Blair Kerkhoff

Ten years later, Sprint Center thrives — even without anchor tenant

A packed Sprint Center on Saturday shortly before the start of the NCAA Elite Eight Midwest Regional final basketball game in Kansas City. The Oregon Ducks won 74-60.
A packed Sprint Center on Saturday shortly before the start of the NCAA Elite Eight Midwest Regional final basketball game in Kansas City. The Oregon Ducks won 74-60.

Walking into a Sprint Center locker room with a team that’s arriving at the building for the first time is like watching kids seeing what Santa Claus left under the Christmas tree.

The oohs and aahs, the wide-eyed wonderment of walking into what is likely the largest locker room they’ve ever seen, one designed for an NBA or NHL team.

“This is great because of the room, the biggest we’ve seen all year,” said Waleed Samaha, Michigan’s director of basketball operations, who handles many of the team’s needs. “It’s a beautiful facility.”

The Sprint Center turns 10 this year, and the circular glass arena between Grand and Oak in downtown Kansas City appears as fresh as it did the day it opened. An Elton John concert was the first event on Oct. 13, 2007, and one month later Garth Brooks played to nine sellout shows.

A week later, basketballs bounced for the first time, with Missouri leading a group of teams that played in the annual CBE Classic.

About that time the College Basketball Experience, adjacent to the Sprint Center, opened, as did the first tenant at the Power & Light District across Grand Boulevard, filling the calendar and the downtown revitalization vision of former mayor Kay Barnes.

This weekend, the Sprint Center is the site of the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional, the highest profile basketball event in Kansas City in more than two decades.

The building has been host to first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games and a women’s regional final, but this marks the first time a men’s regional champion will be crowned at the Sprint Center.

College basketball has been the building’s sports calling card. The Big 12 Tournament has been played here every year but one since 2008 and is scheduled for the Sprint Center through 2020.

The CBE Classic ranks among the nation’s top early season tournaments. Kansas plays an annual game at Sprint Center. Kansas State and Missouri annually look to put a Kansas City game on their schedules.

Those events contribute to the approximate 140 dates on the 2017 Sprint Center calendar, which prompts a regular question: Will the building become home to an anchor tenant, squeezing in an additional 45 to 50 dates for a pro sports team?

Kansas City isn’t on the radar at the moment for an NBA or NHL team, even though the NHL is adding Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season. But the city does its best to make the Big 12 and NCAA feel like the Sprint Center is home.

“They feel like it is truly their building and they can put their own brand on it,” said Sprint Center general manager Brenda Tinnen.

No championship banners or retired numbers hang from the ceiling, which can be viewed as a clean look or seen wistfully by those longing for a team on a regular basis.

The Big 12 and NCAA put their own stamp on the building. When they enter, players walk past a wall made from a basketball court with team logos as they go through security. Several players took selfies. Such touches aren’t always doable in an NBA or NHL building.

When the building opened, Tinnen said there was “more pressure” to find an anchor tenant.

“Due to the unknown,” Tinnen said. “To put together a schedule for an arena where you knew you’d have at least 41 home dates and fill in the rest, gives you a little more insurance. But as I always tell my staff, the great thing about not having an anchor tenant is we haven’t had a losing season yet.”

It also means no partner to help defray maintenance and upgrade costs. But the Sprint Center made several improvements after last year, including a new scoreboard, speakers and upgraded Wi-Fi.

“That can be a downside of not having a tenant,” Tinnen said. “In terms of capital improvements we don’t have a team owner that comes in and says it’s time to get a new scoreboard, time to get new Wi-Fi. We’re on our own with our partnership with the city and AEG.

Tinnen would not say how much the improvements cost, but “we are not spending tax dollars. This is all from the partnership.”

No anchor tenant also means the calendar is more available as Kansas City seeks events and shows. From a sports perspective, 2017 will have brought the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the Big 12 and NCAA basketball tournaments and the NCAA volleyball championship in December. The Ultimate Fighting Championship makes its Sprint Center debut on April 15.

“That’s a full year, and it’s difficult for other cities to compete with that,” said Kathy Nelson, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission.

The Sprint Center makes Kansas City a player for such events in a way Kemper Arena did not.

“We have this beautiful building available, and it gives us an advantage other cities would love to have,” Nelson said.

Nelson’s group has put together bids for many NCAA events, such as wrestling, basketball and volleyball in addition to national events like the figure skating championships that was contested in January. Where other cities have to target specific years, Kansas City remains flexible and can essentially make open-ended offers.

The Sports Commission has even added staff to handle the number of events lured to Kansas City by the Sprint Center.

“The building has created jobs for us,” Nelson said. “We’re working on events through 2022 because we can. Not many cities can say that.”

Even with the availability, the Sprint Center was the nation’s 12th busiest arena in 2016, according to Pollstar Magazine, a trade publication for the concert tour industry. Rankings were based on tickets sold for live events in the first six months of last year and Sprint Center, with 480,323, ranked No 26 in the world. That was nine spots higher than 2015.

The Sprint Center came into existence when voters approved higher hotel and car-rental payments earmarked for the area. City officials chose Anschutz Entertainment Group to operate the facility and hired Tinnen, who was a vice president at another AEG building, Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Some of the world’s top sports architecture firms are located here, but no single one was selected to design the building. Four local firms forged an alliance rather than battle for bragging rights. HOK Sport Venue, which later became Populous, along with 360 Architecture, Ellerbe Becket and Rafael Architects. The building opened on time and on budget at $276 million.

The Sprint Center has done some calculating. Since its opening, visitors from every county in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska have attended an event. The arena has had ticket buyers from every state and 53 countries.

As for the next 10 years, there is no promise of a pro sports team, but the Sprint Center will remain busy, filled with a variety of events that might not be possible with an anchor tenant. Nelson doesn’t want to think where Kansas City as an events town would be without it.

“Sprint Center,” Nelson said, “is a game-changer.”

Tim Allen, NCAA Tournament director, talks about the preparations taking place at the Sprint Center for the NCAA men's basketball Midwest Regional semifinals and final on Thursday and Saturday.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff