The exterior of Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse was built with 1,750 pieces of glass, each weighing 990 pounds. (Courtesy Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse)

Remaking Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in the image of the city

Technology and architecture. Concessions and premium seating. Lighting, wayfinding, public spaces. The list of changes at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse goes on and on, but one mission drove every aspect of the transformation of the 25-year-old building: making all things ooze Cleveland. 

“The No. 1 goal is we are Cleveland,” said Tracey Marek, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. 

“The vibe here in Cleveland is enormous pride and Cleveland becomes the priority. Our city is about so many things, and we like to think sports play an important role but don’t play the only role. We want to make sure the vibe of our city is alive and well.” 

The building, home to the Cavaliers and the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters, reopened in late summer after a $185 million two-year project that shut the building down for two summers. Among the changes:

  • Added 42,500 square feet to the arena.
  • Redesigned 62 suites.
  • reated or reimagined seven new membership and event spaces.
  • Remade the wayfinding.
  • Installed a new art program.
  • Installed a new tunnel entry that includes 2,200 square feet of direct-view LED.
  • Added 279 wireless access points.
  • Created eight new social destinations and neighborhoods for food and beverage.
  • Installed a 77,000-square-foot glass curtain wall that can illuminate in 1,500 different color combinations.

“The driving force was the overall experience for our fans,” said Antony Bonavita, executive vice president of venue operations. “While the arena was very well maintained and taken care of from its initial opening in 1994, it was dated, lacked public space for people to engage and lacked the expectations of today’s fan. The goal was to improve experience from the minute they arrived on the property.” 

Throughout the plan, Bonavita said, maximizing space and opportunity in a manner adaptable to whatever is going on — whether a sold-out Cavs game, a 6,000-fan weeknight Monsters game or a concert that attracts 19,000 fans who may not have been to the arena — remained a focus. “We tried,” he said, “to be as flexible as we could.” 

By expanding the size, Marek said, they created the elbow room they needed but then gave the space “absolutely beautiful architecture to make the venue feel like Cleveland.” 

“A lot of the work my team did was to make the venue feel personal, however fans were using the facility,” she said. “We wanted to be reflective of the marketplace and if you were coming from another place you could walk in and feel like you understood the community.”

Power Portal immersive fan entryway by ANC. Below right: Championship wall with trophies, rings and more. (Courtesy Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse X2)

One of the most striking areas is the flex wall in the massive atrium, overlooking a facade built with 1,750 pieces of glass, each weighing 990 pounds. 

The wall, which wraps around the old exterior of the building at the north end, presented a design challenge. Now, though, it is an open space with a wall that ties directly back to the team: The center of the 2016 NBA championship floor is mounted on it with the championship ring, storyline, trophies, jerseys and video screens to communicate the story. 

“We are making sure the championship is owned by the city in a pretty grand way, in a significant space,” Marek said. The Monsters won a championship the same year, so that history is also told in the space. Additional areas tell the concert and entertainment history of Cleveland arenas. 

Cleveland has also added a Wall of Honor this year with plaques of players, retired jerseys and photo opportunities for fans. 

“It has been my absolute favorite thing to take a step back near the wall and watch people interact with the wide-open space,” Marek said. 

The Cavs praised the team they worked with on the project. The glass atrium was originally conjured up by SHoP Architects out of New York; Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office was the executive architect on the project and RPMI the local architect. Rossetti of Detroit controlled the premium space architecture. The Bigelow Cos. handled food services consultancy, Infinite Scale the new signage and wayfinding, and Thornton Tomasetti the facade and structural engineering. 

Throughout the area, the Cavs integrated video. While Marek doesn’t envision the championship celebrations ever going out of style, digital flexibility allows the team to not only update stories in the main wall but also shift the mood of the building using the screens throughout the arena. The three screens in the Cavs section have different purposes, with two showing video and another designed as a touchscreen to invite engagement.

Beyond the complete remodel of all food and beverage stations, Bonavita said, the Cavs wanted to highlight 13 local chef partners in the building, up from five. The Cavs also worked with concessionaire Aramark to come up with technology to speed the fan experience, from a self-service beer area to the new Mashgin self-checkout area in the CLE/MKT, where fans walk in, select their food items and use artificial intelligence technology to scan the products and pay. 

From a new 3,000-square-foot Overlook Bar away from the action with views to the city to the Budweiser Brew House, which features standing-room-only views into the bowl, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse opens up new opportunities for social interaction among its guests.

“We’ve built brand-new spaces or rebuilt existing spaces with all these new concepts and partner brands, with the goal in mind of making them as genuine as the partner themselves,” said Adam Zann, Aramark’s general manager. “We’re excited to welcome fans to the newly renovated fieldhouse to enjoy some delicious food experiences and dishes only available inside the arena.” 

The arena reopened with a Sept. 30 concert by the Black Keys as its first ticketed event. Bonavita said that the arena has a “great relationship” with Live Nation locally and that officials from that group spent time in the building during the remodel. AEG has also had shows by Carrie Underwood and Celine Dion in the remodeled venue.

 “The response is really good,” Bonavita said. “From a concert perspective, they want to sell tickets, so as long as we sell tickets and can be one of the must-plays for them, they will love us.” 

While art programs don’t often take center stage in venue remodels, the one the Cavs pulled off — privately funded by team owners Dan and Jennifer Gilbert — brought in 100 pieces of art by 22 artists, eight of them local. 

Photography plays heavy throughout the building. Marek said they “had a lot of fun” with the art while celebrating Cleveland. 

In each of the 30 entries into the seating bowl, the Cavs placed pictures they thought personified the city, from bridges to the lakefront, and included a map highlighting the location of that landmark in the city. Marek said they wanted Cleveland natives to be proud of the city and also give them a reminder of what they have here to do. Interior walls include about 150 key moments that extend beyond sports to create a storyline of the city. “If you walk the concourse,” she said, “people are reading, learning things about Cleveland.” These facts, some funny and some significant, were told via artists. 

The second-floor Founders Level, which includes a long hallway that rings suites and banquet rooms, has one continuous wall around much of the space. Giving that wall some visual intrigue was part of the art program. 

The Cavs, to beautify the space, settled on the five top plays in team history and then took those plays to the coaching staff to have them draw them up with X’s and O’s. Those plays were then handed to artists to have them create a massive mural that “will knock your socks off,” Marek said. That space alone has roughly 40 paintings that include past players and logos. “It is really well thought through,” Marek said, “and very personal to us. It is not just basketball, but our basketball plays drawn by our coaches. There is just something more to it.” 

In two major escalator areas the Cavs let artists loose, one filling bare walls with a bright and energetic mural of yellows, oranges and grays. The other put paint in a pressurized fire extinguisher and sprayed Cavaliers colors throughout the space. 

“We just wanted to make sure there was a lot of energy and color in the facility,” Marek said. “We wanted to tell a story.”  


Cavaliers Turn Back Clock for Their 50th

This year the Cleveland Cavaliers are creating events that connect with the past to celebrate their 50th season. 

The Cavaliers have worked with the team historian to create five era-themed nights to celebrate moments in the organization’s history. A 1990s Classic Edition uniform made its debut on opening night and will return throughout the season. The new Wall of Honor gets a formal introduction Nov. 17. 

On each of the special nights, the Cavs will recognize key players from the era and have imagery surrounding the time. “It is really important that the players feel this year is for them and for the fans to be a part of,” Marek said. “Bringing players back is a very personal thing for us as an organization.” 

The Cavaliers will also mix in six bobbleheads, a team record, as giveaways to celebrate Cavaliers greats of the recent and distant past. — Tim Newcomb