In 1954, University of Pennsylvania Athletic Director Jerry Ford had the idea to create an entity in which the five Division One basketball programs that resided within the city of Philadelphia could compete for the title of city champion. For the 68 years following, The Big 5 has been a hallmark of Philadelphia’s identity. Cities with as rich of a basketball scene as Philadelphia are few and far between. From the Philadelphia Catholic league, which regularly sells out the Palestra for their playoff games, to the Philadelphia Public League, to the NBA and the 76ers, Philadelphians have long shown up and shown out for their teams within their city.
For over a half of a century, The Big 5 was emblematic of the inter-city rivalries that fans craved each year. The five schools, Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph’s, La Salle and University of Pennsylvania would all face off in a round robin style tournament, with one team emerging as that year’s Big 5 champion. The champion would bring back pride to their geographic sector of the city and deliver bragging rights to their fans.
In recent years, The Big 5 has been embattled by increasing apathy for the institution, coming from both the fans and the teams participating in the round robin. Since the mid-to-late 20th century, the only Big 5 school to have any real semblance of success has been Villanova, who has established themselves as one of the premier college basketball institutions in the nation, largely thanks to Jay Wright’s legendary time there. This led to an imbalance between the Big 5 schools, creating a dynamic where the other four schools wanted to play Villanova a lot more than Villanova wanted to play the far inferior Temple, St. Joes, La Salle and UPenn.
This apathy came to a head in Nov. 2022 as The Big 5 sold a measly 3,246 tickets for their flagship doubleheader at The Palestra, and just a handful of students attended the games. This is just one third of The Palestra’s capacity, and, when juxtaposed with the packed, raucous crowds that used to define The Big 5, it was hard to claim The Big 5 as it was situated at that point had much of an appeal to the city.
On Dec. 7, 2022, The Athletic reported that the schools of The Big 5 had convened and agreed to revamp the organization. In the new iteration of The Big 5, there would actually be six teams. For the first time in 68 years, Drexel had been included in The Big 5. The six teams are to be split into two pods of three teams. Each team will play one home game and one away game. After each team plays their games, the winners of the two groups will meet on Dec. 2, 2023 in the third game of a triple header at the Wells Fargo Center as they battle for the title of Big 5 Champion. The second place teams from each pod will face off against each other for third place, and the two last place teams will try to redeem themselves by securing fifth place in the earlier games.
Drexel’s inclusion to The Big 5 comes at a time where many view the Dragons as a team on the rise. In the Zack Spiker era of Drexel basketball, the Dragons have improved their record every single year, and have recorded a winning record three seasons in a row, something that has not happened in most Drexel first years’ lifetimes. The Dragons are returning all but one player from last season, and to fill that one hole is Horace Simmons, a player out of La Salle Prep who is regarded as one of the top recruits in Drexel history. Drexel’s athletics program is rising in many ways at a time when the other Big 5 schools are struggling to recapture the glory they experienced in the 20th century.
In the last eight months, Drexel Athletic Director Maisha Kelly stated that The Big 5 was intent on working with Drexel to create a new format for the tournament that could re-energize the city’s rivalries. One important detail in this process was creating an entirely new business model surrounding the organization. For the past 68 years, The Big 5 had an extraordinarily barebones financial model.
“What became very apparent is that we had to start to look at The Big 5 as a brand if we were to look at getting games on TV in their own media space and to see if we could get sponsorships and leverage this brand that stretches across six different institutions. And, most importantly, how do we create an event? And where do we have this event? That is where our partners at the Wells Fargo Center were ecstatic to add The Big 5 as an asset. Certainly there is no bigger venue in this city that could accommodate this event should we be successful enough to have the opportunity to activate The Big 5 to its highest financial potential,” said Kelly.
With so much at stake for the historical Big 5 institutions, many see Drexel’s inclusion as a testament to the product they have built on the court, in the athletic department, and in the city.
“It’s a well deserved respect that was long due, it’s a tip of the hat to the institution that Drexel is. I could argue that Drexel is one of the strongest and most present members of The Big 5,” Kelly stated.
When asked about her personal experience with The Big 5, Kelly, the Philadelphia native and St. Joe’s Alumni, lit up as she recalled her fondest Big 5 memory.
“In 1994 at The Palestra, St Joes played Villanova. I was a senior in high school, and I was being recruited to run track and field at St. Joe’s. St Joe’s beat Villanova at The Palestra. I was standing in the student section and the student section rushed the court. I didn’t make my commitment that day to go to St. Joe’s, but during my time there as a student athlete…understanding those city rivalries… It’s a brand that is unlike any other,” said Kelly. “We are so local in this city, the different neighborhoods and associations that each school belongs to. The young Big 5 college attendee in me is really thrilled that I get to be at Drexel that is going to be making an incredible impact at this association.”
In response to the most parrotted criticism of The Big 5’s redesign, the fact that the city of Philadelphia seemingly does not care as much about The Big 5 anymore, Kelly offered a nuanced description of how she sees the situation.
“I don’t look at it as a “bringing back The Big 5” I look at it as ‘what is the next evolution of The Big 5?’ The way that students attend games and socialize on college campuses is very different today than it was 68 years ago. There was much more of a community and social engagement at basketball games in this city. We are not going to be able to bring back what The Big 5 once was, but what we can do is re-energize the rivalries that exist amongst the six of us,” said Kelly. “We are going to be in the business of creating an event surrounding these games. We are responsible to make sure that we have events here on campus so that way when we bring in Temple to The DAC this year or that when we go to La Salle and to the Wells Fargo Center, all the students, faculty, alumni and drexel community are with us, so that everyone is willing to be a part of what can be a marquee event for this university. Most importantly, we want to give our students their opportunity to storm the courts.”
Kelly was emphatic in her desire to see Drexel students rally behind the team, reiterating that, “You don’t raise championship trophies without having a community and wave of energy behind you.”
All told, much remains to be seen as to what the revamped Big 5 will actually bring to the city. But Kelly feels that the change has already put the winds behind Drexel’s back as an institution, propelling the Dragons to fly even higher than they have before.
“The biggest win is the brand association. I think what benefits us is the fact that now we are The Big 5 and so there is a brand recognition and association. This is a clear statement. You are known by the company you keep, and it strengthens our position that we are directly associated with The Big 5.”