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New Arenas Dominate NBA Landscape

October 22, 1999

ATLANTA (AP) _ If an NBA team doesn’t have a new arena, consider it left behind.

The landscape is now replete with glittering basketball palaces, all adorned with the mandatory luxury boxes, high-priced club seats and _ in the case of the $375 million Staples Center in Los Angeles _ fireplaces, wine cellars and humidors.

From Atlanta to LA, from Toronto to Miami, from Boston to Chicago, virtually every team has a building that doubles as a moneymaking machine. The ’90s may be remembered primarily for Michael Jordan, but the underlying story of this decade was the building boom that gave so many teams a new place to play.

This season alone, five new facilities make their debut. The Atlanta Hawks are moving into Philips Arena. Staples Center is home to both Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and the Clippers. The Indiana Pacers are playing at the Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pepsi Center is now the address for the Denver Nuggets. At midseason, the Miami Heat will shift from Miami Arena _ just over a decade old and already outdated _ to the spacious American Airlines Arena.

The construction craze is so enormous that the required corporate monikers are starting to overlap. The Dallas Mavericks are scheduled to move into a new arena in 2001: the American Airlines Center.

At some point this season, 20 of the 29 teams will play in arenas that opened in the 1990s _ and that doesn’t even include the New York Knicks. Madison Square Garden opened in 1968 but underwent a 2 1/2-year, $200 renovation that was completed in 1991.

Five other teams play in facilities that were completed in the final two years of the ’80s, and at least one of them, the Hornets, already wants a new arena. They claim they can’t compete economically at the 24,042-seat Charlotte Coliseum, which has a few luxury boxes and no club suites.

On Nov. 2, voters in San Antonio and Houston will decide on the fate of new arenas.

The NBA champion Spurs play in the mammoth Alamodome, which opened just six years ago. The team wants a smaller facility, saying luxury boxes haven’t sold well because they are too far from the court. In Houston, the Rockets are seeking a new downtown arena to replace the 24-year-old Compaq Center

Meanwhile, the mayor of Newark is pushing a plan to build a new downtown coliseum for the New Jersey Nets, who want out of the 18-year-old Continental Airlines Arena.

``You cannot compete economically without a new building. It’s not possible,″ said Stan Kasten, president of the Hawks. ``We had the following choices: Continue to compete at a massive loss indefinitely, be OK economically but put an inferior product on the floor indefinitely, or get a new facility. There were no others.″

That’s progress, but at what cost? Has the league lost the character and the intimacy that oozed from rickety old buildings like Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium?

``We don’t have those places (anymore),″ lamented Chicago Bulls center Will Perdue, who fondly remembers the good ol’ days before United Center replaced the Stadium in 1994. ``Everything now is all high tech. It kind of takes away the human touch.″

Some players have noticed that fans don’t seem quite as loud as they did in the older buildings. They also have noticed the high-priced seats that remain empty at the beginning of a half, populated by people who are willing to miss a few minutes on the court for the chance to linger in VIP lounges.

In addition, the atmosphere in most new buildings is generated by more than just a basketball game. It’s part rock concert, part revival, part Amway convention.

``Now, it’s all entertainment,″ Perdue said. ``There’s something going on during timeouts, during halftime. The marketing department is selling more than the game.″

But Tom Heinsohn, a leading figure on the Celtics’ championship teams of the 1960s, sees things differently. He believes the mystique of Boston Garden evolved from all the thrilling games played there by the likes of Cousy and Havlicek, Russell and Bird.

``It wasn’t the building itself, I’ll tell you that,″ said Heinsohn, who now works as a Celtics broadcaster. ``When you were sitting in the seats, you got beer spilled all over you, chewing gum stuck to the bottom of your shoes, stuff like that.″

From an economic standpoint, teams can’t resist the urge to add millions of dollars to their bottom line through a new arena, said Matthew Freedman, editor of the Chicago-based Team Marketing Report.

Suites and club seats aren’t the only things that generate more money. Many teams get more-favorable leases when they move into a new arena, plus the rights to sell the name. Advertising revenues are more plentiful, too.

``There are so many more signage opportunities in a new facility, from the concession stands to the bathrooms,″ Freedman said. ``A lot of times, there are digital signs around the arena or stadium that provide what we call in the marketing business a `moment of exclusivity.′ They can get that sponsor to stand apart from the other sponsors somewhat.″

Still, it’s clear that basketball is going through its own version of the cookie-cutter architectural mode that transformed baseball in the 1960s and ’70s. Is this the MCI Center in Washington, the FleetCenter in Boston or the First Union Center in Philadelphia?

Some buildings have attempted to stand out from the crowd. The new arena in Indianapolis is designed to resemble an old-fashioned fieldhouse _ with all the luxury of a modern facility, of course. Philips Arena is a radical design that places all of the suites on one side of the building, resembling a glimmering opera house.

``We lost wonderful old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and not a soul is worrying about that anymore,″ said Kasten, referring to the baseball stadium that preceded Camden Yards. ``It’s just a question of how you do the second one.″

Clearly, no in Atlanta is lamenting the loss of the Omni, with its cramped walkways and perpetually long lines at the restrooms and concession stands.

``Aesthetically and functionally, Philips Arena is better than the Omni,″ Kasten said. ``That’s what’s important. People will object to replacing the old facilities unless you’re replacing them with better ones.″

End Adv for Oct. 23-24

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