There was probably no better test for Kansas City, Mo.’s Sprint Center than bringing country legend Garth Brooks out of retirement for nine sold-out shows the month following its opening 10 years ago.
When the $276-million facility officially opened on Oct. 10, 2007, Brenda Tinnen, general manager and senior vice president for AEG Facilities, had a hard time not picturing the worst case scenario.
“It was the first time Garth (Brooks) tickets had ever been sold online, and that was the first day we were allowed into our facility box office,” she said. “I don’t think I slept at all, knowing we had to train everyone and be ready to push the button.”
It turns out Tinnen’s greatest fears were unrealized. The Garth Brooks tickets sold out for all shows in less than 2 ½ hours; his wife, country music star Trisha Yearwood, agreed to come on board as the opening act; and the final show was broadcast internationally, giving the new venue an opportunity to use its networking capabilities while providing added exposure.
“We have learned a lot in the last 10 years,” said Tinnen. “One of the reasons I pushed so hard for Garth to play our building was because I felt he was a true representative of our Midwest culture. He brought a heartwarming, family-oriented vibe to our new facility.”
That’s not to say that everything went off without a hitch. When Brooks asked for an iron, rather than have his clothes professionally pressed, someone from Tinnen’s team had to make a beeline for the nearest drugstore to accommodate his unorthodox request. When hosting the world’s top performers, it may be impossible to be totally prepared.
It’s a testament to the venue and to Kansas City, which has come a long way since Tinnen first left that city in 1988.
“I was at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and met with Kansas City’s mayor at the time, Kay Barnes, to hear her vision about the downtown revitalization; it made me homesick and excited to be a part of Sprint Center,” said Tinnen.
Inspired about the possibilities to resurrect the then-desolate city, and determined not to fail in her hometown, Tinnen kept her focus on the mayor’s vision.
The goal was to create a true reflection of Kansas City, hence a building of glass. The free open house after the ribbon-cutting ceremony attracted 25,000 people who responded positively to the new facility.
Now anchoring more than $6 billion of reinvestment in a revitalized downtown, Sprint Center is a unique public-private partnership between the city of Kansas City and AEG. It also has been recognized as the fourth busiest arena in the U.S. by Pollstar magazine.
According to Bob Newman, president of AEG Facilities, Sprint Center’s success from an arena perspective and the revitalization of the city’s downtown urban core is a model that others still imitate, even 10 years after opening.
“This is one of the first buildings other communities visit when contemplating a new arena,” said Newman. “That is the kindest form of appreciation, when others look to imitate it.” He added that this is due to the entire community, from the municipal leadership to the corporate stakeholders and community groups, all working together.
HANDS ON FROM THE START
For much of the team, including Tinnen, involvement with Sprint Center began even before it was built.
The staff assembly started in 2006 during the construction phase, providing those who would be working in the facility with first-hand knowledge of the venue, its design and all the intricacies that were involved with its creation.
“I’ve opened a few facilities in my day, and this is the way to do it,” said Tinnen. “It helped to sit around the table with architects and project managers and ask them questions about why they were doing what they were doing. It gave us good insight and the opportunity to have some input into the arena design.”
The hallmark of the building is its transparent exterior comprised of 2,204 glass panels that allow views both into and out of the facility. Each glass patterned panel weighs between 700 and 750 pounds and reflects light day and night.
After counting down the days until opening, Tinnen had to remind everyone that while the design and construction crew’s job was done, theirs was just beginning. The process ended up being a great bonding experience for everyone.
“It was one of the smoothest openings I’ve ever been through, because people knew the building, their way around and why it was designed the way it was,” she said.
With Elton John performing the first show three days after opening for a total of 18,000 people, it helped set the stage for what was to come over the next decade.
Originally projected to host 90 events and nearly one million visitors in its inaugural year, Sprint Center exceeded original expectations by hosting 140 events and 1.4 million people.
Its sports kick-off was just as impressive as its concerts; Sprint Center played host to the 2008, 2010 and 2011 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championships, the first and second rounds of the 2009 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s Basketball Championships and 2010 NCAA Women’s Basketball Regional.
Sprint Center was named one of 2016’s top venues in the world by Pollstar magazine and, according to its year-end report, ranked 26 among worldwide arenas and 12th in the U.S.
More than half of the Top 30 arena tours played the venue in the last year, including Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Coldplay, Disney on Ice, Justin Bieber, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Carrie Underwood, Drake, Dixie Chicks and Twenty One Pilots.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE DECADE
While Garth Brooks was one of the most memorable performances during Sprint Center’s decade in operation, country music star George Strait continues to hold the attendance record at 19,533 on Jan. 18, 2014.
“This may be due to the fact that this was his final concert before becoming a Las Vegas resident performer,” said Tinnen.
Other well-attended events include the 2013 Big 12 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships with 19,256 attendees, its biggest basketball turnout, and the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Los Angeles Kings versus the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sept. 27, 2011 with 17,554 attendees, its largest for hockey.
“Sprint Center has been a game changer in terms of the events we can attract and host,” said Kathy Nelson, president and CEO of the Kansas City Sports Commission. “Before this facility was built, we were at risk of losing the NCAA Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship, and it was difficult to attract those types of events to our city. Now, I can’t picture what our downtown would be like without it.” She added that athletes, officials and judges are continually impressed with the customer service, cleanliness, space and ease of working in the building, which have played a part in its success.
Sprint Center is marking its 10th year with a 12-month celebration of strong lineups, with 2016 events that included the Tour of Gymnastics Champions, Florida Georgia Line, Amy Schumer, Maxwell & Mary J. Blige, and Cirque du Soleil: OVO. This year’s schedule has included the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, The Lumineers, Eric Church, and Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. Garth Brooks also performed seven sold-out shows this past spring.
The arena has contracted with the NCAA Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship through 2020 and was awarded the NCAA Men’s Regionals for 2019.
Although the dirt shows have always been a hit at the venue, Sprint Center was recently tested with back-to-back shows that had different turf requirements.
“We had Monster Jam that required dirt, then had to take it out for a Jeff Dunham performance, then bring in a different grade of dirt for PBR (Professional Bull Riders), and right after that, replace the dirt for Arenacross,” said Tinnen. “We had to take dirt in and out three times in one month, while trying to keep our glass building clean.”
Another challenging double-header was handling a sold-out John Mayer show on a Friday night while Fox TV moved its equipment in for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) coverage. Because the network was going live early, the house was turned over to Fox at 2 a.m.
“John Mayer and his team were so nice and courteous, allowing the UFC folks to store some of their equipment behind his curtain,” said Tinnen.
Philanthropy also has been a hallmark of the venue. Established in 2009, Sprint Center Foundation is the official charity of Sprint Center and addresses community needs by investing in measurable, sustainable programs that improve the quality of life of area residents in the areas of music education, youth and neighborhoods. Sprint Center Foundation distributes grants annually in the spring and fall of each calendar year. In 2015, Sprint Center staff devoted more than 5,000 volunteer hours in support of local nonprofit and civic organizations.
Tweaks and Updates
In an arrangement between the city and AEG, CAPEX (capital expenditure) money became available for about $8 million in building improvements this year.
Enrichments scheduled during the 10th anniversary celebration include refined premium areas and additional club spaces, new video elements and televisions, enhanced food and beverage offerings and event-level improvements.
“We’ve never had to shut down or missed an event, we just work around our schedule,” said Tinnen. “I don’t want to turn away any business.”
Last October, Sprint Center commissioned Daktronics to design, manufacture and install a new six-display center-hung video system. The new technology provided an increase of six times the pixels of the previous system, resulting in clearer, higher resolution imagery. The displays are capable of variable content zoning, allowing each display to show one large image or to be separated into multiple zones. These zones can then show any combination of live video, instant replays, scoring and statistical information, animations and sponsorship messages.
“We haven’t undergone any major capital improvements until this year, other than replacing a couple glass panes during our second year, due to the building settling,” said Tinnen. “We recently did a lot of back-of-house upgrades for everything to be high definition, which was cost prohibitive for us back in 2007.”
Other upgrades include new concession stand technology, including video menu boards; updated premium areas, including the Founders Club and new television monitors throughout the building. The suite levels also were updated with new carpeting, paint, artwork and furniture. In addition, a new public Wi-Fi system debuted this year.
“In the building’s 10th year, we anticipate it being the most successful ever,” said Newman. “We keep building momentum and have every expectation that the next decade will build upon where we are today and achieve even greater levels of success.”
Sprint Center opened its doors on Oct. 10, 2007, following a ribbon-cutting ceremony including city dignitaries and country icon Garth Brooks. More than 20,000 visitors attended a free open house to explore Kansas City’s newest asset and witness the arena floor change from hockey to basketball to concert configurations.
Additional milestones include:
• First Concert: Elton John, Oct. 13, 2007
• Most Performances by One Artist: Garth Brooks, 9
• Largest Concert Attendance: 19,533, George Strait, Jan. 18, 2014
• Largest Basketball Attendance: 19,256, 2013 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship
• Largest Hockey Attendance: 17,544, Kings vs. Penguins, Sept. 27, 2011
SPRINT CENTER FACTS & FIGURES
Opening: Oct. 10, 2007
Guaranteed maximum construction price: $276 million
Location: 13th St. to Truman Rd. and Grand Boulevard to Oak St.
Owner: City of Kansas City, Mo.
Construction manager: M.A. Mortenson Co.
Project manager: ICON Venue Group
Architect: Downtown Arena Design Team (HOK Sport + Venue+ Event, Ellerbe Becket, 360 Architecture, Rafael Architects)
Site acreage: 8.5 acres
Number of levels: 7 (Event Floor, Club Level Main Concourse, Suite Level A, Suite Level B, Upper Concourse and Press Level)
Arena square footage: 666,480
CBE square footage: 42,745
Total square footage: 709,225
Seating capacities: Hockey, Basketball, End Stage, Center Stage
Lower Level Seating
General Seating: 7,751; 8,962;
Club Seating: 1,706 for all
Suite Level A: 767; 767; 517; 767
Suite Level B: 616; 616; 518; 616
Upper Level Seating:
General Seating: 6,443; 6,533;
Total (based on production):
17,297; 18,482; 14,356; 19,246
Six locker room facilities (NHL, NBA, Auxiliary), five-star dressing rooms, 16 LED screen scoreboards, 360-degree ribbon board, two 50-foot ribbon boards, broadcast interview room, six-bay loading dock, novelty stands at main and upper concourse, 14 box office windows, seven passenger elevators and four public escalators, 14 concession stands, family restrooms on all seven levels, 20 men’s and women’s bathrooms at main and upper concourse
KANSAS CITY IS MORE THAN BBQ
When it comes to its food and beverage program, Kansas City’s Sprint Center is unique because it is catering to a diverse fan base for ever-changing events.
“Unlike venues with season ticketholders, we have sporting events, religious conferences, conventions, country and rock concerts, children’s shows and everything in between,” said Gregg Artley, director of operations for Levy Restaurants Inc., the venue’s foodservice operator. “Our gears are constantly shifting.”
The evolution of the menu also has had to keep pace with the growing number of foodies, who are influenced by cooking shows.
“This drives us to make sure we stay on the cutting edge,” said Artley. “We have great chefs with fire in their bellies who have a passion for what they do.”
Technology has been beneficial for Sprint Center’s foodservice program, with newly-installed digital menu boards allowing for customization on an event basis.
“We can drill down and focus on what we think the event demographic would enjoy,” said Artley. “And it’s important for us to be able to cater to kids in a venue like this.”
Sprint Center’s menus are always in flux, with less popular items being rotated out and the newest hot items brought in on a regular basis.
The venue has capitalized on an increasing number of consumers who are willing to pay more for higher-quality food. In addition to gourmet coffee and premium liquor, its pretzels and burger patties are hand-made, and meats like pork belly and pastrami are smoked on site.
A central kitchen handles all the facility’s foodservice needs, including for the suites, membership club and event catering. All 14 concession stands have built-in kitchens, and all food is prepared fresh.
The facility recently revamped its Mexican food concessions stand. Mex Fresh is a new open kitchen Midwestern Mexican cantina concept that offers nachos, tacos and tortas.
“We’re looking forward to more changes, as renovation work on our concession stands continues,” said Artley. “We’ll be erasing the pallets and creating new ones that will excite our visitors, so stay tuned.” — Lisa White