K.C. can build an arena, but not us?

December 06, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

It is the largest city in the state, the anchor of a metropolitan region, with sprawling and relatively affluent suburbs all around it. It is located near the confluence of rivers and gets quite humid in summer. It is home of a football team in the AFC of the NFL. It has a baseball team in the American League. It once had an NBA team, but not for years. It no longer has a hockey franchise, either. But this town is hungry for more sports.

Sounds pretty much like Baltimore, doesn't it?

Except for one thing: The city I'm describing is in Missouri and has a brand-new, 18,000-plus seat downtown arena.

In case you hadn't noticed, the Sprint Center opened in Kansas City, the nation's 36th-largest city, in early October with an Elton John concert. Garth Brooks and Blue Man Group performed there last month. Hannah Montana was there this week.

While it still has no anchor tenant, the Sprint Center gives Kansas City a huge competitive advantage in its hunt for a team from the National Basketball Association or the National Hockey League.

Baltimore, meanwhile, continues to twiddle its municipal thumbs over whether to build a new downtown arena to replace the old, way-out-of-date one a few blocks north of Camden Yards.

There are, at long last, some exciting proposals for a new arena, but tied to the issue are nagging questions about its viability without another major sports franchise, from the NBA or NHL, relocating here.

There are people in Baltimore who don't support a new arena or think one of only modest size should be built. They argue that the city will never have major-league sports teams beyond what we have now.

It's minor-league thinking in a big-league town, and I'm sick of it. Kansas City, smaller than Baltimore by a third but the center of a metropolitan region of comparable size, has the same status -- a baseball-football city with a distant past of professional basketball and hockey.

But the city went ahead and raised more than $200 million to build the Sprint Center through a hotel tax and a fee on car rentals. Voters approved the project three years ago.

Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) invested $54 million and will manage the facility for the next 35 years.

This year, AEG courted the Pittsburgh Penguins, offering the NHL team a sweet deal if it relocated to Kansas City. But the Pittsburgh ownership group, lead by Mario Lemieux, cut a deal with officials in Pennsylvania to finance a $290 million, 18,500-seat arena across the street from the 46-year-old Mellon Arena, where the Penguins have played for 40 years.

That doesn't end the hunt for AEG.

"The [Sprint Center] is built to NBA and NHL specs," says Shani Tate-Ross, director of communications and marketing for the center, "and we are working at securing an anchor tenant here."

The Sprint Center opened in early October. Gary Williams and the University of Maryland men's basketball team have been there -- for the College Basketball Experience Classic a couple of weeks ago. (I don't see the Terps on the calendar at 1st Mariner Arena, do you?)

Billy Joel's at Sprint tonight, and Ozzy Osbourne is the main event Tuesday. Bon Jovi comes in April.

The size of the Sprint Center guarantees that Kansas City will no longer be passed over by the major performers who frequently make the Top 10 on Pollstar, the concert-watch Web site. (The current Pollstar "hot list" includes Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Neil Young, Van Halen, Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne.)

While some proposals in Baltimore call for a 12,000- to 15,000- seat arena -- minor-league dimensions from minor-league thinking; I'm yawning, YAWNing! -- the Sprint Center seats 18,500 people and has 72 suites.

The Baltimore-based Cordish Co. is developing a seven-block entertainment and retail project, The Power & Light District, adjacent to the center.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches has offices in the Sprint Center, and it's home to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

There will be plenty of college ball, starting with Big 12 Conference games, says Tate-Ross. The arena will get the 2008 Big 12 championship playoffs, the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball regionals in 2009, a piece of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championships in 2010 and maybe some day the Final Four.

This stuff just doesn't happen in Baltimore and won't without major-league thinking.

Can we get busy, people?

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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