Room Without A View – Venue operators continue converting unused
space into private clubs far from the action

Room Without A View – Venue operators
continue converting unused space into private clubs far from the
Author: Dave Brooks
Date: August 1, 2006

There was a time when sitting courtside at a
Detroit Pistons playoff game was all any sports fan could ask for.
Sitting right on the court meant top dollar prices, but being only
feet away from players like Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas was the
pinnacle of any sports experience. Not anymore. It?s no longer good
enough to be right in the thick of the action, said Chris Bigelow,
The Bigelow Companies. Fans want additional amenities and new
places to gather and enjoy premium food and beverage before the
game and during halftime. In response, several National Basketball
Association venues are converting old storage spaces into new
private clubs to entertain courtside ticket-holders, sometimes with
all-inclusive packages that cover parking, food, beer and wine.
?People just aren?t satisfied with good seats anymore,? Bigelow
said. ?They want private lounges where they can go during
intermission and have a drink. That exclusivity is very important.?
The trend also challenges another long-held venue notion; that
premium common-areas need to have a view of the game. New premium
lounges at venues like the Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.) and the
Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J., are often far
away from the court ? and besides a few plasma televisions beaming
live telecasts of the game ? provide no view of the court. ?It
takes a little while to explain the concept to some people,? joked
Jeff Corey, director of public relations and marketing for Palace
Sports and Entertainment, in Auburn Hills. ?Most people say ?Wait,
you can?t see the game? I don?t get it.?? At the Palace,
construction crews converted a storage area under the bleacher
section into a new premium product, which Palace staff
affectionately refers to as the Bunker Suites. Officially, it is
the Sterling Bank and Trust Club, a web of eight underground suites
connected with a common club area decorated with a plush, yellow
onyx-stone backlit bar and large flat-screen televisions adorning
the walls. Each suite runs $450,000 per year and includes four
courtside season tickets, and an additional eight seats in the
front-court section. Additionally, the suites include full buffet
and beer and wine for suiteholders before games and during
half-time. ?I think a lot of customers are looking for the
all-inclusive package deals,? Bigelow said. ?It allows companies to
budget at the beginning of the year how much they?re going to spend
on entertainment. Plus if they give the tickets out to their
clients, they don?t want to have to worry about their clients
pulling out their wallets and spending additional money.? Corey
said the bunkers also include personalized parking spaces with the
company?s emblem or logo stenciled on a small set of signs in the
lot, as well as $50,000 in credits applied to Palace of Auburn of
Hills Concerts or catering services for private parties. Designing
the bunker suites under the bleacher area was a bit of an
engineering feat, and Palace officials hired the venue?s original
architect Rossetti and general contractor Frank Rewold, both of
Detroit, to tackle the project. ?They had to develop a unique shape
and make a nice area from a dusty, dirty old area that was
shoehorned under the bleachers,? he said. The bunker seat area was
completed by the opening of the 2005/2006 season and is booked full
for next year, Corey said. The success of that project prompted
Palace officials to create another set of premium off-court suites
it rolled out in April in its newly built Comcast Pavilion, a
55,000 square-foot addition on the Palace?s north side. On the
bottom level of the concourse, Palace officials built a similar
off-court premier seating area housing an additional eight 1,000-
to 1,200-square-foot suites connected to a larger, rustic-themed
lounge area with oak pool table and chandeliers constructed from
deer antlers, backlit by gas fireplaces. The suites cost $350,000
per year and include four floor-area tickets, along with an
individualized ticket package. The suites also include food and
beverage service and parking. Accessing the new pavilion was a bit
of a logistical challenge for Palace officials because there was no
direct walkway across the lower concourse from the floor area to
the new Comcast Pavilion. Ticketholders had to walk up several
levels, then walk back down several flights of stairs again to
access the new area. ?It was not the way you want your prime
clients accessing the arena,? Corey said. After several engineering
meetings, palace officials decided to bore a tunnel under the
central section to connect the floor area with the new
suite-section and create a level walkway for patrons. ?We actually
had to sacrifice a suite section to open up the entrance of the
tunnel,? he said. ?But the trickiest part was when they were
digging the tunnel because they had to tunnel through the main
concourse and we were still open. We quickly moved our entry-exit
doors and installed temporary doors flanking the project.? Other
venues have taken the Palace?s cue, converting old storage spaces
into all-inclusive club areas for patrons. New Jersey Nets GM of
Arena Operations Alex Diaz said his group wanted to emulate the
success of its Nissan Courtside Club for courtside seat
ticketholders, so it decided to create an additional club option
for season-ticket holders in the lower bowl. The challenge, Diaz
said, was the home-court Continental Airlines Center in East
Rutherford, N.J., had no permanent expansion space available
because of National Hockey League and concert commitments.
Eventually the Nets worked out a deal with the center, allowing the
team to temporarily use some space that was designated for storage
during basketball games, but seating during hockey matches. ?For
our games, it was a relatively empty space and we wanted to do some
cosmetic things to utilize the space,? Diaz said. ?Eventually, we
decided to create a mobile club on the footprint of hockey?s
variable riser seating.? The perimeter wall of the club is actually
a giant circular acoustical drape curtain, connected to a single
rail that runs the perimeter of the new club. ?We set it up, so
basically anyone could pull the walls together real quickly,? he
said. Supplemental lighting for the new club will come from a
special ceiling system, while audio-visual cables will also be
coiled above the club and pulled down on game day to be connected
with special mobile wide-screen televisions on specially designed
carts. The new club offers inclusive food, beer and wine and Diaz
said his group is working with concessionaire Aramark to create
some mobile catering carts to service the area. ?Every new arena
has club spaces like these, so older arenas are looking at ways to
utilize old spaces,? he said. ?There?s also the ability to utilize
a space behind the scenes. Everyone wants to be close? and feel
like they?re getting access to areas reserved for players, where
most patrons aren?t allowed to go, Diaz said. ?It?s just somewhere
most people don?t normally get to go. You create an effect for them
where they can walk from their seat to the court level, walk
through the court tunnel, and essentially get to do something that
other people get to see you do, but don?t actually get to do
themselves,? added Tom Glicks, Nets marketing executive. Joel
Glass, vice president of Communication for the Orlando Magic, said
his team also plans to soon construct a new club for courtside
ticket-holders, although he couldn?t release any details on the
project. He said the Magic just freed up an additional 140
courtside seats in a new floor-level seating configuration system.
?We eliminated the tables that were running along the perimeter of
the court and shortened the scorer?s table,? he said. It was
unclear if Magic ticket holders would be able to see the game from
the newly designed club, but Corey said that type of visibility
wasn?t really important to fans anymore. ?What we?re finding from
working with suite-holders is that a lot of people aren?t watching
the game. They?re in the back talking, or networking or something.
They can still hear what?s going on and watch the replays on the
television,? he said. ?You can go out into the concourse during the
best part of any event and find people just wandering around.? Not
every team, however, is sacrificing visibility for exclusivity. The
Utah Jazz just collapsed four suites in the end-zone area of the
arena to create its new Executive?s Club, a premium seat area for
patrons to dine and watch the game. During pre-game, ticket holders
are fed a sit-down meal in a dining area near the seating section.
As the game begins, ticket-holders are shifted a few feet forward
into the seating area, which is adorned with leather seating and
in-seat food and beverage service. During halftime, ticket holders
can return to the common area and eat from a dessert buffet. Four
seats for the club membership cost between $25,000 and $30,000 and
include parking and first rights of refusal for concerts and arena
football. ?We think our premium seat purchasers are looking for a
high-end seat purchase,? he said. Without being specific on
details, Haslam added, ?Over the next couple of years, we plan to
create new opportunities for our higher-end seat holders.?

Interviewed for this story: Chris Bigelow, (816)
483-5553; Jeff Corey, (248) 377-8204; Alex Diaz, (201) 935-8888;
Tom Glick, (201) 935-8888; Joel Glass, (407) 916-2631; Dennis
Haslam, (801) 325-2500