Why Update or Replace Sports Venues So Often?

Jul 7, 2016

Milwaukee counts historic buildings, such as City Hall and the Pabst Theater, among its treasures. Both are more than 100 years old. Yet when it comes to certain venues less than one-third that age, the community is demolishing them, or giving them major facelifts.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center is only about 30 years old, yet it will come down as the new Bucks arena goes up. Team president Peter Feigin talked about the need for the new facility at its groundbreaking ceremony: "Today is the realization not only to keep the Bucks in Wisconsin where they belong, but to truly make a difference for this great city."

When Feigin refers to keeping the Bucks here, he's talking about the NBA's threat to move the team, if the Bucks did not build an updated arena. Yet pro sports leagues aren't the only stakeholders placing demands on entertainment venues. So are the teams. And they must satisfy fans, according to Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum.

"To ensure that the revenue streams that are needed to not only keep the team in good financial shape, which enables it to go out and get good players, which again, contributes to the patronage, but also to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities that an outdated facility may not be able to recognize, such as luxury boxes and the like," Henken says.

"Thirty years ago, you were closer or farther away, but the seat was the same," says Matt Parlow. He's dean and the Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Law at the Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law in Orange County, CA. Parlow advises sports teams and elected officials about projects.

"Now, you're seeing theater boxes, food options for different seating areas, which fans are now demanding," Parlow says.

Parlow says fans also now demand services such as Wi-Fi access, something builders didn't plan for a couple decades ago. And he says fans want to use common spaces differently than they used to, creating another reason communities might rebuild -- or at least revamp -- their entertainment venues.

"Older buildings tended to have more narrow, crowded concourses because they developed them more for the utility of just moving people, as opposed to having more food options, more social area options. Those weren't prioritized even 20-25 years ago, now they are," Parlow says.

And age itself can bring about the need for arena changes. Russ Staerkel, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Center District, says, "You know, it's like owning a house. After 20 years or something, you look at something and you say, 'you know what, that's dated.'"

The district runs the UWM Panther Arena downtown, which was built in the 1950s. Staerkel says so far it has stood the test of time, but only because of regular updates.

"In the last three years, we've upgraded our seating. Our scoreboard is brand new as of 2 or 3 years ago, and this is a process that will continue into the future," Staerkel says.

The district and the Milwaukee Admirals hockey team are pumping $6 million into the arena. In part, the money will cover bathroom updates and roof repairs.

While taxpayers would rather not help foot the bills for such projects, Matt Parlow says proponents often get their way. He says they argue that the whole community benefits from having desirable entertainment facilities.

"Having not just this image of a 'major league city,' but the kind of the quality of life amenities that people are looking for, those are important," Parlow says.

Parlow says no one's sure what trends the future holds, and whether they'll require new entertainment venues.

Yet the Public Policy Forum's Rob Henken says community leaders should keep the big picture in mind. "What is the right number and the right types of venues that we as a community not only want in our grand vision of what we want our community to be, but also what the market will accommodate," he says.

Henken says too often such decisions are made in a vacuum.