Around the Nation
11:01 pm
Tue November 22, 2011

Kansas City Cashes In On A Big-Time Sports Bet

Originally published on Wed November 23, 2011 7:02 am

Four years ago, on the cusp of what would become a national economic meltdown, Kansas City made a bet. And the Missouri river town bet big, plunking down $300 million for a brand-new sports arena with no full-time tenant.

Today, that bet is paying off. Pollstar magazine ranks Kansas City's Sprint Center as America's fifth-busiest arena and No. 13 among worldwide venues.

The glittery, glass-encased venue seats 19,000 people for rappers and the rodeo, Elmo and Guns N' Roses, Cirque du Soleil and college basketball — about 400 events so far, drawing an estimated 4 million people. It turns a profit for its operators and the city — and still no big-league sports franchise calls Sprint Center home.

'You Have To Drive Right Past Kansas City'

"When you just take the sheer numbers of what all of those events represent in terms of dates you have to hold on the calendar," says Sprint Center general manager Brenda Tinnen, "there are very few windows of opportunity to book other events."

Sports and ticket sales are in Tinnen's blood. As a girl, she tagged along with her mother, who worked for baseball teams in Kansas City for more than 20 years. Tinnen has held management positions around the country, including at Staples Center in Los Angeles, which is home to the Grammys, two NBA teams and an NHL team.

College basketball is one of the primary attractions in Kansas City, including this week's CBE Classic tournament at Sprint Center. But Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Kanye West and George Strait have also played there. And as artists spend more time on tour these days, relying on ticket sales, Tinnen says, encourages tour buses to make an extra stop.

"There was a show a couple months ago that I had been trying to get to play here," she says. "And I heard they were playing in Chicago, and I heard they were playing in San Antonio. ... I just picked up the phone and I said, 'Hey, Tony, you have to drive right past Kansas City. Let's see if we can't get you to stop in and work this out.' "

Still Hoping For The Major Leagues

It's unlikely that the Sprint Center will land a major pro sports tenant any time soon, but city officials say they're always looking.

"There was always a goal to have the ability to attract an NBA or NHL [franchise], so it was designed to those standards," says architect Brad Clark, who was part of the team that designed Sprint Center.

His firm, Populous, also designed the new Yankee Stadium, and Target Field in Minneapolis. Clark says it's unusual to design an arena with no particular tenant in mind. But in Kansas City, so far, it seems to be working.

"I think we were able to walk the line between professional sports building and major entertainment venue, so it can do both," he says.

A few blocks away, the new $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was funded with private donations. It has three major-league arts tenants: the ballet, the symphony and the opera. Officials say ticket sales have been strong since the opening in mid-September. For now, it appears "the build it and they will come" mantra seems to be holding true there, too.

Copyright 2013 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, the other day in Miami, my car rolled past American Airlines Arena and the local man driving pointed out that the place is quieter than usual. There's still no pro-basketball season. The lockout means an economic loss for Miami. Cities across the country are figuring out what else to do with their arenas, and some might look for inspiration to Kansas City. In that city there is no major sports tenant at all for the Sprint Center built in 2007. But it's still one of the nation's busiest arenas.

Laura Spencer reports from member station KCUR.

LAURA SPENCER, BYLINE: It's a Saturday night outside the Sprint Center, a 19,000-seat arena shaped like a glittering glass bowl in the middle of downtown Kansas City. When it opened four years ago, it was a gamble to spend nearly $300 million for an arena, without a sports tenant. But voters passed a hotel and car rental tax; Sprint paid for the naming rights and AEG management rights and the game was on. Promoters were sure it would soon have a basketball or at least a hockey team.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Anyone need tickets tonight? Guys, tickets?

SPENCER: But no team calls this arena home yet. Sprint Center now hosts rappers and the rodeo, Elmo and Cirque du Soleil, and on this night, Guns N' Roses. About 400 events so far, drawing an estimated four million people. It turns a profit for its operators and the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARENA P.A. ANNOUNCEMENT)

SPENCER: It's a quieter scene inside the Sprint Center on a recent weekday. General Manager Brenda Tinnen says sports and ticket sales are in her blood. Tinnen has held management positions around the country, including at the very different Staples Center in L.A., which is home to the Grammys, two NBA teams, an NHL team and an AFL team.

BRENDA TINNEN: So when you just take, you know, the sheer numbers of what all of those events represent in terms of dates you have to hold on the calendar, there are very few windows of opportunity to book other events.

SPENCER: Tinnen says at the Sprint Center, there are some dates booked for college basketball, but there's a lot more flexibility in the schedule. Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, and George Strait have all played here. And as artists spend more time on tour these days relying on ticket sales, she tries to encourage tour buses to make an extra stop.

TINNEN: There was a show a couple of months ago that I had been trying to get to play here. And I heard they were playing in Chicago, and I heard they were playing in San Antonio. I just picked up the phone and I said, Hey Tony, you have to drive right past Kansas City, you know. Let's see if we can't get you to stop in and work this out.

SPENCER: Tinnen say location is important. According to Pollstar magazine's yearend report, Sprint Center ranked as America's fifth busiest arena and Number 13 among worldwide venues.

Sports economist Patrick Rishe teaches at Webster University in St. Louis.

PATRICK RISHE: It really is a little bit surprising, given that they don't have a full-time professional sports tenant.

SPENCER: And it's unlikely that the Sprint Center will land a major sports tenant any time soon, although city officials say they're always looking.

BRAD CLARK: There was always a goal to have the ability to attract an NBA or NHL facility. And so, it was designed to those standards.

SPENCER: Architect Brad Clark was part of the team that designed the Sprint Center. His firm, Populous also designed the new Yankee Stadium and Target Field in Minneapolis. Clark says it's unusual to design an arena with no particular tenant in mind. But in Kansas City, so far it seems to be working.

CLARK: I think we were able to walk that line between professional sports building and major entertainment venue, so that it can do both.

SPENCER: A few blocks away, the new $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was funded with private donations. It has three major league arts tenants: the ballet, the symphony and the opera. Officials say ticket sales have been strong since the opening in mid-September. For now, it appears the build it and they will come mantra seems to be holding true.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Spencer, in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.