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How to build an NBA arena

By Ian Thomsen SI.COM

This comes from Magic president Alex Martins, who presided over the design and construction of the new 18,500-seat Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

"It starts far ahead of putting the shovel in the ground. The research and design started 10 years ago. We visited and studied just about every arena facility in North America, and some outside North America. We wanted to structurally determine what kind of sight lines and seating bowl we were most interested in from a fan perspective, primarily for basketball, although our charge was to create a building that was flexible enough to host any event. We also wanted to find the best elements that were out there in terms of fan amenities. We wanted to know what to do and what not to do, what worked and what didn't work.

"It wasn't until we combined all of that research together that we engaged an architect. We selected Populous, and one of the first things we did with them -- along with our partners, the city of Orlando -- was to go up to New York and data-dump all of the research we'd done. We discussed what our priorities were, what we wanted this building to be, all of the design elements.

"That was step 1 -- the research and development. Step 2 was to develop the right team of professionals who have done this kind of thing before. That meant bringing together the right architect, the right construction manager, the right program manager -- someone from their industry who knows all of the shortcuts and where all of the bones are buried so they don't get buried in our building.

"Then it was a matter of building it and living with the challenges of building anything. Everything looks great on paper until you have to get out there and build it. The worst thing we did have was a crane that collapsed because a cable snapped, but nobody was in its way. Construction had just started in the upper bowl, but it was minimal damage and it didn't delay us at all.

"One of the ideas we picked up from another arena was the kids' interactive zone and play area in Phoenix [at the Suns' US Airways Center]. We implemented that in our building and we believe it's as good as any play area for kids in the country, and we've gotten rave feedback on it.

"For a restaurant, I would point to the Toyota Center in Houston as our benchmark for the manner in which they exposed their multi-tier restaurant into the bowl area. It provides visual access so you can be eating dinner and watching the game. That was one we really loved, it was something we wanted to duplicate and we put our own touches on it.

"For our seating bowl, I would have to point to Conseco Fieldhouse (in Indianapolis) because Conseco, more so than any other NBA facility, has unique sightlines that were especially designed for basketball. We could have an NHL team in our building -- it's designed for that, it's prepared for that -- but I don't think anybody would tell you it would have the best sightlines in the NHL. But most people would tell you we have some of the best sightlines for the NBA because it was designed for that, in the way we pinched in the corners behind the basket, and in the grade and steepness in the middle and upper sections -- you really feel as if you're on top of the action.

"Denver's Pepsi Center had this concept of a bar that anybody in the building could have access to, and while you're at the bar you had that visual access -- so you could be standing at a drink rail and not miss any of the action live. We found that intriguing because one of our principles was to develop the arena for all levels of ticket buyer. That's how we developed the Budweiser Baseline Bar -- people will buy a $5-10 ticket but stand at the bar and they've improved their position, because the far is finished in a way would see a club-level bar.

"In a lot of these buildings in warm-weather climates they tried to work with outdoor spaces. We saw that most warm-weather cities tried it, and what we found is they weren't being utilized and a lot of them were abandoned over time. Most of them were outfitted with barstools and high-top tables. We felt we had to make it compelling for people to utilize the outdoor space, that we had to give it a high-end feel so it would compete not just with other spaces in our building but it would also compete with some of the best club-level environments in downtown Orlando. We feel that our Gentleman Jack Terrace is the equivalent of a W Hotel rooftop-type bar. It is an open-air environment with swanky furnishings and a great view of downtown Orlando, and it's one of the most popular spaces in the building. People have stayed there late after games.

"Our goal was to not only build the premiere facility in North America, if not the world, but to make sure we were prepared to operate it that way as well. One of the unsung components of how we have had early success was our decision to engage Walt Disney World to do customer service training with every employee in the building -- every ticket-taker, every concession worker and every Magic employee went through the customer service module with Walt Disney. Of everything, I get comments on, the No. 1 element is how great the service is and how radically different the touch points are compared to the staff from the old building."

Publication Date: Jan 28, 2011