The new entrance at Chesapeake Energy Arena. (Photo by Rob Ferguson/Oklahoma City Thunder)

For Oklahoma City Thunder fans, the new experience starts as soon as you see the building. The southwest entrance to Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City has gotten a makeover. A glass and metal structure creates an open look from the time fans spot it when they’re on the I-40, headed toward the arena. Upon entering, their feet fall on the National Basketball Association OKC Thunder logo emblazoned in the terrazzo tile floor.

“The new entrance has tremendous visual impact and really gives you a good feel coming in,” said Karina Henderson, corporate Communications manager for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And the changes don’t stop there. The 18,203-capacity Chesapeake Energy Arena underwent more than three years of renovations that touched almost every part of the building. 

“When the SMG staff and the City of Oklahoma City started working on the project there were three goals: to meet NBA requirements, enhance revenue-generating opportunities and improve the guest experience,” said Chesapeake Energy Arena GM Gary Desjardins.

STEP ONE

Construction took place during three phases between seasons at the SMG-managed facility. The first phase was focused on refurbishing the restrooms, upgrading lighting, and making sure broadcasting capabilities were up to NBA standards. Wynn Construction handled Phase A, with architects Benham/SinkCombsDethlefs, which designed the whole project.

“The NBA has a pretty detailed list of what their standards are from the facility end,” said Desjardins. “I’m not going to say it was easy to figure out.”

“A lot of the initial changes were broadcast and cabling infrastructure, as well as the support space needed for all the equipment. Then it went from everything down to the height of doors and how we light the court,” he added.

Don Dethlefs, from the project’s arena design consultants SinkCombsDethlefs, explained that buildings used to mainly light the floor of the facility. The NBA has since realized that it looks better on television to make sure part of the crowd is lit, also. 

“They want it so you see more of the crowd. There are also way more camera positions,” said Dethlefs.

Other renovations included raising the showerheads and adding an extra entrance to the court for officials.

“Nothing’s necessarily weird because there’s a logic behind everything,” said Desjardins. “When you think about it, it makes perfect sense to raise the doors to nine feet tall.”

STEP TWO 

For Phase B, the building closed for five months in the summer of 2009. Renovations included terrace suites, bunker suites and a merchandise store, as well as refinishing the upper level concourse and upgrading seating in the lower bowl. Construction company FlintCo, which handled Phase B, also upgraded restrooms. The 2009 renovations capped off with a $3.9-million scoreboard by Daktronics.

The scoreboard is made up of 10 video displays with an LED ring that can show statistics and sponsor promotions crowning the center-hung device. Two of the bottom video panels are tilted to provide easy viewing for fans with courtside seats. 

“A lot of thought went into what type of board we were going to have. We didn’t want something that was kind of cookie-cutter. We wanted something a bit unique,” said Desjardins. 

“There’s a bit of an angle on the bottom wedges of our video board so it’s easier to see and the folks who are sitting courtside don’t have to look straight up.”

STEP THREE

Phase C was completed October 2012 but ended up being squeezed into a tight time frame due to the team’s success. The final renovations, consisting of offices for the OKC Thunder, will finish in the spring.

“Everybody wanted the Thunder to go all the way to the NBA Finals, but there was part of us that kept thinking about the construction schedule because we’d basically lose two months out of a five-month window,” Desjardins added. “In 2011 it put a lot of stress on all of us — the architects, contractors, subcontractors, Thunder and our staff — trying to get all of the work done and get the building back open in time for the start of next season.”

Manhattan Construction was in charge of Phase C of the work, which included the new Grand Entrance with a multistory atrium and terrazzo tile flooring. A new dining option, Center Court Grill, was completed for the start of the season. The full-service restaurant opens two-and-a-half hours before basketball games and can be rented for private functions on non-event days. There is also a family fun zone.

“Because it was done over a number of years, Chesapeake Energy Arena really had to be designed around being a phased project,” said Dethlefs.

GETTING IT STARTED

“The original building was designed to be upgraded, but not necessarily host a National Hockey League or NBA team,” said Dethlefs. SinkCombsDethlefs also served as arena design consultants for Benham on the building’s original design when it broke ground in 1999 as part of Oklahoma City’s Metropolitan Area Projects, or MAPS, program. Voters in Oklahoma City approved a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax in 1993 to last five years and fund nine capital improvement projects, including the sports arena.

The New Orleans Hornets used Chesapeake Energy Arena after Hurricane Katrina.

“That kind of exposed our audience and the NBA to the idea that it could work in Oklahoma City,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cormett.

“Subsequently, the Hornets went back to New Orleans but the Seattle Sonics ultimately decided to leave Seattle and we were able to get the team conditional on improving the arena,” he added.

The original building wasn’t built to NBA standards, so Chesapeake Energy Arena had to commit to renovations before a team came to the city.

Voters approved a one-cent sales tax March 4, 2008, which was a giant step in securing the move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, where the team would become Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Actual building renovations cost $94.4 million, with an additional $18.2 million put toward a practice facility. 

“We integrated all of the NBA standards into Chesapeake Energy Arena and if they should change in the future or evolve, I think the building has enough flexibility to accommodate that,” said Dethlefs, who added that some of the standards were exceeded to increase longevity.

Desjardins said that the next step for the arena, after completing the OKC Thunder offices, is to enhance the WiFi and distributed antenna systems. There’s currently a request for proposals for the project. 

For now, the GM is more focused on getting used to having an operational building year-round.

“It’s hard to say how many event days we have each year because we keep being shut down for five months of the year for construction,” said Desjardins, who added that he estimates about 110 event days annually. 

With construction complete, Desjardins said he hopes to add more event days to the calendar. However, the Thunder are a strong team, which makes the playoff period a challenge.

“We expect that we’ll go pretty deep in the playoffs. That leaves us pretty much August and September to look at and try to fill those two months, which are typically slower for arenas anyway,” Desjardins said.

Interviewed for this story: Mayor Mick Cornett, (405) 297-2424; Don Dethlefs, (303) 308-0200; Gary Desjardins, (405) 602-5126; Karina Henderson, (405) 208-4788