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How Kansas City made an old stadium work

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas City Chiefs fans have been filling the stands of Arrowhead Stadium and emptying their lungs at full volume for 42 years now, one year longer than Bills fans have been doing the same at what’s now called Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.

But you don’t hear NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – who insists the Bills need a new stadium – clamoring for a new facility for the Chiefs.

Upon further review, after in-depth tours of both stadiums, the reasons are clear.

For one thing, Arrowhead is conveniently located at the intersection of two interstates 15 minutes east of downtown Kansas City and with major suburbs in every other direction, whereas the Ralph is at the south end of the metro area and especially inconvenient for fans coming from Canada.

And for another, Arrowhead isn’t really a 42-year-old stadium anymore.

The familiar curved seating bowl is the same, but everything else is different. The once-crowded concourses are now 60 percent wider. The number of suites grew from 80 to 126. And fans can do many things here that they can’t do at the Ralph, from relaxing in spacious lounges lit with gas fireplaces, to wandering through a glitzy red Chiefs “Hall of Honor,” to renting out huge event spaces for a high school prom, which two high schools did simultaneously earlier this year.

“If you didn’t know, you would think it’s a brand new stadium,” said Jim Rowland, executive director of the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority, which operates both Arrowhead and the adjacent Kauffman Stadium, the similarly renovated home of the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

All the improvements at Arrowhead cost $375 million when they were completed back in 2010. In contrast, Erie County and the state settled for $130 million in renovations at the Ralph this year after the Bills proposed a more thorough overhaul similar to Arrowhead’s, which local officials rejected as too expensive.

The trouble is, Arrowhead’s renovations make the Ralph’s current $130 million upgrade feel like a paint job in comparison. Despite some changes aimed at making them less crowded, concourses are still the same old width at the Ralph, where there are far fewer diversions for fans and far more limited event space.

And above all, it’s obvious that there are many more ways to spend money here than at the Ralph, and that is what the NFL is all about these days.

Asked about the revenue impact of the 2010 renovation, Chiefs President Mark Donovan said: “It’s been significant.”

A better Arrowhead

That’s because Arrowhead is significantly different. In essence it’s the same seating bowl surrounded by all sorts of new amenities for the fans, all designed for maximum comfort.

The old Arrowhead, long regarded as a great – if exceptionally loud – place to see a game, was nothing like it. Kansas City natives routinely recall shoving their way through the crowded concourses and, of course, getting shoved back.

“People loved the tailgate experience and the in-seat experience,” said Kelly Kerns, a principal at Populous, the Kansas City architectural firm that designed both this year’s renovations at the Ralph and the more extensive Arrowhead project. “Everything else between the two stunk.”

A decade ago, the Chiefs knew they needed to do something about that fact. Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was clamoring for a renovation, replete with a retractable roof. Many other NFL teams had built new stadiums and were enjoying the new revenues that they attract, which build profits and help them sign players.

But one thing no one talked about at the time was abandoning Arrowhead. The fans didn’t want to.

“There was an acknowledgment from the fan base that they wanted Arrowhead to remain Arrowhead, but they wanted Arrowhead to be better,” Donovan said. “It needed to be done in order to be a top-notch fan experience.” Yet there’s another reason that no one in Kansas City can recall the NFL pushing for a new stadium, as Goodell is in Buffalo.

Arrowhead is part of the sprawling Harry S. Truman Sports Complex, at the intersection of two big highways - Interstates 70 and 435 - and with six entrances and vast parking lots in every direction. The complex’s accessibility is astounding by modern professional sports standards: For example, on a recent Wednesday night, it was possible to leave downtown Kansas City at 6:15 p.m., drive to the stadium complex, park, buy a ticket and a barbecue sandwich and a beer, and be in your seat to see a Royals game by 7 p.m.

“The Truman Sports Complex is one of the things that makes it different,” Donovan said. “Of course, the cost ramifications of a new building were considered – and $375 million is a lot more palatable than a billion plus.”

Kansas City-area voters approved a sales tax increase to fund $212.5 million of the renovations, while rejecting plans for the expensive new roof. Meanwhile the Hunt family, which owns the team, contributed $125 million and the state of Missouri chipped in the rest.

Construction started in 2007, leading to three difficult years for the Chiefs. Fans had to compete with work crews to get to their seats, sometimes walking on plywood walkways past chain link fences.

But when the renovations opened in 2010, Kansas City fans could quickly see what they paid for: a glimmering new metallic and glass facade housing nearly a half-million square feet of additional space.

“We basically built a brand new building around the bowl,” Rowland said.

Year-round attraction

There’s something for every Chiefs fan here.

For the average fan, there’s a 35 percent increase in concessions stands and a new 5,000-square-foot team store that’s similar to the new one at the Ralph.

Any fan can wander for free though the Hall of Honor, a glimmering Chiefs hall of fame. And school children can enjoy “The Chiefs Sports Lab,” an interactive lesson in fitness and nutrition that’s open for field trips year-round.

A rabid fan can buy a brick and get his or her name engraved on it on the Founder’s Plaza outside the stadium.

And above all, there’s the Ford Fan Experience, sort of an indoor-outdoor luxury lounge for the common fan, at the highest point in the new tower built along the home sideline.

And there are many ways for big spenders to spend big here, even beyond the luxury suites. The Founder’s Club features a 50-foot double-sided bar and private lockers for members. The Foolish Club, which is what the founders of the American Football League called themselves, is another luxury lounge that features a huge mural of those AFL pioneers, including Bills founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr.

Add to that the two Tower Clubs and Club IV – honoring the Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV – and the North Club, a massive two-story-high space that can seat 770 people for a banquet, and it’s clear that this isn’t just a stadium anymore. It’s a conference center/banquet facility where football happens to be played a few times a year.

“That was one of the key things: To be able to do events 365 days a year,” Rowland said.

The Bills host weddings and similar events in the two cramped, narrow lounges of the Ralph. But the Orchard Park stadium offers nothing like the event spaces at Arrowhead, where the structural beams that support the stadium are paneled in wood, where fine artwork hangs from the walls and where, in one lounge, the floor is covered with the sort of x’s and o’s that legendary coach Hank Stram probably drew to sketch out plays here four decades ago.

It may sound like a bit much to someone who has never visited a modern NFL stadium, but to hear Donovan tell it, the new Arrowhead is the sort of facility that teams need in order to compete in the modern NFL – both to succeed financially and to woo free agents and coaches.

“You need a stadium with 125 suites rather than 80 to compete,” Donovan said. “You need a stadium with 7,000 club seats, with real club amenities, so you can compete.”

Could the Ralph be fixed?
In other words, by modern NFL standards, the Ralph’s current $130 million renovation just isn’t enough, according to sources who are familiar with the league’s thinking.

Still, Buffalo could be in the midst of rebuilding the Ralph to be more like Arrowhead, had there been more will and more money.

In fact, the Bills proposed something similar to the Arrowhead renovations during stadium lease discussions two years ago: a renovation that would have expanded the stadium’s concourses and increased its footprint. Local leaders rejected the proposal because it would have cost at least an additional $100 million, said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

Then again, there are doubts as to whether the NFL would support a more extensive renovation of the Ralph.

Sources who are familiar with the thinking within the league say there are big concerns about the stadium’s Southtowns location, which some team owners see as inaccessible for fans coming from Canada or Rochester. League officials have also said renovations usually don’t work well, even though Soldier Field in Chicago and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., have undergone expansions similar to Arrowhead’s.

When asked about the stadium situation in Buffalo, those involved in the Arrowhead retrofit said that whatever Buffalo does, it has to make sure its NFL stadium – new or renovated – fits not just the league’s expectations, but also those of Bills fans.

In other words, a glitzy, glass-covered stadium like Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia might well be inappropriate for Buffalo – but an NFL stadium with all the modern amenities but a more industrial feel, like Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, might be just right, Donovan said.

Kerns, the architect, agreed.

“Buffalo, I think, is somewhat like Kansas City, somewhat like Pittsburgh,” Kerns said. “You can take things to an extreme that will offend people.”

That’s just one reason why some favor a renovation of the Ralph, no matter what the NFL thinks.

“A lot of people will tell you that the bare bones of that stadium are better than any from that era, and certainly better than the newer ones,” said Nellie Drew, a sports law professor at the University at Buffalo who said that another, more Arrowhead-like renovation might be the best, most affordable solution to the Bills’ search for a new stadium.

From a design standpoint, can it be done?

“I think so, yeah,” said Kerns, who said his firm – which designed Coca-Cola Field and First Niagara Center, as well as the latest Ralph renovations – would be happy to work in Buffalo again. “Anything can be solved with money.”


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