Monday, June 12, 2017

Opinion: Upgrading/Replacing US Bank Arena

- Rendering showing what a renovated U.S. Bank Arena might look like while hosting a basketball game. Renovations to the aging arena are one of two stadium efforts currently underway in Cincinnati. Image via MSA Architects.

It’s been just over 21 years since Hamilton County residents voted in favor of raising the sales tax and building two new sports facilities. The Bengals of the NFL moved into Paul Brown Stadium in 1999, while MLB’s Reds opened Great American Ballpark in 2003. The old, shared stadium sitting between the two new ones was demolished and in its place a new housing, office, and entertainment development known as The Banks rose. Not only were there new stadiums and new buildings, but the highway was completely redone and a gorgeous new riverfront park opened (with new phases still being rolled out). Despite once having overwhelming public support and ushering in development that completely transformed the city’s riverfront, the “stadium vote” isn’t remembered fondly. That’s particularly due to the onerous lease negotiated by Hamilton County officials and The Bengals after the tax increase was approved. The whole situation has been the subject of New York Times pieces and John Oliver bits, frequently pointed out as the prime example when arguing against governments funding stadiums for millionaires. Today, two decades later, there’s a chance that more sports venues may be built in the city. The discussion surrounding them has been heated and controversial, often stoked by shoddy reporting and some historical revisionism. So here’s another take on these proposed new stadiums, one that keeps the city’s history in mind.

- Red Hot Chili Peppers at U.S. Bank Arena in May, 2017. QC/D Photo.

There’s two proposed stadium developments happening simultaneously: The owners of U.S. Bank Arena have previously proposed a massive redevelopment of their building. Now, they’re proposing to completely raze it and build an entirely new facility. Meanwhile, FC Cincinnati is attempting to build a soccer-specific stadium as part of their quest to join top tier Major League Soccer, moving up from their current spot in the Division 2 United Soccer League. More on soccer down the road, in the meantime, let’s dedicate this piece to U.S. Bank Arena and its future.

I was just there recently, catching one of my favorite bands, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The show made two things glaringly clear:

1) The arena seems to still be large and sufficient enough to pull in a major touring acts. 
RHCP also stopped in nearby Louisville, Indianapolis, and Columbus. While the stage cuts off a good chunk of the arena, the building was packed. Currently in the midst of a long worldwide tour, the arena’s age and logistics didn’t shy away a major touring band.

2) The arena is a dump.
Lines for concessions clash with regular pedestrian flow in overcrowded corridors. Roaming beer vendors will plop down and sell anywhere they can find space, eager to hawk at concertgoers who are desperate to avoid lines. The bathrooms are disgusting, all of them tend to have a thin film of water (or God knows what else) covering the floor. The ceiling above the seats, propping up the suites, is riddled with water stains, and a small section of seats was closed off with caution tape.

Here’s the quick summary: 
U.S. Bank Arena is an outdated facility with bad plumbing and crowded hallways, but you’ll still see plenty of major acts come through. Concerts, professional wrestling, kids shows on ice - all that stuff still finds its way into the narrow halls of the 1970’s riverfront monolith. Even the circus consistently still came and stayed for a week before it shut down. For the Cyclones, a AA level hockey team in the ECHL, the building gets the job done for the most part. It can feel a little cavernous for a Wednesday night game when only a few thousand show up, but there’s still plenty of room for 12,000 $1 beer drinkers who might stop guzzling PBR and watch hockey come playoff time.

- The arena hosting a Cyclones game in 2014. QC/D Photo.

Is the arena ideal? Hell no.

If you’ve ever been to Nationwide Arena up in Columbus or any other modern facility, it’s apparent just how lacking Cincinnati’s 42 year old venue is (and Nationwide is 17 years old at that). But does the arena work for what comes through and what’s regularly there? Sure. Now, proponents of a new arena will point out two things: we miss out on a lot of tours/concerts and we lost out on hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention. I’ll counter that with this:

1) While the RNC or DNC would be a great chance to put the spotlight on Cincinnati and host a unique event, a new arena would likely only host one of the 2 "every-four-years" events in its lifetime.
Even if we lucked out and hosted each political party once, that’s two events over the course of decades.

2) If we are missing out on touring acts/concerts, I’d love to know what they are.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, that our market is passed over due to an inadequate facility, I’m just saying that no one can point to a concrete, specific example. If there’s a spokesperson from Lady Gaga or U2 saying our arena isn't adequate and that’s why they’re not stopping here, I’d love to know.

Would a new, modern arena be nice? Absolutely.

Does U.S. Bank Arena deserve a dime of public money to become that new, modern arena? Well, that's the far more complicated question.

- Rendering showing what a proposed renovation of the arena could look like. Image via MSA Architects.

So how did we get to this point? It’s important to understand the history of the arena before deciding whether or not the taxpayers are part of its future.

In the early 70’s, Cincinnati was considered a candidate for expansion in the National Hockey League. The city itself had been interested in helping to finance the construction of an arena if the NHL were to award a new team. The story goes that the league liked Cincinnati, but was in no rush to expand and place a team not just in the Queen City, but anywhere. With no prospective franchise on the horizon, the idea of using civic money towards a new arena faltered. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Royals of the National Basketball Association were facing lukewarm crowds, mixed results on the Cincinnati Gardens court, and playing in a league that was far from the popular behemoth it is today. While a new facility possibly could’ve retained the team, the Royals moved on to Kansas City, Missouri for a time. By 1985, they again moved to Sacramento where they exist today as the Kings. 

- U.S. Bank Arena, then known as the Riverfront Coliseum, in the 70's.

Obviously a new Cincinnati arena did eventually come though. Built adjacent to Riverfront Stadium and initially dubbed the Riverfront Coliseum, the arena ended up being privately financed and owned by Brian and Albert Heekin. Brian was also part owner of the Cincinnati Stingers hockey team with Bill Dewitt Jr. The Stingers existed in the World Hockey Association, a rival major league to the NHL that was cropping up in cities spurned by the senior league. The story of the WHA and the Stingers is one of its own, partially told here, but ultimately after two merger attempts: Cincinnati’s Stingers were left on the outside looking in. The WHA was dead, four of its teams moved into the NHL, and Cincinnati was left with a privately owned, newer arena in 1979 with no major league tenant.

- Dennis Sobchuk of the Cincinnati Stingers on the Coliseum ice. Image via Hockey Hall of Fame.

Also in 1979, the tragic Who Concert Incident occurred which saw 11 fans trampled to death as the crowd waiting outside mistakingly thought the show was starting. Arena staff had only a few doors open as throngs of people surged forward. This incident has always made the arena somewhat infamous. It took over thirty years for anyone to erect a plaque to the dead on the arena plaza. The arena’s interior and cosmetics remained mostly the same until a major renovation in the mid 90’s when Cincinnati Entertainment Associates took over ownership. The group, who also owned the Cyclones hockey team and Silverbacks indoor soccer team, relocated their franchises from the older Cincinnati Gardens into the renovated facility.

The Coliseum was renamed to “The Crown.” This next part of the story is entirely via word of mouth, but has been told to me in different versions by multiple parties. It always has this similar structure though. As the story goes:

The Silverbacks/Cyclones owners saw an opportunity with the 1996 stadium vote. It became clear that taxpayers were going to fund new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals, but ultimately the final locations of each stadium were undecided. The Bengals eventually settled on their current location on the western Riverfront, but the Reds faced two options: Broadway Commons by Pendleton and Over-The-Rhine, or, the eastern Riverfront. Allegedly, those backing Cincinnati Entertainment Associates felt that a Riverfront ballpark would be the likely winner (and as we can see today, it was). Their plan supposedly called to buy the Riverfront Coliseum, renovate it, and then hope that the Reds would need the land for their new ballpark. Now you’ve got an older arena, but you’ve just spent a ton of money on it. You’d have a strong case for demanding a high dollar amount should somebody want the land you just increased the value of. Yet, the Reds crammed their cathedral in. Great American Ballpark was wedged between the arena plaza and old Riverfront Stadium was even partially demolished while the new park was built partially within it. Depending on who you believe, the gamble never did pay off… if there even was one. The new owners were left with a renovated arena and new neighbors that didn't take the bait.

Nevertheless, the Coliseum wasn’t known as The Crown for long. It quickly became known as The Firstar Center and most of its upgrades were only superficial anyways. While they gave the arena a brighter and more modern interior look, the renovations did nothing to alleviate crowd congestion or the cramped hallways within. Eventually Firstar Corporation acquired U.S. Bancorp and adopted its name. Likewise, the arena then garnered its current moniker: U.S. Bank Arena. In 2001, ownership changed hands to Nederlander Entertainment and in 2011, corporate powerhouse Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) came on board as partners as well as the arena’s operator.

Los Angeles based Anschutz operates arenas all over the world and is the “second largest present of live music and entertainment events” internationally. Their portfolio includes iconic venues such as the Staples Center in LA and the O2 in London. In 2015, Nederlander and AEG proposed a $200 million renovation of the building. The work would’ve totally changed the facility, making it almost unrecognizable from what it is today. Concourses would be expanded with more seats and luxury boxes added on top of improved accessibility, sight lines, and aesthetics. The drab, round, 70’s era facility sitting on the riverfront next to two major league stadia would’ve been transformed into a modern building in line with the city’s renaissance and rising skyline.

- Rendering showing what a proposed renovation of the arena could look like. Image via MSA Architects.

Yet, there was a problem: the owners wanted public money.

Now, for a minute, let’s forget the Bengal’s stadium lease that’s left a sour taste in taxpayers mouths and let’s forget the overwhelmingly approved 1996 vote that lead to that. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Do stadiums deserve public financial support? Frankly, this is not an easy yes/no answer no matter which side you stand on. Professional sports and politics became incredibly intertwined throughout the 20th Century. Had Cincinnati retained is NBA franchise or received an NHL franchise, maybe a new arena would’ve also been factored into that infamous 96 vote. These top tier teams are always owned by people with enough capital to build their own facilities, but there will always be some sort of public involvement - whether that’s direct dollars flowing to construction, help with land acquisition, infrastructure upgrades, or an endorsement by a local politician. The question truly becomes: how much?

In our region in particular, we’ve seen competing cities on both sides of the river and even competing governments within the same county scramble to provide tax breaks, abatements, and deals to lure companies. This often helps create jobs, increases the tax base, etc. Should sports franchises be able to take advantage of the same opportunities? When it comes to U.S. Bank Arena, maybe there’s a case to be made for some kind of deal, but direct public money should absolutely be out of the question.

The city and region would benefit from having the largest indoor arena in the arena brought up to modern standards, but it’s not our responsibility or problem. We didn’t build it, we’re not responsible for maintaining it, and we don’t collect revenue from its operation. While there are definitely some fringe economic benefits and it’s a great asset to have, the arena doesn't seem to truly be missing out on anything. There’s not even an emotional argument to be made here like there was in 96: we have no pro team in the building threatening to move and we won’t attract another by funding a new arena. Anschultz Entertainment Group certainly has the capital to fund even modest renovations to an aging facility that the public currently has no financial stake in. If they’re truly losing business from touring acts not visiting, how about they attempt to update their facility or even tell us what those acts are? In this political climate, at ground zero of what’s often considered the worst stadium deal in the nation, no one seems to be remotely interested in writing Nederlander Entertainment or AEG a check. Nor should they be.

When the flashy renovation designs were revealed in 2015, many (myself included) were definitely excited. However, you could see people’s eyes glaze over and the enthusiasm drop the minute public money was brought up. There was somewhat of an argument though: a beautifully renovated facility could provide a flashy, new home to the UC Bearcats Men’s Basketball Team. But then, UC decided to stay on campus. So what’s the incentive for taxpayers now, if there ever was one?

 There’s been a few arguments made, but they’re hollow:

1) Would an aging arena cause the Cyclones to relocate or move?
No, the team is owned by the same ownership group as the arena. Even if they were owned separately, what little influence a minor league hockey franchise would have is negligible. Not to mention, even if they were independent and even if they were to leave town over an arena squabble, Cincinnati could no doubt attract yet another minor league franchise at the current AA or even AAA level (this city once supported two AAA pro hockey franchises at one time). The point is ultimately moot though as the Cyclones are owned by the same ownership group who owns the arena.

2) Wouldn’t a new arena potentially attract an NHL franchise?
No, not with Columbus 1.5 hours up the road and several larger cities vying for NHL relocation or expansion slots (FC Cincinnati existing in top tier Major League Soccer alongside Columbus Crew is a completely different landscape).

3) Is the arena's current state preventing us from attracting a return of the NBA?
No, the NBA has shown very little public interest in Cincinnati since the Royals left town back in ‘72. With the Cavaliers and Pacers in close proximity on top of Seattle vigorously trying to get its team back as well as newer, NBA seeking arenas in Vegas and Kansas City, Cincinnati is a long shot for NBA expansion.

- U.S. Bank Arena in 2014. QC/D Photo.

I believe the biggest issue with US Bank Arena requesting public money is this: it’s privately owned. Currently, the local governments have no stake in the facility, no incentive to upgrade it, and no major league tenant to try and retain for civic pride. An argument could’ve been made for providing one of the region’s well known collegiate basketball programs with a state of the art home, but UC has elected to renovate their facility on campus and continue to play there. Can an argument be made for some type of limited public investment? Maybe (Partner with the casino or convention center for a new facility perhaps?).

You’d think the story might have ended in 2015 when the renovation plans failed to gain traction, but in early 2017 the arena’s owners promoted a new plan. This time they called for the entire facility to be razed and a new one to be built in its place. With no major league tenants to retain, no prospect of any joining, and not even the region’s largest basketball program as an option: why would we the public invest?

I worked at the arena verify briefly in college as a part-time member of the event staff circa 2009. It was by far one of the worst jobs I ever had. In the last few years, the arena’s operations have improved quite well. Despite the facility’s age, at least the folks working there are doing the best with what they have. I enjoyed the aforementioned Chili Peppers concert despite the building's faults. I’d love to see Cincinnati have a world class arena to coincide with all the other positive progress in the region and hell, maybe there’s some sort of a deal to be worked out in terms of incentives, tax breaks, or infrastructure upgrades. We can all be regional partners to an extent, right?

Ultimately though, the responsibility of upgrading/replacing this arena falls squarely on its owners. Owners that can’t seem to keep the toilets from overflowing or staff all the ticket windows when there’s a decent crowd. Until they come forward with a plan or propose a much better deal for the public: they seem to be doing just fine with minor league hockey, dollar beers, RC Cola, and concert tickets.

- Will we ever see the arena look like this? Image via MSA Architects.

So what about FC Cincinnati and their proposed stadium? When it comes to the soccer situation, it’s a whole other story, one where the details are still unfolding. Full disclosure: If you’ve followed this website for some time you probably know I’m a season ticket holder and a proponent of the club’s ambitions to give this city it’s third major league franchise. A new facility would need to be an integral part of that, but will it be the right plan? More on that in the future.

UPDATE | 7/13/17 | The arena's owners have now floated having the arena funded by the extension of an existing sales tax. Arena bathrooms still disgusting.


  1. Put money together for Soccer and new arena. Would be a great shared facility.

    1. I definitely get this sentiment and will probably address it more in Part 2 when discuss the FC Cincinnati stadium, but here's a quick overview:

      Building a shared facility that replaces US Bank Arena and also serves as a soccer-specific stadium is a nice thought and seems like it solves two issues quite easily, but logistically it's a bit impractical. If FC Cincinnati wants to join Major League Soccer, the league has made it clear that they'd need to have their own soccer-specific facility where they control the revenue and dates. So right there, the shared idea is off the table. If FCC stayed in USL, *maybe* you could combine the too, but there's still some logistical problems and they'd probably just stick with Nippert at the USL level.

      The other issue is this: the seating demands of each venture differ a bit. Most soccer stadiums built today call for 20-25k seats, while most arenas tend to be in the 17 - 20k range. Maybe you could find a happy medium there, but a soccer facility would require way more floor space than an arena which typically serves hockey, basketball, and concerts. Not to mention, this grass soccer facility would now need to be indoors to accommodate arena/hockey operation - the cost would rise even higher. You'd also need a way to accommodate both a soccer pitch and hockey rink/concert venue. The seats and suites would be great for one, terrible for the other. Association Football is played on a far larger surface than indoor soccer is.

      Ultimately though, MLS wants FCC (and all new applicants) in their own venue that they control. If MLS never happens, FCC is better off staying at Nippert than building. Then you have competing logistics. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work out no matter how you slice it.

    2. I agree 110%. Using public money to help finance a privately owned arena is a losing proposition for the city, no matter which way you slice it. The Anshutz plan to demolish US Bank Arena to build a new one in it's place is an even worse idea- our city would be without a major indoor concert venue for up to two years! A new site is needed.

    3. Yeah, I'd be very curious to see how demolishing/building new would work. Would we miss out on any concerts/tours or would they use other venues in the city? If that's the case, why'd we build a new arena?