Monday, May 16, 2016

Last Chance for Arena Suggestions, and I Have Two

The City of Milwaukee Neighborhoods and Development Committee is meeting tomorrow (May 17, 2016) at City Hall, Room 301-B to discuss the design and architecture of the new Bucks arena.  It is a public hearing that anyone can attend.

In most ways, the arena discussions on the meeting agenda appear to be all show and no dough.  I expect that the Committee and the Bucks will let the public have their say and then ignore any comments that contradict what the Bucks already have planned.

The Bucks are paying for most of the arena's construction cost and are planning to pay for maintenance and upkeep.  (At least, for now.  When the Pacers' arena was build the team promised to pay for maintenance, but when the economy crashed the team threatened to leave if Indianapolis didn't take over those costs.  Indy now pays the Pacers $9 million/year to "operate" the Pacers' arena.)  It stands to reason that the Bucks should be allowed to decide what they want to do with their money.

Most publicly known aspects of the Bucks' arena design plans hit that sweet spot where 'team-friendly' overlaps with 'fan-friendly'.  The exterior looks cool, the concourses will have more space and the seating bowl will put more fans below the luxury suites.

There are just two things I wish the Bucks would reconsider: the grade of the building and the steepness of the seating bowl.

Present plans call for the entire building to be above grade, which means that fans would enter from the street at the same level where the basketball court sits.  Building an arena above grade saves excavation costs and, in a place like downtown Milwaukee where the land sits below the water table, saves the Bucks from having to an install an expensive system to prevent water intrusions.

The Bradley Center sits above grade, so if you've been to a Bucks game (and, since this is Bucks blog, I'm guessing you have) the new arena will have a similar entrance.  You'll walk in from the street, have your ticket scanned and then proceed up stairs or an escalator to the Concourse level.

Milwaukee's new arena will hardly be the first to be built above grade, but it is likely to share the inconveniences of that design.  In addition to forcing fans to use stairs or an escalator to get to or from the Concourse level, above-grade arenas rob fans of that feeling of walking through the turnstyles (or, in modern stadiums, through the metal detectors and past the barcode scanners) and being there.  When I walk into Staples Center, I see the tunnels to the seats.  When I walk into the Bradley Center, I'm in a lobby.  There's a big psychological difference there.

Les Alexander, the Houston Rockets owner, decided late in the planning process to build the Toyota Center below grade.  He spent $12 million of the team's money on excavation so that fans would enter at the Concourse level.  I hope that the Bucks owners reconsider their current plans, and re-design the arena so that fans enter at the Concourse level.

My other request is more controversial: I want the seating bowl to be less steep.

Steep seating bowls are adored in some circles.  A steep bowl can make fans feel like they're "on top of the action".  Short people may be better able to see over tall people.  And a steep bowl means that the back office space underneath the bowl might have more vertical space.

My counter argument is a simple one: shallow bowls are better for viewing basketball games.

Basketball is my favorite sport in large part because of the athleticism involved.  The players' size, speed, explosiveness and every other athletic quality is simply incredible.  I believe that the players' athleticism has more impact when fans are lower and closer to the floor.

A shallow bowl slope means that each row's seats are lower.  I notice the difference any time I attend a basketball game at Staples Center, where the lower bowl has the shallowest grade of any arena in the League.  Row 16 at Staples Center (where my Clippers season tickets used to be) is at approximately the same height as row 12 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn (I could be off by one row).  The shallow lower bowl slope of Staples Center allows the arena to have a whopping thirty-two rows below the luxury suites without making the suites feel too far away.

Admittedly, I don't feel "on top of the action" when watching a basketball game at Staples Center.  And maybe for sports like football or hockey I would care.  Those are sports where, in my opinion, the live experience is about viewing formations and alignments as much as feeling the power of the athletes.  Steep seating bowls help with that.

Basketball is different.  I want to feel the power of these amazing athletes.  I worry that the Bucks' arena design will allow fewer fans to feel that power because the bowl will be too steep.

Steep seating bowls also create the problem of pushing the upper bowl too high.  The Bucks' arena designers made the excellent decision to have only one row of luxury suites ringing the court.  Great job; well done.  I hope that the Bucks also decide to push the slope of the lower bowl downward so that it's a little less steep and so that upper level fans can be less removed from the action.

The suggestions I have for the new Bucks arena are minor quibbles.  Whether the arena is built above grade or not, I'll enjoy being in a more modern building.  Whether the slope of the seating bowl is steep or shallow, the energy of a live NBA game will be there.

But there's still time and there's a public meeting coming up, so here's hoping that the Bucks consider building the main concourse at street level and lessening the steepness of the seating bowl.

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