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When You Build It. . . : . . .money Comes

L.A. Has Some Lessons to Learn as It Prepares to Join the Ranks of Cities With Flashy New Arenas

August 16, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you build it . . . then what happens?

Amid the jackhammer roar and splashes of cash, as a wave of new, ever-more distinctive NBA and NHL arenas open across the sports world to expectant audiences, there is only one titanic lesson to be learned as the projected L.A. arena crawls to completion:

Ultimately, after the deal-making and design theories are done, when the doors open and the games start and the ticket-buyers soak in the good, bad and ugly, you get what you pay--and plan--for.

More than a score of new arenas have been completed since 1988, and though a vast majority of them are pumping new life and money into their teams and owners, a few are not.

The difference between, say, the $175-million United Center in Chicago, home to the Bulls and Blackhawks since 1994, and the $52-million Miami Arena, home to the Heat and Panthers since 1988?

"Chicago has 212 suites which generate over $30 million in revenue a year," said Eric Woolworth, general counsel of the Heat and a point man in plans to move out of the eight-year-old building. "We have 16 sky boxes that generate under $1 million a year.

"You can do that math."

Miami Arena was built at the same time as the still very profitable Palace at Auburn Hills near Detroit, but was built in a less-than-ideal part of town and had its original plans for luxury suites scaled back.

How fast did the building grow stale? The Heat began looking to get out three years after it opened--and have plans to build a new arena in the resort area of town--and the Panthers, who are owned by the man who built the arena, Wayne Huizenga, have a deal for their own new building in Broward County.

"The Miami Arena was obsolete from the moment it was built," said Ron Turner, a principal at NBBJ Sports and Entertainment, a leading sports architecture firm.

"The biggest lesson," said Bill Robertson, public relations director of the Mighty Ducks, primary tenant of the Pond of Anaheim, "is location, location, location. . . . You have to have a family environment where people feel safe to come to your venue."

And as the developers of the L.A. project near the selection of a site--either in downtown L.A. or in Inglewood--the lessons of Miami, and other troubled venues, ring loud.

Said Woolworth: "It wasn't built for the '90s. It just wasn't. What we've learned, we've learned in the negative. The arena is basically a relic: You know you want a wider concourse, better amenities for your fans; you want better parking for your fans. . . . "

If Miami Arena is the industry's classic white elephant, a slew of more recent NBA-NHL arenas--from the United Center to the Gund Arena in Cleveland to America West Arena in Phoenix to the Pond--have dramatically upped the arena ante, from state-of-the-art sight lines to interactive areas for wandering ticket-buyers.

Among the just-up and soon-to-be-finished arenas, the average number of luxury suites is about 100, the costs are about $180 million to $220 million and the retail and interactive treats are burgeoning.

Since 1991, 13 new major indoor arenas have been built, and eight more are scheduled to open by the end of 1998.

In Philadelphia, where the $200-million CoreStates Center is scheduled to officially open later this month as the home of the NBA 76ers and the NHL Flyers, there will be an on-site microbrewery, 126 luxury suites, on-line kiosks, and a virtual-reality booth in which fans can step into the skates of an NHL goalie.

"We just booked Ray Charles to kind of shake the facility out, and we had about 11,000 people," said Peter Luukko, president of the arena complex. The complex also includes the team's former building, the Spectrum, which is next door to the new arena. "We did record food business, and I couldn't believe so many people who kept making comments to me this is like going to the Disneyland of arenas.

"That's the kind of feeling we wanted people to leave with. It really has paid off for us, you can see it already."

Luukko, who used to operate the Sports Arena and Coliseum in L.A. for Spectacor Management Group, projects that the new arena, which is owned by the company that owns both the Flyers and the 76ers, will take in double the revenue of the old Spectrum--but also put the company $160 million in debt.

Luukko, eagerly observing the developments in L.A., says that expectations are higher for the future home of the Kings and Lakers than for any sports building yet built.

"In L.A., the pressure's on," Luukko said. "Obviously, it's the entertainment capital of the world. It can't be a vanilla arena.

"But on the other hand, you have all the excitement of L.A., the fact that stars come to every event, so it'll be an exciting place to begin with. It's amazing that Los Angeles does not have a major brand-new arena at this point and when it does have one it'll be fantastic."

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