SAP Center at San Jose has been a beacon drawing residents downtown since opening in 1993. (Courtesy SAP Center at San Jose)

For some venues, longevity and success go hand in hand.

That’s been the case for SAP Center at San Jose. In its first 25 years, the arena has hosted 4,300 events and 40 million fans, including 17 million devotees of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, and has become not only a visitor magnet but also an economic driver for this California city of just over a million residents.

“This was San Jose’s first major sports arena when it was built in 1993,” said John Tortora, co-president of the Sharks. “The significance of this venue is its ability to bring people to downtown San Jose during the week and on weekends.”

It only makes sense with its fan-focused approach that the venue celebrates the milestone by asking its visitors past and present to focus on their experiences at SAP Center.
Marking the Occasion

The campaign for SAP Center’s 25th, which is being dubbed not an anniversary but a celebration, has three pillars. The first is events, which include a gala dinner Sept. 14 on the arena floor for an estimated 600 attendees, including city officials and promoters. Super Diamond, a Neil Diamond cover band, will perform as a tribute to the retired artist who was one of the venue’s most frequent acts. His 11 shows between Dec. 11, 1993, and July 30, 2017, took in more than $8.6 million and attracted more than 155,500 fans.

As part of this concept, there also are plans for a three-day music festival in 2019 that will feature local bands as well as international performers.

“We don’t know of any other building pulling off a three-day concert,” said Jonathan Becher, co-president of the San Jose Sharks. “It’s experimental and pioneering.”

This also will be the first time SAP Center’s team has taken on the task of sourcing its own acts, which has been a challenge even for the building’s experienced staff.

“It’s exciting to learn as we go along,” Becher said. “Elton John normally uses a promoter for his tours, but we are going directly to him and other performers asking them to play here.”

Another pillar is community activations, which will include large-scale projects like an SAP wall mural to mark why the facility is important and help bring residents together to celebrate. Street parties also will be held to mark the occasion and include outdoor concerts.

The marketing campaign’s multiple levels includes six through social media focusing on the top 25 acts that have performed at SAP Center. #SAPCenter25 marks the conversation with fans over social media. Concerts throughout the year will be branded as part of the celebration, as well.

A user-generated social campaign asks guests to contribute photos and words describing their experiences at the facility.

“After just a week, we received over 1,000 entries from people who attended Sharks games, concerts and other events,” said Doug Bentz, the Sharks’ vice president of digital and marketing.

In addition, the social media campaign incorporates the “Sharks for Life” tag, through which fans can describe how, when and where they became lifelong fans of the NHL team.

SAP Center has been positioned as a place to unify a diverse community, which will play into the celebration of its 25th year.

“We think of ourselves as a community center and place for people to hang out, which is the essence of who we are and what we are to San Jose,” Becher said.

History and Evolution
Before it was conceived as a large arena, SAP Center was scaled to seat just 6,000 to 7,000 people.
But George Gund III, with brother Gordon the owners of the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars, wanted to bring hockey back to the area (they had been minority owners in the California Golden Seals, an NHL team that played in Oakland before leaving in 1976). They sold the North Stars and received rights to an expansion team in the Bay Area. When George Gund discovered that San Jose already had plans to build an arena, he met with the city to see about scaling it larger to house an NHL team.

“The NHL and design team needed a considerable expansion to accommodate the 17,500 hockey fans,” said Jim Goddard, executive vice president for governmental affairs, who has been with the building since day one.

At the groundbreaking for the arena, from left: George Gund III, then the owner of the Sharks; San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery; and 1968 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming. (Courtesy SAP Center at San Jose)

An arm of the city, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, financed the project. Amenities were later added to support professional sports and the NHL. The venue cost $165 million to build, not including the land and infrastructure. 

“George spent $40 million on upgrades,” said Steve Kirsner, vice president of SAP Center booking and events, making what’s known locally as “the Shark Tank” a major league arena.

The plan was put in motion in 1990, and after less than a year of planning the construction lasted two years. During this time, the Sharks played at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

Sports architect Sink Combs Dethlefs, which is now part of Perkins + Will, designed the facility, which seats 17,562 for hockey, 19,000 for concerts and about 18,500 for basketball.

“Everyone had high expectations for the market and arena, and everyone involved, including the Sharks, city and community, said it has exceeded their expectations,” Goddard said.

Even a quarter-century later, SAP Center’s design is still sophisticated and up to date from an architectural point of view. Its contemporary design both inside and out reflects Silicon Valley and the technology-focused city. Its two multistory, atrium-style entries on either side of the building give visitors a grand sense of arrival. The venue uses a single concourse for the lower and upper bowls, and the ceiling is white rather than black to make the interior feel more open.

“Because we’re in the heart of Silicon Valley, we have metal on the outside that looks high-tech and is made to reflect the city’s image,” Kirsner said. “Clean lines, concrete and steel lend to our building’s contemporary look.”

It also has a spacious upscale club that supports 3,000 seats.

“When we opened, I characterized it as as nice as any club in the NHL, and it continues to be,” Goddard said.

The first 16 rows of the lower bowl for hockey are club seats with upgraded food and beverages. There also are two groups of suites, one on the main concourse and another on the penthouse level above the upper deck. 

Two years ago, The Grill at SAP restaurant underwent a $4 million overhaul to become the 6,000-square-foot members-only BMW Lounge, featuring a 2,000-gallon shark tank to emulate the arena’s nickname.

“This all-inclusive area is for those who sit in the first three rows,” Kirsner said. “It is all-you-can-eat-and-drink and high end. It’s also a space for VIP parties during concerts.”

Aramark has been SAP Center’s foodservice provider since the building opened. A few years ago, it began incorporating local brands, including Ike’s sandwiches, Armadillo Willy’s BBQ and Gordon Biersch hamburgers.

Summers are devoted to capital improvements to keep the arena in like new condition. “We spend $2 million a year for general arena maintenance,” Tortora said. “We still have original fixtures from 25 years ago, but have been able to maintain the quality.”

About 15 years ago the marquee was changed to include full-color LED, and the scoreboard was replaced eight years ago. Two years ago, the lower-level seats were overhauled. This summer, the lights illuminating the hockey rink were changed out for LED. The staff of 40 full-time and 700 part-time employees includes two painters who work five days a week touching up the facility.

“As things have aged or worn out, they’ve been repaired and replaced,” Goddard said. “There’ve been other changes, like a new sound system, enhancements to acoustics, refurbishing club space and other premium areas, updating food locations and offerings, and replacement of the roof and mechanical equipment.”

Highlights Through the Years
The Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division in their inaugural season at SAP Center, good enough to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. In a conference quarterfinal series, the Sharks eliminated the top seeded Detroit Red Wings, the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, in a seven-game upset. They led the Toronto Maple Leafs three games to two in the semifinals before losing the final two games and the series.

“The year before, the Sharks lost the most games in NHL history,” said James Hamnett, director of booking and event manager. “This was the first significant event for the Sharks.”

The San Jose Sharks turn the arena into the Shark Tank each NHL season. (Getty Images)

The high point for the team came in the 2015-16 season, when the Sharks won the conference championship and played in the Stanley Cup Final, losing the best-of-seven series to the Pittsburgh Penguins four games to two.

Expectations remain high for the home team. “The hockey team is very strong; the Sharks are having a good year,” Tortora said. “The GM and coach have done a great job integrating young players into the lineup to create a very strong, balanced, fast-paced and competitive team that’s in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. It helps that the venue and team are all under one ownership, so the operations are aligned.” The Sharks and SAP Center are both owned by San Jose Sports and Entertainment, headed by Hasso Plattner. 

The arena was the site of the 1997 NHL All-Star Game and will play host to the event again next year.

SAP Center also has hosted gymnastics and figure skating national championships as well as both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, plus indoor soccer, indoor football, roller hockey, lacrosse and boxing.

For nonsports events, San Jose’s ethnic diversity means the venue’s musical acts have included virtually every genre, from classic to alternative rock to country and Hispanic programming.

The arena also has featured some of the top musical performers in the business, including Paul McCartney, U2, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. SAP Center was one of five U.S. venues to snag a spot on that 1994 tour that marked Barbra Streisand’s return to the concert stage, and it hosted Luciano Pavarotti three times.

And that’s just the start. “Our first-ever event was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and this year we had Cirque du Soleil,” Becher said. “In the past, we’ve had inspirational speakers like Tony Robbins and former President Bill Clinton. We try to have broad distribution for widespread appeal.”

SAP Center’s scope is more community-oriented than other arenas of its size. For example, it hosts high school graduations free of charge.

Goddard adds that another highlight was the Billy Graham Crusade in 1997. “Over the three days we estimated the attendance was 71,500. The event was free, and we had to set up overflow areas outside the building.”

Looking ahead, the ownership is talking about further upgrades to the venue.

“We’re having a large conversation with the Sharks, who are looking to upgrade their locker room, which would reconfigure the lower level,” Kirsner said. “We want to stay where we are and do what’s necessary to keep the building competitive and up to date.”

Ideas being considered include blowing out seats to create a loge area with a bar for viewing from the concourse. The installation of bunker seats or a lower-level bar are other options on the table. 

“SAP Center is still one of the top buildings in the NHL, even at 25 years old,” said Jim Sparaco, director of public relations and business operations for the arena and the Sharks. “It continues to drive world-class artists and events, and we’re excited to celebrate many more great experiences at the building.”