Hearne: Star Sprint Center Story Looks Back Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Say this about Sunday’s five-year Star send up on the Sprint Center; it covers most of the bases…

Unfortunately, some of the bases left uncovered are about eight years late in being examined by the friendly reporters and editors at 18th and Grand. Quite a few actually. Other details remain largely untold.

So now, the rest of the story.

Because early on – practically from the get-go – most local news media and jock sniffing sports personalities made the conscious decision to root for a new arena rather than root out any of its cons or potential pratfalls. Thus Kansas City’s $276 million glass house was cheerleaded into existence rather than undergoing a critical examination.

For example, sorts columnist Joe Posnanski anointed himself an expert on how the concert biz works and rattled off shows we’d missed out on but were sure to get if Sprint were to be built. WHB’s Kevin Kietzman even appeared on stage with KC mayor Kay Barnes as a reward for helping campaign for the new arena on his radio show.

And lead Star editorial writer (and new arena enthusiast) Yael Abouhalkah went as far as to laugh about that the newspaper leting Barnes and her spin doctors demonize Enterprise Rent-A-Car in a silly St. Louis versus Kansas City election ploy.

“When Enterprise Rent-A-Car decided to oppose the downtown arena, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes and others latched onto a brilliant – if somewhat hokey – campaign strategy: Make St. Louis the villain,” Abouhalkah wrote shortly after voters had approved the new arena. “Sports-talk radio shows were filled with hosts and callers defending Kansas City. A conspiracy theory was born: St. Louis feared Kansas City would get an arena and attract a pro basketball team, which St. Louis desperately wants. Kansas City voters, who approved the arena, appear to have been shadowboxing with St. Louis.”

To Abouhalkah many of the Kansas Citians who voted for the new arena were sports rubes suckered by a bogus, “hokey” campaign strategy.

Kind of a smug variation on Romney‘s 47 percent.

Just one problem (that Abouhalkah conceded after the election, not before):

“The vast majority of St. Louis residents didn’t know or care that Kansas City wanted to build a new arena,” he said. “St. Louis newspapers weren’t filled with blow-by-blow coverage. And an NBA team will locate in the city that gives it the best deal.”

I remember attending Enterprise’s election night bash at a downtown hotel bar with company brass who so affronted by the newspaper’s lopsided coverage they could scarcely believe I’d brought out any of their side at all in my column.

That said, I was given a cease and desist order a few weeks out before the election by then Star editor Mark Zieman. Which by the way, was not the case with other reporters and columnists who wished to write positive stories about the new arena.

And talk about downplaying Sprint Center’s current negatives…

One of the key selling points on the new arena in 2004 was the prospect of KC landing an NBA or NHL franchise. However not only did the Star‘s Sunday sum up reduce that glaring failure to a mere “wrinkle, ” it dug up a sports scholar to dismiss the notion entirely and spin not having a team into a “blessing.”

“It would have never been a wise decision to get an NHL or NBA team,” Mark Rosentraub, a University of Michigan sports management professor told the Star. “The team can’t be viable with the size market you have. I can’t find an economic model that would indicate to me a fourth professional team can survive in your market.”

That’s all well and good, given the Star’s mission was to put a sunny face on the Sprint Center.

However, Rosentraub – author of the book  Major League Losers: The Real Costs of Sports and Who’s Paying For It – probably would have told the Star that same thing in 2004 (if he hadn’t) when the newspaper was doing its pre-election boosterism thing. One of Rosentraub’s warnings did make it into the newspaper back then although it was downplayed.

“The downside of the (Sprint Center) deal is there’s no anchor tenant,” Rosentraub said. “There are few examples of people building these arenas without an anchor tenant. … The reason you’re seeing a higher public (participation) number here is because the anchor tenant is missing.”

So on one hand the Star‘s expert said not having an NHL or NBA team was a liability, now he’s says getting a team would have been a huge mistake.

Some expert.

And if not landing an anchor sports team was so insignificant, why did the Star write dozens of stories about it since? Does the name Boots Del Biaggio ring any bells? Remember when hockey superstar Mario Lemieux visited the Cowtown about the Pittsburgh Penguins coming here?

Check out this passage that ran in the Star in 2007 under the headline, “Anchorless Arena:”

“Former Mayor Kay Barnes’ fondest wish was to drop the first puck or toss up the first jump ball for a major-league tenant in October at the new Sprint Center. But as the opening of the glistening $276 million downtown sports palace draws closer, it appears the building will open without an anchor tenant.”

Now this…

“No one is more disappointed than Tim Leiweke that the Sprint Center is opening without a major-league sports tenant.”

Which reminds me, here’s another item that didn’t make it into Sunday’s story.

Barnes was full speed ahead pursuing a new arena at the end of her first term in 2003. However when Stan Glazer launched his bid for mayor against her on a “No New Arena” platform, she immediately claimed she was merely exploring the idea, neutralizing Glazer’s arena issue in the campaign.

Of course practically the minute Barnes won re-election the arena was back in her crosshairs and soon appeared on the front page of the Star cheering for the new arena alongside an architect’s model.

Which brings us to the dollars and sense of this deal, which ran almost as an afterthought at the end of a small sidebar below the main story.

“While the Sprint Center shares its profits with the city, those funds have mostly been eaten up to cover the $1 million annual operating deficits at Kemper,” the Star reports. “This year, the city hopes to reduce that loss to about $650,000 by saving on utilities and staffing and operating the facility itself instead of paying a management fee.”

There’s more.

“The city continues to pay off the debt from Kemper’s renovation in the 1990s. That debt now totals $8.2 million, which the city spends down by about $2.2 million each year. It will be fully paid off in April 2016.”

That’s another $2 million a year for four more years by my measure – another “wrinkle.”

At the time Barnes was making her deal with AEG to run Sprint, a company named Global Spectrum that had Kemper Arena running like a top was poised to take it up the you-know what.

Global was horrified when I showed them a copy of the city’s contract with AEG  giving them right of first refusal for managing Kemper.

Up until then, Global had been lead to believe it was still be in running to manage Kemper and remained optimistic about its future in Kansas City.

However by allowing AEG to control Kemper too, the city’s chances of getting a nhalfway decent bid from Global went down the drain, and it was forced instead to pay AEG to run Kemper and basically shift events from the stockyards up to Sprint.

Another between-the-lines little ditty in the Star‘s Sprint story was that the College Basketball Experience was throwing in the towel on its retail store off Sprint’s lobby. A likely indication that  the “experience” was not doing all that well.

It sounds like a pretty big space, too.

Because the College Basketball Experience store will be replaced on October 25th by the “Grammy Music Experience,” which is to include “archival footage, memorabilia, interactive video displays and a stage where budding musicians can play drums, keyboards, guitars and other instruments.”

I was alone in reporting in 2004 that the National Association of College Basketball Coaches unexpectedly pulled out at the last minute of moving its offices and the  “Experience” to Municipal Auditorium, opting instead to move into the taxpayer subsidized, proposed new arena.

The city came out on the short end of that stick on that deal because it had already just spent $5 million readying Municipal for the coaches.

The flip side of that coin being that the college coaches had only been able to raise $2 million of the $10 million needed for their new offices and museum (which btw , my sources who have taken kids there say is a snoozer).

So yeah, you can say the Sprint Center’s been a success, there’s no arguing that.

But why not tell the rest of the story?

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20 Responses to Hearne: Star Sprint Center Story Looks Back Through Rose-Colored Glasses

  1. Rick Nichols says:

    The “glass house” is a fitting name for this place. As I recall, the original plans called for the arena to look a lot like the American Airlines Arena in Dallas – mostly brick with some glass here and there. It was an attractive design, the design I saw in the paper. This place is just flat-out ugly. I’ve been to a couple of basketball games and the seating is tight (i.e., not exactly comfortable). What I most disliked about this project was the forced removal or relocation of the existing businesses in the area, and there were at least a few. Five years is hardly a milestone worth celebrating even for a “glass house”, so I suspect the decision to run the story the other day was “inspired” by advertising affiliations. But of all the things you’ve mentioned in this piece, the cease and desist order is easily the most disturbing. Which reminds me, there was a nice story in the October 7 issue of The Sacramento Bee about the Associated Press bureau chief (Paris) who broke the story of Germany’s surrender in World War II, doing so in violation of the censors and subsequently incurring the wrath of other reporters. And, yes, he was fired. These many years later the AP now admits that it acted in error.

  2. chuck says:

    Nice job Hearne.

    Excellent comment Rick, although I do think the place looks really cool.

  3. the dude says:

    Glass punchbowl is more like it, empty to the core.
    Boy, Kc really got sold another dog, didn’t it?

  4. Reggin Tnuc says:

    If Kauffman Center is the Rolex, Sprint Center is the Kotex. It is entirely a series of bad compromises made based on limitations of physical space for the building itself and cost. Atrocious acoustics, bad upper level site lines and sardine seating tell the story of who the facility was built for; the operators, not the customers.

    A huge mistake was made in not employing Frank Gehry as the designer. He would have delivered a timeless architectural masterpiece that would have included residential and retail space as part of the design giving the building a more social and vibrant atmosphere. He would have created a building that is warm and inviting and not the glass menagerie that was delivered. The building lacks character and soul. It looks like a prop from the movie Scarface.

    Of greater note was an interview conducted by Mr. Hendricks from the Star who was given a personal tour of the facility by Mr. Leiweke with AEG. Mr Leiweke stated that, long term, without an anchor tenant the building could not survive. Many predicted that within 10 years of opening the facility would reveal itself to be a dud. With dwindling event days and a negative aura permeating the Power and Light District we may not have to wait another 5 years for that prediction to come true. With a strong sense of irony there is very much down in our downtown.

    • Lrr says:

      For all of you who don’t know who Frank Gehry is, please do yourself a favor and google him. His worst building looks better than the Sprint Center. Most of his work is just plain spectacular. Not using him was a tragedy.

      • the dude says:

        They never showed Gehry’s design to anyone, that’s when I knew Populous had it in the bag on this one and KC would be denied a potential world class building.

    • PucKChaser says:

      Frank Gehry designs are cool, however for sports arenas they are not feasible at all.
      Brooklyn had a lot of money to throw around for Barclays Center and it still wasn’t enough to build a Frank Gehry arena. AECOM (formerly Ellerbe Beckett) had to come in and rescue the project.

      You can SAY Gehry designs are spectacular all day long, but actually building a Gehry designed arena is simply not realistic.

      • the dude says:

        How do you know this, his design was never shown to the public? I could understand MAYBE if we were shown the design but we were just told that Populous won the bid and that’s that. HUH?!?!? That is the one of the myriad problems with this boondoggle.

  5. Rick Nichols says:

    The Sprint Center does sort of look like a spaceship, so I guess in that sense it’s cool if one is into UFOs and all that. I’m not, but I’m always up for some solid reporting by The Star on the issues of the day and, equally important, a thorough examination of any and all projects in which public money is potentially at risk. The Sprint Center went up even in the absence of an anchor tenant, still lacks an anchor tenant five years later and isn’t likely to land one any time soon. Heck, the NHL may have to scrap the entire 2012-2013 season if the current lockout isn’t resolved fairly quickly. The NBA hasn’t been adding teams left and right in recent years, so Kansas City would have to bag a troubled franchise and bring it here with the hope that the area would support it on a steady basis. That’s hardly a slam-dunk. A long-running circus? Well, we already have a great one here, it’s just that we usually refer to it as “local politics”.

    • the dude says:

      Or the old “Dog and Pony Show” with John Q. Public holding the bag of crap from both. We already have a useless toy train that goes nowhere that will cost taxpayers millions and millions of dollars more than the weak projections project and they are trying to shove yet again another ludicrous 1000 room hotel boondoggle plan down taxpayers throats again. Do these shysters ever give up the ruse or do they just repackage it for another gulliable administration?

  6. david says:

    The city upgrades it’s worn-out arena with a new one that has hosted over 540 events in five years, generates $1.5 million in revenues back to the city, and was instrumental in keeping the Big12 basketball tourney in town.

    Residents bash it for being “ugly”, taking the place of eyesores (er, local businesses), and not being roomy enough. It must be KC, we bash the hell out of our city but defend it to the hilt when an outsider comments (re: Eric Winstrom)

    HC: I think the point is that the revenues generated pale in comparison to the $1 million a year red ink at Kemper and the $2 million a year to pay off the outstanding debt at Kemper. In addition, don’t assume that Kemper – which was cleaned up and running quite smoothly under Global – would not have gotten most of the same concerts and events were it still in exclusive use.

    Maybe not an NBA or NHL team, but that’s yet to happen (as all but promised) at Sprint Center either.

    • the dude says:

      But failed ultimately at what it was built for; to anchor an NBA and /or NHL team.

      Epic Failure.

  7. Pat McGroin says:

    Whad’ya mean Hearne?

    Sprint center was a SWEEEEEEEET deal……for Kay and her college chum at AEG.

    [snark font on]

  8. Craig Glazer says:

    Forgotten now: I was in the process of running for Mayor that year, got cut off by a little legal action from the Barnes group…but my Dad replaced me, Stan, he did a nice job…he and I don’t always agree, but he got this one right…No New Arena. It has had some nice concerts and a few cool basketball games, however they could have played other venues…without a Pro team it fails….if it had to built, and improve our economy then the Plaza area or Johnson County would have worked and we would now have a pro bastketball team…likely…nobody wants to really go downtown….it is still gloomy, dead and outside of 8 bars and 3 restaurants…nothing going on…nothing, oh Temptations and Cigar Bar…Cigar bar is the best value down there…

  9. Rick Nichols says:

    Japanese company Softbank looking to acquire controlling interest in Sprint Nextel, according to Star’s web site and Wall Steet Journal. Perhaps they’ll bring lots of sumo wrestling to the “glass house”. Those guys are certainly heavy enough to qualify as an anchor tenant.

  10. harley says:

    WTF? You old angry cranky guys are at it again.
    It’s making money!!!! It’s making money and you old rank negative guys still
    got more b.s. to cry about. Kemper was dead!!!!Kemper was dying!!!!
    Bottoms were dying!!!
    Now you’ve got an incredible arena that ranks nationaly and you old cranky
    guys are mad…BECAUSE ITS MAKING MONEY!!!!!1
    Okay there’s no nba team…no nhl team…TIM SOLD THE CITY A DEAL THAT
    But are the city leaders so dumb they can’t figure this stuff out.
    And you old cranky negative guys say we should have kept kemper. Are you
    serious…keep kemper in an area that was impossible to navigate to…was costing
    the city revenue….an area that had no additional streams of income.
    Look at sprint center…before and after concerts theres people down there.
    How many of you have been to an actual event. What about that income..
    probably 4-5 million a year (500 events per year…people spend money befvore
    and after the concerts..plus the other sources of income from limos to cabs
    to parking revenues to a dozen other things that events at sprint bring in)…
    What gives with you guys. Nothing satisfies hearne or you old cranky guys.
    Sprint kept the bball tournament in town…whats that worth…10 million for
    the duration…what about hotels…catering…labor….but you guys still freaking
    The negativity of this is beyond anything ever seen. What do youguys want.
    Who cares what it looks like. Da Vinci could have designed it but it would not
    change the dyanmics of the economics.
    one jackleg says “with the negative aura”…are you an idiot? where didyou
    getthat. Been down there for events…weekends…what if they didn’t build that..
    this city would have died adeath. We’ve gotcities like omaha…desmoinces…
    etc..wichita…tulsa…ok city…they’re moving.
    What do you want…a dead freaking city.
    Of course therre’s always a down side to business ventures…but you
    old ratchety cranky negative guys are just too often going way over board.
    and lets also be honest…most of us/you didn’t pay for it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    So why bitch and moan about it. You live in joco or outside the city
    and you don[t have any investment in the deal.
    Please…its getting so negative on here that it’s beyond anything ever seen.
    You old guys with the negative attitudes have got to stop!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  11. harley says:

    glaze…you didnt pay for sprint…why bitch…
    no new arena…the dumbest freaking idea ever…the city needed something
    to bring some activity downtown….oh and glazev you and your
    band of old cranky men forgot that the place opened during the
    worst recession since the depression!!!!!!! Are you so naive to think
    that didn’t have a tough effect on the center and power and light.
    Where do you guys dream this stuffvup? Where do you get this totally
    negative attitude. Why is it only onkcc?
    You guys are just so negative all thetime that its just gottne old…
    Also…during the period since it opened the nuber of events that could
    go there has been down…and remember without sprint we’d lose
    events to omaha…des moines…tulsa…those other cities with
    new arenas…
    its a nice looking buidling..its great for this town…its kept the
    downtown in decent shape during the downturn….
    stop being so damn negative…

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