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Arco's flaws have Kings calling foul

Originally published: 5/29/05

Eric Cameron has watched the Sacramento Kings play basketball in Arco Arena for 16 of his 21 years. The Arco experience is so much a part of his life that he says games are more like family reunions than sporting events.

So Cameron, like many others around Sacramento, has reservations when he hears talk of the Kings needing a new arena, one that would actually replace his beloved Arco. Standing at a concessions stand at a Kings playoff game last month, he expressed his doubts about the need for something new.

"I'm really happy with what we have here; it's a real family environment," said Cameron, of Sacramento. "I guess there are some issues, but I don't see what's beyond these halls. And really, the main thing is the game."

Up on the fourth level, where the sound of the sellout crowd swells and reverberates, Lilly Smith of Roseville shouts that she thinks Arco's just fine, thank you very much. "They say it's old and dilapidated," Smith said, looking around her at the cheering crowd, the hip-hop dancers and flames shooting from above the shot clock. "I just don't see that."

Cameron and Smith personify the public relations hurdle facing any effort to build a new arena in Sacramento. After more than two years of arena discussions, many of even the most stalwart fans still don't see any reason to replace Arco.

Bobby Hernreich, a minority owner for the Kings, acknowledges that such fans present a ticklish situation for the organization. How do they honor the iconic stature that Arco carries in the community while at the same time pushing for a state-of-the-art facility?

"The public likes Arco; it's familiar and it brings them closer to the action, " Hernreich said. "But the truth is, Arco is impractical. A 450,000-square-foot arena in this day and age doesn't work. The optimum size is almost twice as big."

City Councilman Ray Tretheway said he, too, knows fans love Arco's intimacy and acoustics. But Tretheway has had a look at the facility behind the scenes and offers a blunt assessment.

"It's a dump," Tretheway said.

If public opinion polls, conventional wisdom and the fan on the street are to be trusted, the Kings have yet to make their case for a new arena. That Hernreich, a bona fide Kings insider, is leading the latest public relations push indicates Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof have reached the same conclusion.

For more than two years, as the controversy over a new basketball arena has raged, the Kings have let others - including Mayor Heather Fargo, businessman Tony Giannoni, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas - lead the public push for a new arena. But one after another, those efforts have failed. Now, the Kings are pushing the agenda themselves and starting at square one.

Maloof Sports and Entertainment has spent around $10 million on repairs and improvements to Arco, including upgrading audiovisual and concessions equipment, said spokeswoman Sonja Brown. They also built a new $9.1 million practice facility for the Kings.

But this Band-Aid approach can continue only a few more years, Hernreich said. Compared to modern arenas, he said, the facility is small, the layout awkward, the seats uncomfortable and poorly placed, the concourses narrow, the kitchen too cramped, the amenities too few - problems he argues can't be fixed with piecemeal renovations.

He invited several reporters and editors from The Bee for a recent tour of Arco. The group was led by Brad Schrock and George Heinlein of Kansas City-based 360 Architects firm, a company specializing in the design of sports complexes. The firm was commissioned by the Kings early this year to conduct a study of Arco's maintenance needs over the next five years. The report has not yet been completed.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Arco Arena should be replaced - renovating this arena is simply not in the cards," Heinlein said. "My personal feeling is that the useful life of this building as an NBA-caliber arena is no more than four or five years."

The idea for the maintenance report came from NBA Commissioner David Stern, said the Kings' Brown. Stern has said several times that Arco soon will be obsolete, and that the Kings need a state-of-the-art arena if they're to stay in Sacramento.

"He pointed out that we would need to provide this information to the public and to politicians when they asked why Arco needed to be replaced," Brown said.

Strip away the action on the court, the roar of the fans, the pyrotechnics, the glitter, the Kings dogs and the T-shirt stands, and the core reality of Arco is a 16-year-old building, the second oldest unrenovated arena in the NBA.

In assessing the arena, 360 Architects compared Arco with four sports complexes built in recent years: Charlotte Arena in North Carolina (scheduled to open this fall); FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. (2004); Toyota Center in Houston (2003); and SBC Center in San Antonio (2002). Their numbers show Arco falls behind the newer arenas in overall space, amenities and revenue-generating features.

From a player's perspective, Arco would be considered spartan, Heinlein said: Home locker rooms in state-of-the-art facilities can be more than triple the size of the Kings' and far more luxurious. The Kings' changing area offers just the basics.

The locker room for visiting teams at Arco is downright shabby: The furniture consists of folding chairs, many patched with duct tape. There are no lockers: Players use a line of hooks, each labeled with masking tape scrawled with a player number.

While fans might love Arco, they would find that modern facilities offer far more amenities, according to the architects. They're more like upscale shopping plazas, with an array of stores, a wide choice of restaurants and hopping after-hours clubs.

To speed customers through food lines, new arenas have a cash register for every 100 to 111 seats, according to 360's comparison. At Arco, the ratio is 1-to-307. Arco has fewer suites than state-of-the-art arenas and no high-priced club seats. It also lags in restroom capacity.

Recently, USA Today sportswriter Greg Boeck traveled to all 29 NBA venues, rating them for fan friendliness. Arco ranked No. 8 overall, a high score boosted by fan involvement. Boeck found lots of problems with the facility itself, including long concession lines, minimal fan amenities and hard upper deck seats.

Said Boeck: "Kings fans love their team and raise the roof cheering, which is good because the older arena, built in the mid-1980s, provides little to cheer about."

There's one eight-burner stove in the kitchen. While the newer arenas have several wide concourses, Arco has one relatively narrow passage, made more cramped by portable food and souvenir booths.

Arco's auditorium design is also obsolete, Heinlein and Schrock said. Sight lines for lower-level seats are often obscured because the rise between one row and the next is not high enough. There's less seating for disabled people than would be required in a new arena.

But much of what the comparison shows lacking at Arco involves operational elements - and the Kings' bottom line.

Modern arenas can be used for multiple sports and entertainment events, ensuring the facilities are year-round money-makers. Schrock, of 360, said rapid changeovers are the "lifeblood" of an arena, allowing more events and more revenue.

Arco's "completely outdated" ice system requires two days to make a sheet of ice, Schrock said. That's made it impossible to lure a hockey team and difficult to hold ice-related events, according to John Thomas, president of Maloof Sports and Entertainment.

While 16 years wouldn't be considered a life span for most buildings, in Arco's case, the problem is exacerbated by what wasn't included when it was built in the first place, the architects said. Arco's price tag in 1988 was $40 million. The other two arenas that opened that year were more costly: Bradley Center, home of the Milwaukee Bucks, was $90 million; and The Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons, cost $70 million, according to a report commissioned by the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce last year.

Since then, the Pistons have poured millions more into The Palace, adding space and amenities; under way now is a $20 million project to provide a courtside lounge, new entrance, more retail space and an expanded concourse.

It was The Palace, with its 180 luxury suites and 6,000 club seats, that spawned an era of bigger, better and pricier arenas, according to Dennis Howard, professor of sports finance at the University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. The Pistons pre-sold the seats, raking in "tens of millions each year," Howard said.

"I call it the Palace revolt," Howard said. "Every other owner saw what Detroit did and wanted their own fully loaded venue."

The Charlotte arena, built around the same time, had only 12 luxury suites and "was economically obsolete the minute it was built," Howard said. This year, the team is closing that arena and moving to a new one.

Howard said the average modern arena has more than 80 luxury suites and thousands of club seats. Between 1985 and 1994, the average arena (in 2003 dollars) cost $150 million. By comparison, arenas built between 1995 and 2003 cost an average of $223 million (in 2003 dollars).

Howard and other experts interviewed acknowledged there's a cycle at work, an upward spiral of palatial facilities fueled by pressure to keep up with other cities and the revenues other teams are generating.

What's less clear is how much fans benefit.

Fans generally like the fancy digs and extensive eating options, said Michael Mondello, a professor of finance and economics in Florida State University's sports management department. Usually there's a spike in attendance after a new arena is built.

More money and better facilities also can help lure better players, which in turn can be a fan draw, Howard said.

But the most "splendiferous" amenities - such as private clubs and concourses - affect only the highest-paying customers, he said.

And, in general, said both professors, the real benefit of the fully loaded arena is to a team's bottom line.

For example, while ticket revenue for general seating is shared between the home team and the visiting team, the cash from luxury suites and club seats stays with the home team, Mondello said.

In discussions about replacing Arco, the Kings owners have said they want an "NBA standard" venue with wider seats and more shopping and dining options. They propose more seats - 18,000 from 17,317 - as well as 5,000 club or VIP seats and at least 55 luxury suites. They've indicated they think a new facility would cost about $400 million.

Whether fans see the need or not, the issue isn't going away, according to Chamber of Commerce President Matt Mahood. A chamber-led panel concluded last year that Arco has five years of useful life remaining. Mahood said that message has yet to be absorbed by the public.

"Maloof Sports has done such a great job of customer service that any problems with Arco are hidden pretty well," Mahood said.

But gloss and customer service won't change the operational issues at Arco, Mahood said, and won't stop the clock ticking. And while he believes the Kings don't want to leave Sacramento, he doesn't know if they'll have much of a choice.

"The Kings have become one of our best marketing pieces," Mahood said. "If the team leaves ... the region's self-image will be set back 20 years."

Cameron, the Kings fan, said despite his allegiance to Arco, he's open to being convinced there's a need that he doesn't see. If the team's owners say they can't stay in Sacramento unless Arco is replaced, he said, then somehow, a new arena should be built.

"If there are problems with Arco, then they just need to be right in our face and say (a new arena) is a great thing," Cameron said. "It's not going to hit home until people from the organization talk to the fans."

The Bee's Terri Hardy can be reached at (916) 321-1073 or thardy@sacbee.com.

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