SBJ/June 23-29, 2014/Opinion

By design: High standards set by Pittsburgh facilities

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IIf you’re interested in how sports venues can be successfully integrated into an urban core, visit Pittsburgh. I spent three days there earlier this month and marveled again at how planners artfully and effectively developed PNC Park, Heinz Field and Consol Energy Center into the city’s footprint. PNC Park is one of the most impressive facilities in baseball, and Heinz Field has a grandness to it as its open south end overlooks the Allegheny River. After a reception one evening at Heinz Field, I had an easy walk over to a Pirates game at PNC while looking out at the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the city’s skyline. Add the Consol Energy Center, pitched up a hill at the end of downtown, and you will experience one of the most picturesque yet accessible urban sports centers I’ve seen in the U.S.

> DIGGING IN THE DIRT: After three days speaking to executives at our Veritix Sports Franchises & Facilities forum, a few things stood out. First, a relentless pursuit to increase the life span of today’s sports venues so that an organization can save itself from the skyrocketing costs of massive renovations or a total rebuild. The belief is that venues have a 30-year life span, and so the building boom of the last two decades means we are having to look at these buildings again and assess their long-term viability. All operators hope the design and bones of a building are strong enough to allow them to implement incremental improvements. We’ve all seen buildings with design challenges become quickly outdated and razed for newer, increasingly more expensive structures; Three Rivers Stadium and the Charlotte Coliseum come to mind. Meanwhile, buildings with solid location and design remain relevant through renovations. Arrowhead Stadium is an example. If the design of the lower bowl is sound and the building’s bones are good, a facility can maintain relevance and save a city and owner the increasing cost of a new venue — a price that can hit $1 billion even for today’s arenas. 

A perfect example is PNC Park, which offers the best downtown view of any facility I’ve seen.  Pirates owner Bob Nutting acknowledged the team is establishing a master plan for PNC Park for the next decade to keep it competitive and refreshed (see my colleague Don Muret’s Breaking Ground column on Page 13). He acknowledged that the team’s previous facility, Three Rivers Stadium, didn’t have the “sustaining legs” as a ballpark design but he believes PNC Park “has sustaining legs as one of those iconic ballparks, like a Wrigley, like a Fenway.” Purusit of “iconic sustainability” should be the goal going forward.

Cavs CEO Len Komoroski noted that Quicken Loans Arena is 20 years old, saying, “We’re the third-oldest arena in the NBA that isn’t either new or hasn’t had major structural renovations.” He also said the building’s design and structure are strong and it is in position to have an extended life with some enhancements. “The building has a good operational footprint,” he said, “but from a fan experience end, we lack what I would say are neighborhoods, spaces where people can be communal. We lack spaces for interactivity, which you would see at new-generation venues. We’re always rethinking our space as a whole.”   

The takeaway isn’t surprising, but it’s relevant. Flawed design diminishes renovation as an option because it’s throwing good money after bad. Today’s venue designs are so sophisticated that this should be less of a problem going forward, enabling buildings to have a lasting impact. But watch the buildings developed in the late 1980s through early to mid-1990s and assess their viability going forward. 

> WHO ARE YOU? Another takeaway from the conference is that teams still don’t know enough personal and behavioral information about their fans. Most executives acknowledged that half to two-thirds of the people in their facilities are nameless/faceless buyers. Mark Rossi, vice president of sales and marketing for Dover International Speedway, said during a session, “We only know one in about four ticket holders in our grandstands.” AEG Digital President Bryan Perez summed it up well when asked what type of CRM technology his company is still seeking. “It’s, ‘Who are you with? Who is in your group?’” he said. “I don’t know whether the person who purchases tickets is the one who went, or was it someone else. The more that we can drive electronic and mobile ticketing, the better, because that transfer really tells us who is in the building. … Any technology that could triple my database overnight is going to be pretty interesting.” 

> AMERICAN BEAUTY: One of my stock questions over the years has been to ask team executives what organizations, outside of their own, do they admire most. One answer is constant: the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s easy to understand why when seeing the consistent success of the organization and the respect for how the Rooney family operates. It’s been a challenging offseason for the organization, with the deaths of longtime scout Bill Nunn and hall of fame coach Chuck Noll, but sitting with Art Rooney II in his hometown, what stood out was his simple, straightforward view on balancing the tradition of the “game” with the push to improve the fan experience. 

“There’s a new generation of sports fan that expects different things,” he acknowledged, before offering a caveat. “You’re constantly trying to improve your stadium, but not to the point where it’s a distraction from the game. We’re not trying to re-create someone’s living room at Heinz Field. We want a great in-stadium experience. The little things count, the convenient things, like access to the stadium and parking.” His message was clear: Focus on the game. When teams focus on fan enhancements, it should be additive to the actual game.  

A couple of other points: Rooney grew up in the league and understands the benefit of a productive relationship between the league and union. When I stated the relationship between the NFL and NFLPA seemed “strained,” he was blunt: “‘Strained’ might be one way to say it.” He said the lack of an agreement on HGH testing has been “a thorn in everyone’s side. We feel very strongly about it. It’s not something we can compromise on. The players association has made it a bone of contention that they will not let go. It’s taken much longer than any of us would have liked.”

Rooney echoed the sentiment of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross from a few weeks ago when he said that there is still great interest in the Los Angeles market but it remains a building issue, and the league will have an active role if any team lands there. “It’s all about a stadium,” he said. “I believe we will have one, maybe two teams, there in the next 10 years. The league just wants to make sure it works this time.”

Not surprisingly, the football traditionalist is less bullish on a team in London and specifically cited travel issues. “I’m not necessarily sold on the idea that we need to have a team there to be successful,” he said.

As for a typical game day at Heinz Field? “I arrive about three hours before the game and meet with the staff,” he said. “I walk the building with [stadium manager] Jimmie Sacco. I enjoy those hours before the game, speaking with fans, with people who work in the stadium, with people from the visiting team. After kickoff, I’m not much of a socializer. I focus on the game.” Talk to anyone in the Steelers organization and they will tell you he’s well-known for watching the game in a room in the corner of the press box with only his father, Dan, and general manager Kevin Colbert.

> QUICK HITS: Targeting youth is still the biggest issue weighing on executives, and Nutting acknowledged a frustration for baseball that “not enough young people are playing.” Asked what the biggest challenge facing baseball is, he said, “Now that we put some of the ethical issues and performance-enhancing drugs behind us, I think a main focus is engagement with youth and building that next generation of passionate fans. Part of that goes to young people playing the game and loving it.” … I  am eager to see consumer reaction to the 20 poolside cabanas in Jacksonville, a project worth keeping an eye on.  Legends is developing the cabanas for the Jaguars — with a lounge area, cushioned furniture and TVs — and they are bullish on them. “We took input from the marketplace,” said Mike Ondrejko, COO of Legends Global Sales, of the idea. “We’re confident the cabana concept is going to be an absolute home run.” As of last week, the team said 65 percent of them had been sold. Meanwhile, the novel amenity has not surprisingly hit the mainstream media. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert talked about the cabanas, saying, “This bold plan raises a lot of questions, like, ‘Why?’ and, ‘Really, why?’” The team said that it wanted to use “underperforming” areas in the stadium and “get creative.” Colbert: “They should tackle the stadium’s most underperforming area: that green liney space in the middle. Let’s get creative in there. You know what? Maybe put a professional sports team on that thing.”  The team had to expect such a response.… The Pirates’ Coonelly, on the challenges of updating Wi-Fi at PNC Park: “It’s taking a while, but we will be completely wired by August. You will be amazed how many wires it takes to become wireless.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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