation cost around $25 million (or around what the university spends on its entire annual athletics budget).

The one carrot that Villanova is hanging is the possibility of a corporate name on the arena. Imagine the Wawa Center -- a beautiful all-seatback facility with students close to the court and wine and cheese flowing freely in new luxury suites high above the action -- that would be the ideal for Villanova. It is also unlikely.

A Professor of sports business at NYU, Robert Boland, was quoted in the AP article saying that Villanova's arena likely couldn't command a seven-figure annual deal that other facilities can. The Pavilion plays host to Villanova men's and women's basketball and occasionally some World Team Tennis events in the offseason -- there just aren't enough high-profile, televised events held on the Villanova campus to justify major corporate sponsor's dollars.

If they are to sell the naming rights, it will probably be to a major benefactor like Michael J. Hagan at St. Joes . . . or John Eleuthère du Pont at Villanova. Du Pont pledged $5 million in the 1980s to put his name on the Pavilion, but only ever donated less than one-fifth of that amount before his 1996 conviction for murder.

Villanova could always name the building after an Augustinian Priest -- perhaps Father Driscoll, who oversaw the era where the initial building was built -- or Father Donohue, who has feigned interest in athletics on a few occasions underneath the parabolic roof. It would be fitting, since most buildings on campus are named for Augustinian priests, rather than major university benefactors -- a tradition that has perhaps cost Villanova's general endowment eight or nine figures over the years.

Even after a renovation, the tradition of shifting big games to the 20,000-plus seat Wells Fargo Center will continue -- without a capacity increase on campus it will have to. The reason for keeping capacity low is two-fold, (1) wrangling with Radnor Township over zoning approvals isn't pleasant, and (2) the current season ticket-holders have a disturbing trend of no-showing -- and the waiting list may not be as robust as we may think.

The problem with the Pavilion is money. Villanova won't act without it, but it will be hard to raise any of it without a definitive sales pitch. The Wildcats are playing in an arena that feels like the result of an unholy union between a ski lodge and a high school gymnasium, its ambiance is often questioned, and it is often derided by fans as small, quiet, uncomfortable and out-of-date.

A renovation could turn the facility into a much more pleasant place to watch a game. It could improve the revenue that the university can generate from a game day. It could impress recruits, energize a team, and be an all-around plus for a program that hopes to compete with the big boys, though currently stuck with a little-boy's racecar- bed of a home-court.

While I won't go as far as to echo Field of Dreams to say, "if you build it, they will come," I will say that if you present a plan -- even just definitive bullet points -- finding donors small and large will be easier.

Freakonomics covered the topic of fundraising a little while back, and other than using peer pressure and attractive women to do the fundraising, there were a couple of salient points. Most people just don't donate money out of pure altruism, they do it because they value whatever it is that they are donating to. For smaller donations, a charity can appeal to donors with an auction -- dinner with a celebrity, or a piece of memorabilia provide a prompt -- for larger donations, they have to truly believe.

To raise money for a new arena, you have to line up donors who truly believe that what you want to build will be better for the program they love to watch. You have to sell them on the arena's power to help the program -- and yes, on their own opportunity to acquire a better in-game experience. It is just too hard to do that without a firm idea of what you want to build.

Villanova needs to stop beating around the bush and develop a firm list of "wants" for the Pavilion that they can sell to donors, or they may never find them. As of right now, it seems the only plan that is settled is to raise a lot of money.