The Edmonton connection
The Edmonton Oilers didn’t play their first regular-season game at Rogers Place until two weeks ago, but iterations of the $465 million arena had been spooling through the imagination of owner Daryl Katz for eight years — or since the day he bought the NHL team in 2008.
Against strong opposition in the league’s second-smallest market, Katz willed his vision into existence as the centerpiece of a $2 billion downtown development funded by a public/private partnership. Then he took control of the details. “Down to the fabric on the chairs in the suites,” he said.
So as DJs in the split-level Sky Lounge high above the ice spun vinyl on the custom-designed d&b Audiotechnik sound system, and an elaborate video presentation flashed across the massive 46-by-46-by-35-foot Prismview hi-def scoreboard, the league’s largest, it was no surprise that Katz couldn’t contain his delight. “This has exceeded my every expectation,” he said.
But Katz wasn’t the only man who runs an NHL franchise in the building that night. And here is a surprise: The other was nearly as jubilant.
Calgary Flames CEO Ken King presides over a team that plays in the 33-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome, three hours down Queen Elizabeth II Highway. Though the Oilers beat the visiting Flames, 7-4, on opening night, King saw the evening unfold with a growing sense of satisfaction, understanding that his franchise’s bid to get a new arena of its own was gaining a substantive boost.
“The best thing that has happened to our objective was the successful erection of that building,” King said the next afternoon in his office suite in Calgary. “And last night’s game was the best commercial for it that we could have had. Everybody watching on television down here was looking at that big, beautiful edifice for three hours. It proved what can be done in an Alberta city.”
Rogers Place is stunning, a piece of architectural showmanship with a capacity to generate revenue like few other NHL or NBA buildings. “Our aspiration, and I’ll put it plainly, was no less than to generate the finest arena in the world,” said Bob Black, the chief project development officer for the Oilers Entertainment Group.
As the centerpiece of Ice District, a multiuse development of hotels, condominiums, office towers, retail and entertainment outlets that won’t be fully operational until 2019, it is poised to regenerate the urban core of a North American city to an extent rarely done by a sports facility. “There’s a positive energy that goes through the locker room and permeates out into the city,” Wayne Gretzky, now a partner and executive in OEG, said before the game.
Yet the impact of the new arena will be felt well beyond Edmonton. That the league’s most economically muscular facility is now located in a metropolitan area of roughly a million people has ratcheted up possibilities everywhere. “The fact that we were able to accomplish this in Edmonton has raised a lot of eyebrows around professional sports,” Black said.
As the great wave of North American venues age together, they will clearly lack the amenities or the revenue generation capacity of Rogers Place.
“Step one for anyone considering a new building is, go visit Edmonton,” said Tim Romani, the CEO of Icon Venue Group, which managed the design and construction of Rogers Place.
Representatives of more than a dozen teams — mostly NHL and NBA, but also several outside North America, and even an NFL franchise — have toured the arena or will be touring it soon. Many are looking to build their own facility in the near future. “They’re all coming to visit us now,” Katz said.
It’s Calgary, Edmonton’s provincial rival in everything from higher education to weather, that stands to benefit most. The Flames started studying a replacement for their aging venue not long after the Oilers did. They’ve submitted a plan, called CalgaryNext, to the city council. And like most plans that require a government contribution, it has met resistance.
“We’ve been kicking this down the road for five years,” said Calgary council member Diane Colley-Urquhart. “I’ve been meeting with the Flames organization for even longer than that. If the political will were there, this would have been done a long time ago.”
Fortunately for the Flames, politicians’ positions tend to evolve in step with their constituents’ desires. If a high enough percentage of the population decides it wants a new arena, King knows that legislators such as Colley-Urquhart and her colleagues will find a way to help build them one.
As King was leaving Rogers Place after the opener, he was approached by groups of fans wearing Flames jerseys amid the sea of Oiler orange. What they told him was what he wanted to hear. “I heard it over and over as I was walking out,” he said. “‘Hey, Ken, I love this building. We need to get one in Calgary.’”
On the day that it opens, every big league venue purports to be trendsetting and groundbreaking, the greatest building ever built. Some actually are — at least until the next one. “This was a monster vision by Daryl Katz,” Romani said.
As in every new arena, you’ll find features from other successful facilities at Rogers Place, as filtered through Katz, Icon, and the HOK architects and finessed by budgetary limitations. Black alone visited 40 arenas around the world.
|Highlights of the new arena include a new Hall of Fame, theater boxes (below) and team locker room.
But the building’s centerpiece features stand out. First, the large footprint and seating bowl. Across five concourses and 819,000 square feet (some 140,000 square feet bigger, for example, than Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and 40,000 square feet bigger than Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, which opened Oct. 4), two-thirds of its 18,500 seats are either situated in the lower bowl or in a
A split loading dock, part of which is weather-protected and hidden from public view, will enable musical acts to arrive and depart faster than many buildings. “What you won’t have is a beer delivery arriving while Madonna
But what really stands out is the multiuse space that the team can activate in the public-access atrium called Ford Hall. The open area will connect to meeting facilities at the JW Marriott hotel scheduled to open in 2018 and empty into a public square, providing real estate for meetings, product launches, and other events almost impossible to calculate.
“Ford Hall is a bridge, as well as a lobby, as well as an event space,” said HOK’s Ryan Gedney, the lead designer on the project. “It extends the arena out over a busy road and into the rest of the development. The flexibility allows the space to work a lot harder and do more things, instead of sitting empty non-event time, as a lot of lobbies tend to do in these venues.”
In the first 30 days after Keith Urban inaugurated the arena with a concert on Sept. 16, the arena staged 109 discrete events, ranging from a fantasy-league draft for suite holders to the simulcast of a World Cup of Hockey game to a chamber of commerce function. A German group has booked Sky Lounge for an off-night gathering. Companies are renting various spaces for Christmas parties. “We’re still discovering different configurations that we hadn’t even considered,” said Stew MacDonald, OEG’s chief commercial officer.
The arena’s premium seating includes 57 full suites, down from 66 at Rexall Place — but also 850 theater boxes of four and eight seats. Beyond that, specialty areas are organized by what Katz describes as “neighborhoods,” each decorated with a proprietary color scheme and design elements. The split-level Sportsnet Club, which looks like a mashup of a sports bar and a TV studio, feels utterly different than the Sky Lounge, which wouldn’t seem out of place in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel.
The Oilers maintained a focus on club exclusivity throughout their “neighborhoods,” as patrons must have tickets in those specific sections to access the clubs. No seat holders from outside areas or other clubs are allowed in. So when the Sky Lounge remains open after a game on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, serving alcohol for an additional hour, only residents of that “neighborhood” will be listening to the live music. “There’s a whole range of product mix sold as premium that is not necessarily like products anywhere else that are sold as premium,” Romani said.
|Representatives of more than a dozen teams, including several outside North America, have toured the arena or plan to do so, as they look for ideas to incorporate into their own projects.
|Ford Hall serves as a public-access atrium.
The premium spaces will continue to evolve, MacDonald said, as it becomes clear how closely the actual demographic of each area matches the early testing. Eventually, each will offer food choices and other amenities tailored specifically to its clientele.
In other ways, too, the arena remains a work in progress. On opening night, not surprisingly, ushers seemed uncertain of how spectators could access some of the arena’s signature features. (At least one media member found himself stuck on a stairwell behind an eighth-floor door that the arena crew had neglected to unlock.) Some seats, including King’s prime location nine rows off the ice where a view of the full ice sheet was limited, offered obstructed views. And especially for a facility named after a wireless provider, phone service in many areas was surprisingly spotty or nonexistent.
But such glitches, and the usual clamor about high ticket prices and $11 beers, didn’t undermine the Rogers Place experience for the vast majority of spectators.
“As fine a barn as has ever been built for a North American professional sports franchise,” was columnist Dan Barnes’ review in the Edmonton Journal the following morning. For a fan base that has endured a decade without a playoff game, the combination of young superstar Connor McDavid and the new building has generated optimism about the future.
“Does it translate into success and a Stanley Cup?” Gretzky asked. “I hope so.”
Katz maintains that the building has already paid tangible benefits toward that achievement. “We signed the No. 1 free agent in the league,” he said, referencing winger Milan Lucic, previously in Los Angeles, who agreed to a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Oilers in July.
“I got a full tour when I visited,” Lucic confirmed. “It was definitely one of the things that they pushed. And it definitely was a factor. You spend about as much time here as you do at home, you know?” These days, Rogers Place is a prime topic of conversation when Lucic hears from friends around the league. “Everyone wants to know about it,” he said. “Players are excited to come here and play, even as a road player. So you can imagine how we feel about being here night after night.”
None of this is lost on King, nor on the Flames’ five major investors, known collectively in Calgary as “the Billionaires.” Although the public contribution of CalgaryNext, as proposed by the Flames, is limited to $200 million in Canadian dollars, and an advance on an additional $240 million of projected tax revenue, the ownership group is keenly aware that getting public subsidies for a project that will benefit some of the city’s wealthiest men is nothing if not an uphill climb. “Even their best-case scenario,” Calgary’s popular mayor, Naheed Nenshi, a former professor at Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business, said, “is still a lot of money that we don’t have.”
But that was this summer, long before Rogers Place.
Nowhere are the aftershocks of Rogers Place’s unveiling felt more strongly than in Calgary. King understands the dynamic at play between the province’s big league cities. He published newspapers in both of them, serving as a highly visible member of the business communities, first in Calgary and then in Edmonton, before signing on in 2001 to run the Flames. He pushes back against a perception that positions Edmonton as Calgary’s blue-collar little brother. “There are probably more millionaires there than here,” he said. “And if you want to talk about historical envy, when the university was put in Edmonton, there was a great gnashing of teeth. And that was decades ago.”
The gnashing hasn’t stopped. Calgary gained worldwide recognition as host of the 1988 Winter Olympics. It is spending more than $10 million on a bid for 2026 Winter Games. The Calgary Stampede rodeo, exhibition and festival draws more than a million visitors annually to the city. But it still smarts from a lack of NHL success compared with Edmonton’s Oilers, who rose from WHA obscurity to a place as one of the sport’s iconic franchises.
|The success of Rogers Place and the Ice District could help the Calgary Flames in their push to win approval for CalgaryNext, shown in these renderings.
And while both cities typically outspend others their size on
So it’s no mystery why Rogers Place generates an emotional response in Calgary. “I’m happy for Edmonton but I’m desperately jealous,” Colley-Urquhart said.
CalgaryNext, along the Bow River in the West Village area of downtown, includes a fieldhouse that doubles as an indoor football stadium for the city’s CFL team. It is now the site of a bus station and surface parking lots, meaning it is prime river real estate that has been woefully underused for decades.
Still, it wouldn’t have nearly the same local impact as Ice District, where Katz was able to leverage the popularity of the Oilers into necessary investment in the moribund city center. “Their project has been a catalyst for revitalization of their downtown, which really didn’t have very much going on,” said Evan Woolley, another of Calgary’s council members. “The difference is, Calgary already does.”
An arena itself? That’s another story. The Saddledome is located in the district Woolley represents, so he regularly hears about its inadequacies from his constituents. “They complain about the bathrooms,” he said. “They complain about the amenities.” Among his constituents, Woolley allows, the need for a new arena is taken for granted.
It’s no accident that eight of Calgary’s 15 council members toured Rogers Place with Nenshi the week before the opener. And while some council members seem prepared to lose the team rather than spend any government funds, a proposal for an arena on a different site, near where the Saddledome now stands, has been floated by the city. A report that may include a concrete proposal for the Flames should come in the next few weeks.
Either way, most of Calgary seems to agree that another venue is needed to keep the team and ensure its competitiveness. Whatever the chances were of that happening before, they’ve improved because of Rogers Place, according to Colley-Urquhart.
“There’s nothing that will drive this thing more,” she said, “than us playing second-fiddle to Edmonton.”