The TV shots from the All-Star Game festivities reminded me of two things about Kansas City.
It has a preoccupation with water fountains. The Kansas City area boasts some 250 fountains, four or five of which operate just beyond the outfield at Kauffman Stadium.
The other thing is, Kansas City sports fans are crazy. Not only did they offer a rapt audience for the Home Run Derby bore-athon, they turned American League Derby captain Robinson Cano into a public enemy for reneging on his promise to appoint a Royals player to the competition.
A city whose fans heckle a Home Run Derby hitter is a city where sports passion runs deep. Kansas City proved that four decades ago. During an era when functional but charmless multi-purpose sports facilities were in vogue, the Chiefs moved into a football stadium designed for football while the Royals moved into an adjacent baseball park designed for baseball (and water fountains).
That a baseball park should be more intimate – and smaller, by about half – than a football stadium is not exactly a revelation. But in 1973, the idea was as cutting-edge as a portable computer.
While Kauffman Stadium was in the spotlight this week, another K.C. sports palace, the 19,000-seat Sprint Center, remained a terrific place to, well, watch events not associated with sports. As the debate over the feasibility of Chris Hansen’s proposal for a Seattle arena rages on, the empty nest that is the Sprint Center offers a clue about the frustrating process of luring an NBA or NHL franchise.
Seattle arena proponents tend to think the only challenge is to survive a food fight that has brought the Port of Seattle, anti-tax advocates and even the Mariners to the table. Let’s just assume, for the sake of avoiding argument, that both the Seattle City Council and the King County Council get on board for the $490 million project. All awaiting groundbreaking then is the assurance of an NBA franchise relocating to Seattle, where it would be owned by Hansen and his co-investors.
A done deal, right? The NBA desperately wants to return to the 13th-largest media market in the U.S., right? Once the NBA returns, the NHL will take notice, and one of its struggling teams will ditch the Sunbelt for a city that’s positioned for a natural rivalry with Vancouver, B.C.
Only one problem: Relocation is much more easily said than done. Kansas City figured franchise instability in the NBA would free a team from an unprofitable market – it figured the NHL would follow – and so it went ahead and built a $276 million arena largely funded by taxes from rental cars and hotels.
By all accounts, the Sprint Center, which opened five years ago this October, ranks as a stupendous piece of work: The glass-enclosed structure is aesthetically appealing, a destination point for the downtown Power and Light District that teems with restaurants, nightclubs and shops. Parking is convenient.
Inside, it’s got all the frills required of 21st century arenas: 72 luxury suites, a team-apparel store on street level, and several options for fans to eat, drink and be merry.
The only amenity missing from the Sprint Center is a consistent reason to, like, go there. Kansas City appeared to be in play for a relocated NBA franchise after Clay Bennett bought the Sonics, but Bennett was determined to take the team to Oklahoma City, his hometown.
Meanwhile, the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators considered Kansas City, but the Penguins got the arena they wanted, and the investor key to moving the Predators helped keep it in Nashville by purchasing a share of the club.
The New York Islanders remain a possibility – voters rejected a proposal for a $400 million arena last August – but the franchise will remain on Long Island until its arena lease expires in 2015.
As for the Sprint Center, “unused” would be too strong a word. The arena is used here and there. On Friday night, for instance, an “American Idol Live” show will be staged. On July 24, the always enlightening WWE Smackdown comes to town, and on July 27, an audience will have the opportunity to watch something called “Big Time Rush.”
Because my pop-culture senses are mired in places like Mayberry and Hooterville, I had to consult the “Big Time Rush” website: “An American television series about the Hollywood misadventures of four hockey players from Minnesota – Kendall, James, Carlos and Logan – after they are selected to form a boy band.”
Four Minnesota hockey players selected to form a boy band? Hey, it sounds more plausible than “My Mother, the Car.”
For that matter, it sounds more plausible than the Sprint Center ever gaining an anchor tenant. The NBA franchise most likely to relocate – the Kings, who stopped through Kansas City on their way from Cincinnati to Sacramento – look like they’re destined for Anaheim, but don’t discount suitors from Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa/St. Pete, all of which have built new arenas.
If Hansen’s proposal drives through the bureaucratic green light, Seattle will have something Kansas City doesn’t: An organized ownership group. Then again, Kansas City has something Seattle doesn’t – a state-of-the-art place to play – and all it’s brought is pop concerts, wrestling, the circus, the occasional college basketball tournament, and the madcap Hollywood misadventures of four hockey players from Minnesota selected to form a boy band.
If an arena deal is approved in Seattle, and if such complex issues as rush-hour snags and bond-credit ratings are resolved with a consensus deemed agreeable to all, the nuts-and-bolts phase of the construction should be easy.
The real headache will precede the groundbreaking. How difficult will it be for Chris Hansen to buy an NBA team in a marketplace where Kansas City’s rich sports tradition, and glittering $276 million arena, aren’t even a email@example.com