Say goodbye to tradition: Philadelphia’s Big 5 gets facelift

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The Big 5 is no more.

Well, at least not the incarnation most fans of the famed Philly basketball series remember from its heyday, when the Palestra was packed, fans hurled colorful crepe streamers on the court after the first basket and student signs known as rollouts poked fun at the other schools.

And when the Palestra, the basketball cathedral on Penn’s campus, was sold out, someone would always say, “corners,” meaning even the cheap, angled seats in the corners were filled. As college hoops evolved, the Big 5 was dying on the vine in Philly, so after years of traditionalists squawking – and attendance and interest waned and teams outside of the Main Line saw their programs sink – the time was ripe for a change.

Oh, it’s still the Big 5 by name. The brand still means something in college basketball.

Only Penn, La Salle, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova will be joined by Philly’s sixth Division I program, Drexel. Gone is round-robin play. Schools instead will be split into three-team pods with games played at on-campus arenas, with the teams then seeded for a Dec. 2 tripleheader at the Wells Fargo Center that will crown the Big 5 champion.

“We all have to promote Philadelphia basketball more than we do,” La Salle coach Fran Dunphy said Tuesday at the arena.

The Big 5 – the name was coined by Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Herb Good – was officially formed in 1954, and the schools started round-robin play for “City Series” bragging rights in 1955. The first game was 68 years ago when Saint Joseph’s beat Villanova 83-70 on Dec. 14, 1955, in front of 2,636 fans at the Palestra.

Nationally televised conference games, destination-site November tournaments, March Madness and a brief abolition of round-robin play in the 1990s chipped away at the Big 5’s national importance.

On a local level, the schools did little to keep the rivalries alive. Students lost interest and fewer star players on each team were from the Philadelphia area. For all its charm and history, the Palestra isn’t equipped with modern amenities such as suites, convenient parking, a variety of concessions and other revenue-generating staples found at a modern arena such as the Wells Fargo Center, home to the 76ers and Flyers.

Villanova’s rise as a national power under Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright – who championed the changes to the Big 5 – came at the expense of its city rivals. The Wildcats won a series-record 25 straight games from 2012 to 2018, and most of them weren’t close.

The other programs slumped and when Villanova did this year, too, under first-year coach Kyle Neptune, Philadelphia failed to place a team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977.

The Big 5 tried to reignite interest in November with a doubleheader at the 8,700-seat Palestra and it was a disaster. The games were played with almost no student sections and only about 3,000 fans total. While not necessarily the catalyst for change, schools knew at that point there was little risk in throwing out the staid format and starting fresh.

Without a gamble that the revitalization attempts will work, the Big 5 was at risk of fading away.

“We were kind of at an inflection point with Big 5 basketball, with the national landscape of NCAA sports, what can we do to perhaps infuse some energy, some life and protect our brand of basketball,” Drexel athletic director Maisha Kelly said.

And no, Kelly said, Drexel didn’t want a series name change like some had suggested to the City Six.

“That’s the brand. It’s Philadelphia. It’s the Big 5,” she said. “It’s part of our story and history. So 100 years from now, when people say, why is it Big 5 when there are six institutions, we get to tell the first 68 years of the story of what it was and in 2023 it was Drexel arriving.”

In the new format, Temple, La Salle and Drexel are in one pod; Villanova, Saint Joseph’s and Penn are the second pod. Those games will be played in November.

There are still some kinks to work out, such as which teams get home games, and how a tiebreaker would be settled. The women will join the field – though those games will not be played at the Wells Fargo Center – in 2023-24. TV rights are still to be decided. And the tripleheader is not expected to be included in a team’s season-ticket package.


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