When former Temple Men’s Basketball guards and current coaches Aaron McKie and Mark Macon were competing for Big 5 titles from 1987-91, being crowned the best team in Philadelphia meant something. Fans and students from all across the city would pack their respective arenas to support their teams.
Now, the Big 5 title feels like an afterthought in the city. While teams have shifted their focus to conference play, most fans turn their attention to the NFL and College Football Playoffs during the early months of college basketball season.
“We used to play a lot of these Big 5 games in January and February,” said University of Pennsylvania head coach Steve Donahue. “That’s when the Eagles are done and the city can concentrate really on college basketball. That’s hurt the Big 5 and I think we have to figure out the right model going forward.”
After defeating Saint Joseph’s University on Dec. 6, the Owls secured their share of a Big 5 championship for the first time since the 2012-13 season by going 3-1 against their city foes and splitting the title with Villanova following the Wildcats’ victory against the Hawks on Dec. 17.
Instead of this once-prestigious milestone being celebrated by students and Temple fans across the city, the recent lack of excitement surrounding the Big 5 has swept the accomplishment under the rug . A once intense and storied rivalry has seemingly lost its prominence in the city that created it.
The diminished significance of the rivalry comes amid declining attendance for Temple Men’s Basketball, a trend that may soon be on full display when students fully leave campus for winter break, leaving behind swaths of empty seats at The Liacouras Center.
The Palestra hosted its first Big 5 doubleheader since 2016 on Nov. 30, marking only the third this century. Big 5 doubleheaders used to be a staple of college basketball in Philadelphia, something students and members of the community looked forward to attending.
This year, the atmosphere was subdued compared to the once rowdy and energized crowds that once sold out gyms. Only 3,300 people attended the doubleheader on Nov. 30 in a building that can hold almost 9,000. There were minimal chants, no signs, no student sections and the buzz, that longtime Philadelphia basketball fans can remember from its prime, was non-existent.
Arthur Johnson, Temple’s athletic director and vice president, made it clear that the university would not prioritize convincing students to attend the Owls’ games at the historic Palestra.
“That’s not our home game,” Johnson told The Temple News in October. “Understanding and respect and love that history but we got a great arena that’s next door and we want to play at home. Again, I am pushing you to roll out of bed and walk across the street, I’m not trying to ask you to go down there to jump into that.”
La Salle University and Saint Joseph’s — the other visiting teams in the doubleheader — also did not provide students with transportation or tickets to the games.
However, the underwhelming turnout can’t fully be blamed on universities not providing student access to games. The city has not shown out in the same way it once did, with some fans blaming scheduling for the low attendance.
“I think it was poorly done,” said Adam Poppel, a longtime Temple basketball fan and Media, Pennsylvania resident. “When I heard they were having a doubleheader I thought it was awesome, then when I heard it was on a Wednesday night, that was stupid. If you want your alumni to come, they’re working till five o’clock and the first game was at six o’clock on a Wednesday night, they should have had it on the weekend.”
After low turnout at the doubleheader, representatives from Villanova, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, Penn, La Salle and Drexel University met to discuss the future of the Big 5 and how to increase game attendance before next season, including a potential tournament-style tripleheader that would include all Big 5 schools as well as Drexel, The Athletic reported.
Attendance has been an issue for Temple at more than just Big 5 games as the Owls have struggled attracting fans in recent seasons. With students currently on winter break, attendance numbers will likely drop even lower through January. Since being named athletic director in October 2021, Johnson has prioritized improving attendance across all Temple athletic events, but results have yet to be seen.
“I think we should draw a larger crowd, and I don’t know why we don’t,” said Alex Wadsworth, a senior business management major. “Especially being in Philadelphia where we supposedly have some of the best fans, it surprises me that we don’t get behind the basketball team as much and show out a little bit better.”
The college basketball landscape has also completely changed. Fewer local players are committing to Big 5 schools, opting to follow the Name, Image and Likeness money to programs that can make guarantees other schools in the Big 5 – with the exception of recent national champions Villanova – haven’t been able to make.
During its peak, a large majority of players on Big 5 teams were from the Philadelphia area and already familiar with the cultural significance of the rivalry. It wasn’t necessary for coaches to explain the importance of Big 5 matchups to their players, they just knew.
The Owls currently have just two players from the Philadelphia area, sophomore guard Hysier Miller who attended high school at Neumann Goretti and sophomore forward Zach Hicks of Camden Catholic.
“I’m gonna have to give guys a history lesson on the Big 5,” McKie said prior to the Owls’ matchup against La Salle on Nov. 30. “Some of our guys that’s not from the surrounding area to get them to understand.”
Fans are also staying home because the Big 5 is less competitive than during its prime. In the mid-80s through late-90s, all five colleges were considered to be teams capable of winning the Big 5. Prior to the 2022-23 season, Villanova had won seven of the last eight titles. Even in what can be considered a down year for the 6-5 Wildcats, they were still able to win part of the title this season.
The Big 5 has simply not carried the same weight as it did for the people who can recall watching their local schools battle for “bragging rights to the city.”
While it’s possible the Big 5 has peaked and has become a thing of the past, some Philadelphians hope it can be revived if teams can get back to their winning ways. Basketball is still alive and well in Philadelphia, meaning the door will never fully be closed on the Big 5’s return to cultural significance among local sports fans.
“It depends on one thing, winning,” Poppel said. “If Villanova, right now they’re not playing well this year, but if they keep at their level they’ve had the last few years, if Temple can get back to that level they were in the mid-80s and a La Salle or Saint Joe’s or another team is really good, if all the teams are winning, that can bring the Big 5 back because then there’s gonna be real rivalries between all the schools.”
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