Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kansas City's Sprint Center opens for business

You might be wondering why I'm talking about a brand spanking-new sports and entertainment venue when it doesn't directly have to do with the National Hockey League. After all, this blog I've had for over two months now contains my thoughts on topics relating to the very best brand of hockey in the world here.

Well, if you were following the Pittsburgh Penguins arena saga over the past few years and especially the last one, you know that they were on the verge of leaving the Steel City because owner Mario Lemieux stated repeatedly that the franchise could not survive financially without replacing Mellon Arena. Penguins fans' prayers were answered when Pittsburgh city officials, Allegheny County officials and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell were able to come to an agreement with the Penguins eight months ago to build a new $290 million arena in order to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Within the few months prior to the agreement being reached, Lemieux visited Kansas City and strongly considered relocating the Penguins there.

Why was one of the greatest players in NHL history that owns the only team he ever played for interested in Kansas City? Anschutz Entertainment Group had a new arena being built there and was looking to bring in a major league tenant. Whether it was from the NHL or the National Basketball Association (NBA), the company has been looking for a professional sports team that will bring in an instant drawing card and beyond that. Had it been the Penguins, Kansas Citians would've gotten a treat in seeing the likes of Sidney Crosby on a regular basis. But instead, he'll remain in Pittsburgh as an arena lease was officially signed on September 18th that will run through 2040.

Despite the only down note being that at the moment it lacks that main major league tenant, downtown Kansas City was buzzing with pure excitement as the Sprint Center officially opened for business on Wednesday morning. Over 21,000 visitors got a 12-hour window of opportunity to get free tickets and tour the building. Before they did, city officials confidently stated that the new arena will pay off for Kansas City's long-term future.

"Folks, this is a great day for Kansas City," mayor Mark Funkhouser said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony before 1,500 people on hand. "We moved away from Downtown, now we're moving back."

Funkhouser's predecessor Kay Barnes echoed the same, "This is truly a wonderful day."

While Barnes was mayor, she was the driving force behind a successful campaign two years ago to get local voters to approve a tax increase on area hotels and rental cars to help fund the $276 million project. She drew a standing ovation from the crowd and thanked voters for their part in making Sprint Center a reality.

"I have never seen an election day before or since where voters were so determined," Barnes said. "All of you have made today possible."

But what made it an even grander day for Kansas Citians was the surprise guest of honor to help christen the new arena. Legendary country singer Garth Brooks made an appearance to announce he will be performing a total of nine sold out concerts next month at the Sprint Center with one of them being broadcast live on country music radio stations across the globe and 300 National Cinema Network theaters in the United States.

"Because of the wonderful turnout KC has done for us, the great people at AEG Entertainment and the NCM theaters are going to be sweet enough to come into this building and take this show live to all the cinema theaters around the nation," Brooks said.

The Sprint Center is one of two new major-league arenas that open its doors this month. The Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey will have Bon Jovi christen it with the first of their ten shows as part of their Lost Highway tour in the United States and Canada. It will be the brand-new home of the New Jersey Devils, the very franchise that once was the Kansas City Scouts.

Elton John will open the Sprint Center tonight before a capacity crowd in his only appearance, Van Halen will perform on October 26th and Billy Joel will do his only show on December 6th. While the front-loaded portion of the first several months of the arena schedule have big-name acts, Kansas City Star writer Timothy Finn wonders how long it can last with fans filling the seats at Sprint Center. Why is this question being asked? It has to do with what I mentioned earlier. The one down note to this new venue opening its doors is the fact there is no NHL or NBA team to call it home... yet.

For now, Sprint Center will host the 2008 Big 12 Conference men's college basketball tournament after a three-year hiatus away from Kansas City as well as the first two rounds of the 2009 NCAA men's college basketball tournament and the regional rounds of the 2010 NCAA women's college basketball tournament. What makes Sprint Center more special is that it is now the new home of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and will also house the headquarters of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The Kansas City Brigade of the Arena Football League will call Sprint Center home in 2008 after playing their first two seasons at nearby Kemper Arena.

AEG president Tim Leiweke's efforts to lure the Pittsburgh Penguins to Kansas City may have failed, he remains hopeful another NHL team could be a new candidate.

The Nashville Predators remain up for sale as their 2007-2008 season is underway. Current Predators owner Craig Leipold had signed a letter of intent to sell the team to Canadian businessman Jim Ballisie on May 24th, but the deal was taken off the table after Ballisie began taking ticket deposits in Hamilton, Ontario with the intent of taking the team there before any ownership transfer was done.

On August 1st, Leipold then signed another letter of intent to sell the franchise to a group of local investors from Nashville led by David Freeman as well as California venture capitalist William Del Biaggio III. Just two weeks earlier, a successful July 19th ticket drive gave fans the chance to make a statement they want their team to stay in their city. A clause in the arena lease states the Predators must have an average attendance of at least 14,000 or an exit clause can be exercised where the team is free to leave the city as early as the 2008-2009 season if desired.

However, within the last two weeks, there have been rumblings that Leipold's deal with Freeman's investors group and Del Biaggio could be falling apart. Negotiations with Nashville city officials including mayor Karl Dean appear to have hit a snag. All parties involved are trying to restructure the lease at Sommet Center where it can help the franchise stablize financially. But my argument is that this isn't the only piece of the puzzle to make the Predators viable in Nashville. The corporate support has been lacking as many members of the media covering this ongoing story have stated. You don't have that, you can sell out the building all you want, but without the business community behind you, you're not going to survive long, if at all.

Freeman's group has until October 31st to use their exclusive bargaining rights window of opportunity to close the sale. Otherwise, according to today's edition of The Tennessean, Ballisie may re-enter the picture. He even wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Sports Authority of the city of Nashville and Davidson County. The Tennessean staff writer Joe Biddle expressed his skepticism of everything working out and predicts Del Baggio and Ballisie could battle it out in trying to ultimately purchase the team and possibly move it.

Del Baggio originally had an exclusivity agreement with Leiweke that if he purchased any NHL team, he could have the first opportunity before any other prospective owner bring it to Kansas City. But he ended up joining Freeman's group in their efforts to keep the Predators in Nashville.

While this Nashville situation has been evolving, there has been a small amount of speculation the NHL might consider expansion down the road and Kansas City was amongst the cities mentioned. But for now, Kansas City must remain patient and wait out this latest potential NHL relocation candidate. That is if fans want another shot at NHL hockey in town. The Kansas City Scouts may have failed long ago, but that was a far different era. The Sprint Center is now open and ready to house a team or even two. It could be the NHL or the NBA, who knows it could be both. But those of you in Kansas City that have high hopes, I'd just be happy if one team comes to town.

1 comment:

Brian Berg said...

Hey, thanks for the comments. Yeah, it's tough being a hockey fan sometimes. We gotta stick together. I swear; if more people would give it a shot, and go see a game in person, they'd be hooked.