The Empty Arena

If you build it, they might not come.

The spacious hockey locker room of Kansas City’s Sprint Center smells like a new-car showroom. The rubberized floor is unscuffed by skates, the walls unmarked by stick blades. Lockers stand waiting, as pristine as cabinets in a model home.

Since the Sprint Center opened in October 2007, exactly one hockey game has been played there, the St. Louis Blues against the Los Angeles Kings in a preseason exhibition last September. And while college basketball, the circus, a motivational seminar, and a number of concerts have passed through, the arena still lacks a big-league franchise. A flirtation with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins turned out to be nothing more, while the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics chose Oklahoma City instead. As I walk the terrazzo floor of the main concourse one morning, passing specialty food concessions, a QuikTrip convenience store, and a team retail outlet that awaits its team, the arena seems cavernously empty, as it must for all but the 10 or so days a month that it stages events.

At one time, Kansas City—a town of some 1.9 million—was able to support four sports teams. But while big crowds still turn out for baseball’s Royals and football’s Chiefs, the city hasn’t had major indoor sports for more than two decades (the basketball team departed for Sacramento in 1985; the hockey team left for Denver in 1976). Increasingly, the NHL and NBA are avoiding towns like Kansas City in favor of minor-league markets—like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Ottawa, and Raleigh—where they don’t have to compete with baseball and football for fan interest, corporate dollars, and media attention. When I visited Oklahoma City not long ago, I understood: its excitement at being labeled “major league” for the first time was palpable. The new team, though woefully inept, was the talk of the town. At the same time, four other major cities that once had basketball or hockey—San Diego, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Baltimore—also seek new teams to augment their baseball and football franchises, yet they’ve been overlooked.

That’s why Kansas City’s decision, in 2004, to earmark $222 million from hotel and car-rental taxes for an arena is so baffling. The Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates arenas that are home to 11 NBA or NHL franchises and owns hockey’s Kings, has partnered with the city, contributing an additional $54 million to construction costs in exchange for a 35-year contract. Still, AEG’s connections have not helped bring in a team.

“I very much want one here,” says Kay Barnes, who was serving as the city’s mayor when the funding passed. “It’s fair to say that was a large part of the consideration. We had, and continue to have, confidence in AEG’s ability to work with the NHL and NBA to bring a franchise to Kansas City at the right time.” Until then, AEG will cover the facility’s operating losses.

The arena, built on the edge of a revitalized downtown neighborhood called the Power & Light District, is undoubtedly big-league. Sheathed in glass and designed in a glossy but unfinished style that general manager Brenda Tinnen calls “metro loft,” it holds as many as 18,500 seats. It features amenities such as 42-inch HDTV screens in the suites and an MRI machine for injured athletes. When the Kings and Blues met here last September, players said the facilities were among the best they’d seen. In January, the New York Islanders—whose owners are unhappy with their current arena deal—announced their intention to play an exhibition game in Kansas City next season, leading to another round of speculation that a big-league team will make the Sprint Center its permanent home. But it seems just as likely that the Islanders, like other teams before them, are simply using the city as leverage to get a better deal elsewhere.

For now, Kansas City remains cautiously optimistic that the decision to build the Sprint Center was an enlightened one. The taxes that fund it are largely being paid by visitors, after all, and the concerts and NCAA games it has already attracted would have bypassed the old, outdated Kemper Arena. Mayor Mark Funkhouser, formerly the city auditor, had struggled to understand how spending $222 million on an arena made economic sense. “Now that I’ve inherited it,” he says, “I tell people it’s a shotgun wedding, but I have to make the marriage work. And if you look at it just in terms of the performance of the facility itself, it has exceeded expectations. It’s shiny and new. People like it.”

Even before I ventured inside, I could see why. After lunch at an ambitious nearby restaurant—one that undoubtedly would be enjoying more success if the Sprint Center was attracting as many as 200-odd annual events like most new venues, but probably wouldn’t exist if the arena didn’t—I stepped outside and was startled by the shimmering, 13-story glass bowl parked like a spaceship at the end of the block. For a moment, I took it for a piece of public art, on the order of the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Gateway Arch, the kind of thing that might come to symbolize a city. I would have stayed around to see a basketball or hockey team play, had one existed.