As the new NBA arena in Sacramento shows, the number of seats a venue has is a poor measuring stick. The Golden 1 Center is stuffed with amenities and NBA commissioner Adam Silver hails it as the league’s new standard despite having the smallest seating capacity.
Inside sports business
When an AECOM architectural team first explored in 2014 whether KeyArena could be renovated for NBA and NHL, they looked at an under-construction venue in Sacramento for guidance.
The Golden 1 Center, which AECOM had just designed, was still two years away from opening. But the incoming Sacramento Kings home offered a glimpse of an NBA future in which smaller venues such as KeyArena might become the norm.
It would have smaller square footage, but greater steepness in seating sections to maximize views, emphasis on high-tech bells and whistles and arguably the best “green” footprint of any North American sports facility. The AECOM engineers had designed a model in which bigger wouldn’t automatically be better.
“The most recent NBA arena in Sacramento is going to be significantly smaller in square footage than the arenas of five or six years ago,’’ Ryan Sickman, author of AECOM’s final KeyArena report in July 2016, told me last February. “The dynamics of what it takes to support the NBA and the dynamics from a fan amenity standpoint are different. Expectations from fan amenities, expectations from experimental elements of the game are changing.’’
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The Golden 1 Center opened last month, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver hailing it as his league’s new standard.
Silver told me last April his league had not ruled out a KeyArena renovation.
“Nothing’s a closed deal,’’ Silver said. “Especially with what an arena renovation looks like these days compared to the old days. It’s very different. And so, when somebody talks about renovating KeyArena — depending on how much was invested — it could be just like a new arena, frankly.’’
The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and the Tim Leiweke-Irving Azoff led Oak View Group are both preparing KeyArena remodel bids. Both major sports venue firms were persuaded by AECOM’s findings that KeyArena could be expanded without demolishing its iconic roof and triggering historical preservation claims.
They also have close personal ties to Silver and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Oak View Group has business deals with 22 North American arenas, including the Golden 1 Center.
CEO Leiweke said his partners are huge fans of Seattle and its arena potential. “It always absolutely amazes me,’’ he said, “that a world-class city doesn’t have a world-class arena.’’
Neither AEG, the Oak View Group, Silver, or Mayor Ed Murray plan on slapping a few coats of paint on KeyArena and calling it a day. They envision a transformation into something unrecognizable, knowing full well an all-private arena pitched by entrepreneur Chris Hansen in Sodo District remains the front-running competition.
So, what is this new NBA standard the Sacramento arena supposedly represents?
For starters, a 675,000 square-foot geographical footprint is one of the NBA’s smallest, as is its 17,500-seat capacity. But the thinking behind that, as well as the AECOM-designed 17,732-seat Barclays Center in Brooklyn, is fewer seats create more sellouts and higher season-ticket sales — as fans fear they otherwise won’t get into games.
The Kings also doubled their previous number of luxury suites, providing extra revenue to offset the seating dearth.
And what the Golden 1 Center lacks in seating, it makes up for in fan experience.
Kings owner and tech mogul Vivek Ranadive calls it “the Tesla of arenas’’ with a Wi-Fi system reportedly 17,000 times stronger than a household network. An arena application allows fans to chat on social media from their seats, view instant replays, order refreshments and even be guided to the shortest restroom lines.
Absorbent and directional speakers offer better acoustics. The sound of on-court sneaker squeaks is piped in to luxury suites for an enhanced game-watching experience.
A 6,100 square foot, 4K ultra-HD center-hung video board is four times clearer than high-definition television. More than 600 smaller HD video displays run throughout concourses and suites.
The venue is solar powered, food and beverages are locally sourced and restrooms use as little water as possible.
But the most intriguing feature, still being tested, is the five-story tall, hangar-like doors that fold away in one section to create an indoor/outdoor experience without a change in temperature, wind or humidity.
Future plans may include using robots to help with security. Or seats equipped with armrest cellphone chargers.
No one knows whether some or all of these features could be implemented at KeyArena. Or whether it will be decided that a Sodo arena can do all that and more.
The difference now is, we’ve opened our process — and minds — to all options.
Major League Baseball long ago adopted the view that bigger isn’t always better starting with Camden Yards in Baltimore ushering in smaller “retro” stadiums in 1992. By 1996, the California Angels decided to forgo building a new stadium in favor of renovating the 65,000-seat Anaheim Coliseum into a downsized 45,000-seat venue that became the gold standard for such makeovers.
In contrast, plans to build new MLB parks in Atlanta and Arlington, Texas, barely two decades after prior ones opened has alarmed those concerned about perfectly good, taxpayer-funded venues being abandoned. That runs contrary to an emerging NBA trend that includes arena renovations announced or ongoing in Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Minneapolis.
Not all renovations work out like new. It’s up to Mayor Murray and the Seattle City Council to decide whether a KeyArena makeover trumps the Sodo plan.
But exploring the renovation question is something AECOM author Sickman passionately argues all cities should be doing.
“Moving forward, you’re going to see the civic leaders of tomorrow have a real hardship in putting public money toward these public assembly facilities to benefit private individuals and corporations,’’ Sickman said. “I think, in instances like this, where you’ve got one that has proven to be capable. … I think there’s definite potential for exploring an option there.’’
An option in which, if the Sacramento venue truly has become the NBA’s standard, sheer size won’t be the determining factor.