Sprinting to the Finish: KC’s Hottest New Event Venue Takes Shape

September 1, 2007

FF Sprint

By Michael Humphrey

It looks like a giant glass cushion, set on the edge of downtown, a newsworthy newcomer to a fairly conservative skyline. It was designed by a group of internationally renowned architects who are usually competitors. These architects made peace, because this particular project was in their mutual hometown – and that’s beyond newsworthy for Kansas City. It’s historic.

Welcome to Sprint Center, the most exciting building project in downtown Kansas City for a generation. Over the past two years, the $276 million “crystal bowl” has risen out of the ground one curved glass pane at a time – wowing locals as they drive by and exciting sports fans who hope it’s more than just an interesting façade.

Sprint Center is part of a $4 billion downtown renaissance, which includes the attached National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, the $850 million Kansas City Power & Light entertainment and residential district and the new, 40,000-square-foot Kansas City Convention Center ballroom expansion.

But Sprint Center’s hopes for success rest upon what’s inside rather than out. City leaders made sure of that when they partnered with Anschutz Entertainment Group to manage it. And AEG, which manages Staples Center in Los Angeles among many other venues, must be confident that it can sell Kansas City. They plopped down $54 million of their own.

“Tim Leweike, our president and CEO, has Kansas City roots,” says Shani Tate Ross, director of communications and marketing for Sprint Center. “Back in 2004, when Mayor (Kay) Barnes and others wanted a landmark arena to benchmark downtown and other development opportunities, AEG took notice. We didn’t just invest in the facility itself, but the city and the region, to really mark downtown’s resurgence and return Kansas City to its glory as one of the top touring markets in the nation.”

Barnes said in a recent meeting that landing AEG as a partner and manager of the facility was a key goal for the city.

“We wanted a group that has experience succeeding at the highest levels,” Barnes said. “AEG is internationally known for drawing the biggest events in sports and entertainment.”

And AEG is not shy in naming its goals. One is to bring the Big 12 basketball tournament back to Kansas City (it’s been in Dallas and Oklahoma City of late), which will happen in 2008. Another is to draw major touring acts (rock shows, ice shows, etc.), many of which have been going to Omaha. The final goal is to provide an opportunity for a third major league team, either hockey or basketball.

But Ross says that while those three goals are paramount, they do not exhaust Sprint Center’s efforts. Meetings and events, both behemoth and small, definitely factor into Sprint’s plans.

“We have a hospitality manager and an events services department,” says Ross, “who know how to work with groups, whether it’s a meeting for 10 in the main lobby or an intimate gathering of 15,000.”

The bowl takes shape

Like most major civic projects, not everything went smoothly.

The first major hurdle for city leaders was passing a ballot initiative to get the arena built. They decided to push a $4 rental car fee that was vehemently opposed by several rental car companies and anti-tax advocates. There were estimates at the time that $800,000 was spent to prevent the passage of the initiative, but it prevailed with 57 percent approval.

Then came the flap over who would design the arena – and it was the kind of controversy that is actually good for a city. As National Public Radio reported at the time: “In Kansas City, home to some of the nation’s top sports architects, a competition is unfolding to build a new downtown sports arena. The local firms’ competition comes from acclaimed California architect Frank Gehry, who’s better known for designing museums.”

Gehry’s team was not made up entirely of outsiders. It included A. Zahner Architectural Metals, a Kansas City company, which has partnered with Gehry and other architects in making some of the famous buildings of the past decade (the Guggenheim in Bilboa for one). But Gehry was still playing against a team with home field advantage. So you can guess who won.

The selection process was fast, and some complained it was not open enough, but a group called Downtown Arena Design Team won with the crystal bowl concept. And many have argued it was the design, not a hometown advantage, that took the prize. Simple and evocative all at once, Sprint Center has the potential of being an icon in the city.

Downtown Arena Design Team is a pretty humble name for a group of heavyweights: HOK Sport (Busch Stadium, Pepsi Center), Ellerbe Beckett (Qwest Field in Seattle, Guangdong Olympic Stadium in China), 360 Architecture (Mizzou Arena, American Airlines Arena in Miami) and Raphael Architects (Midwest Research Institute).

That kind of excellence matters when it comes to attracting a potential anchor tenant, be in basketball or hockey.

“My take on Kansas City is positive,” NBA Seattle Super Sonics owner Clay Bennett told The Kansas City Star during a visit to the city. “You’ve got a brand new, beautiful building in an important market. It’s viable. We’re going to do a complete and thorough evaluation of the market.”

And whether it’s NBA or NHL or neither, Ross says the Sprint Center is ready to help Kansas City become a major market in the country again.

“From October through July, we already have 88 events,” Ross says. “The building performs well without an anchor tenant, but obviously we’ll perform better with those 41 or more dates that come with an anchor tenant.”

Exceeding meeting expectations

So what does that mean for meeting planners? It means a venue with serious caché.

Any venue that is seen on television, hosts major sporting events and concerts and is the talk of the town as a structure will naturally be the place where planners want to treat their patrons next. Ross says that is natural, but it doesn’t mean that AEG will be competing with the convention center over a pie that’s already set. The pie is going to grow.

“We consider our marketplace to be that 250-mile radius around the city, those 8 million people within,” she says. “The hope is to bring more of those people to town more often and obviously the meetings marketplace is part of that vision. From Municipal to the Music Hall to Bartle and the new ballroom, we have fantastic meeting room space available. Sprint Center is going to complement that space.”

And Tate Ross is quick to point out that AEG’s experience hosting events has some pretty serious caché of its own. In fact, Sprint Center’s general manager Brenda Tinnen, who worked in Los Angeles for many years, has pulled off some events you might have heard of before.

“She’s done six Grammy Awards, she’s done the Democratic National Convention,” Ross says. “With the caliber of events that she has done, really, the sky is the limit.”

But glitz is not the main selling point, service is.

“It is our hope that not only with the content we provide, but with the service that we deliver, we will elevate the entertainment expectations across the region,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether you are coming to a public event or renting the space for a private function, customer service is AEG’s focus.”

Schedule matters

But when you’re dealing with an arena that has 700,000 square feet and a staff trying to fill it 365 days per year, conflicts could be an issue for a group that can’t book the entire building. Ross says the staff will work together to avoid conflicts.

“It would be ideal that you as a meeting planner wouldn’t know what’s going on somewhere else in the arena,” she says. “So there won’t be someone booking a jackhammer exposition while someone is having an intimate meeting. It depends on the size of the event and it depends on the commitment. But if you’re looking to hold a small meeting and the date is available, you’re treated just as if you were Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake.”

Options for meeting spaces at Sprint Center:

• The Grand Lobby, which connects both Sprint Center and the National College Basketball Hall of Fame and is best for groups of 200 to 300.

• The Sprint Event Center, which is two connected suites that hold up to 100 people, but also comfortably host smaller groups.

• Club 1407, the VIP club, can host groups from 10 to 100.

• The arena floor can be set up for groups of 30 to 2,000.

• The concourse bar can comfortably host groups from 30 to 300.

• The entire arena can host 18,000.

The entire building has wireless Internet, the building will have 37” and 42” LED monitors in the suites and throughout the concourses, and Levy Restaurants will be the sole caterer in the building.

“The rate card is currently being set and that’s based on industry standards and the local economics,” says Ross. “We obviously want to make anything work that a planner calls in. And we’ll do whatever we can to make it work.”

(Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Kansas City, Mo.)

Sprint Center

14th and Grand Blvd.

Kansas City, MO 64106

(816) 283-7300

www.sprintcenter.com

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