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Kansas City, Omaha Are Glad They Built, Even Without Pro Teams

By Sean O’Leary

August 04, 2008

Build it and they will come.

Contributed Photo

The XL Center in Hartford has been operating in the red.

That’s the advice, borrowed from the movie “Field of Dreams,” offered to Hartford from two similar midtier cities that have built new arenas in recent years.

Kansas City, Mo., opened its $276-million, 18,500-seat Sprint Center in 2007, and Omaha, Neb., opened its $291-million, 18,300-seat Qwest Center Omaha in 2003.

Officials in both cities say a new arena is far superior to a renovated one — even if a city has no realistic chance to land a pro basketball or pro hockey franchise.

“It gives you amenities that may not be available if you just refurbish,” said Roger Dixon, president and CEO of Qwest Center Omaha. “If it’s going to cost $100 or $200 million to renovate, why aren’t you building something that makes you competitive?”

Kansas City’s new arena has been “wildly successful,” according to Shania Tate Ross, director of marketing and communications at the Sprint Center. “We’ve attracted events and concerts that haven’t been here in a really, really long time.”

Like Hartford, Omaha and Kansas City, had outdated, smaller arenas — the Civic Auditorium in Omaha and Kemper Arena in Kansas City — and no NBA or NHL franchise. The three cities have similar metro area populations.

In both cases, residents decided that funding a new arena was a superior option to renovating the old classics, which are still operating, hosting a few minor events.

In Omaha, voters approved a $216 million bond issue, while Kansas City’s arena was funded through rental car and hotel fees.

Officials of both cities maintain that their arenas’ successes have been startling and decisive, despite the lack of a professional sports team as an anchor. In fact, Omaha sees a pro team as more of a negative than a positive.

“Financially, it works out better not having a minor league team because the facility is too big,” Dixon said of the Qwest Center. “Having an NBA or NHL team is not even an issue. With those 40-plus nights a year that a team would be there, it would actually hurt our ability to schedule other events.”

College Sports

The Qwest Center has two college sports anchors in Creighton basketball, which averaged 15,909 per home game, and University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey, which averaged 6,305 per home game.

“The new arena has allowed the college teams to expand their fan bases,” Dixon said. “We’re also getting concerts that we weren’t able to get in 20 years because the Civic Auditorium was too small or didn’t have the amenities.”

Amenities from better seating to a more expansive concourse to larger locker rooms have helped Omaha corral a slew of special events that previously went elsewhere.

For the 2007 fiscal year, 1.2 million fans attended an event at the arena.

The building has attracted first and second round games of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March and the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships in 2006 and again in December. The NCAA Wrestling Championships are scheduled in 2010.

Olympic Trials

Last month, the arena hosted the U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming. A two-million gallon Olympic-sized pool was built on the arena floor. Large crowds attended the two-week trials, including 13,717 fans, a national record for a swimming event, on July 4.

“It’s something that spurs development,” Dixon said. “You have the bars and restaurants downtown filled when we have an event going on. When I landed here eight years ago to take this position, the Missouri Riverfront was junkyards and empty. It’s totally different.”

The Sprint Center, which opened last October, also has exceeded expectations in Kansas City. The arena had been expected to attract 1 million spectators to 90 events in its first full year. But through July, after operating only nine months, the arena had already drawn 1.2 million fans to 119 events.

“We have been very well-received,” Tate Ross said. “It’s been wildly successful in attracting more events and showing that downtown Kansas City is the place to be.”

With an Arena Football League team as its only regular tenant, the Sprint Center has lined up a number of men’s college basketball events -- NCAA Tournament games, Big XII Conference games and CBE College Basketball Classic -- as well as a multitude of concerts.

In November, Garth Brooks played nine straight nights to sellouts, Tate Ross noted. “These acts would have gone to St. Louis or Omaha just a couple years ago,” she said.

Kansas City’s success has drawn inquiries from other cities that face arena choices. Earlier this year, a contingent from Baltimore visited the Sprint Center.

Last month, Baltimore officials announced plans to build an 18,500-seat area on the site of its 14,000-seat 1st Mariner Arena for up to $400 million. But prominent leaders have questioned the concept, and there are no set plans to pay for it.

For Kansas City, the matter is clear: build a new arena. “There are so many more expectations in terms of amenities from performers, athletes and spectators,” Tate Ross said. “You can’t compete if you don’t have the most updated arena.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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