My geekery of sports architecture goes well beyond the well trodden area of ballparks. As much as I love the diamonds and uniqueness of baseball stadia, I love sports arenas just as much. While it’s true that arenas don’t have as much character or defining attributes because of their multipurpose nature, there is plenty of great engineering and architectural value in many arenas that often goes unappreciated.
When the Warriors moved from Philadelphia to the Bay Area in 1962, they had multiple homes, making them a Bay Area barnstorming team. Most games were played at the Cow Palace, but plenty of games were also played at the Civic Auditoriums in both SF and SJ, plus War Memorial Gym on the USF campus. It was four years until a truly modern venue, the sparkling new Oakland Coliseum Arena, became the first permanent home for the W’s. The Coliseum Arena held 15,025 for basketball, which now seems puny but was quite good back then.
While the 60’s marked a nadir for stadium architecture, it produced some interesting arena designs, from the hideous (Madison Square Garden) to the sublime (LA Forum) and everything in-between. Designs then (and now) depended much on who the primary tenant was. If the main attraction was to be a NBA franchise, the seating bowl should have had a basketball focus. This was most evident in arenas on the West Coast, where the NHL hadn’t expanded outside of Los Angeles. Examples of basketball-first arenas include:
- The Forum
- LA Sports Arena
- San Diego Sports Arena
- Oakland Coliseum Arena
- Portland Memorial Coliseum
- Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix
- KeyArena (formerly Seattle Center Coliseum)
- ARCO Arena
- US Airways Center (formerly America West Arena)
Most of the 60’s and 70’s-era arenas were not particularly large. The Forum’s 17,505 was downright cavernous compared to Seattle (14,448) and Portland (12,666). It took another three decades of trial and error before arenas settled into what could be considered the right size: 18-19,000 seats plus multiple concourses, suites and club seats.
On the East Coast and Northern states, where hockey approached or surpassed basketball in popularity, arena design had to follow the contours of a hockey rink, which has much larger dimensions than a basketball court. To split the difference, many of the arenas above split the difference by creating a larger flexible floor area which extended beyond and above a typical hockey rink. Portable or retractable seats could then be used to fill in the space to whatever was on the floor. For Oakland and LA, the event floor took on the shape of a race track or oval.
Looks like a reasonable compromise, right? On paper, yes. In practice, not so much. The reality was that it worked much better for basketball, while hockey was mostly an afterthought. The next two graphics show the Oakland Coliseum Arena’s basketball and hockey layouts (approximate).
Hockey views, especially from the corners, were terribly compromised. Here’s a shot from SI/Getty of an old LA Kings game at the Forum (yes, that’s the same Rob Blake who scored a power play goal tonight for the Sharks).
You can see the tunnel to the arena bowels almost next to the boards, yet there are no actual seats at the ice as they’re elevated several feet above the action. It wasn’t that great for basketball either, as the corners had significant empty space that should’ve been filled with seats. It’s no surprise that just by reusing the shell at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, digging forty feet deeper, and constructing a more basketball-friendly seating bowl, architects were able to add nearly 5,000 in capacity to the arena.
No arena with the racetrack bowl design has been built since the soon-to-be abandoned Amway Arena (Orlando, 1988) now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum (1989), which was made to resemble a Forum or Madison Square Garden on steroids (24,000 basketball capacity).
Portland’s Rose Garden was among the first arenas to pioneer the use of the combination of dual-rise and retractable seats in the ends, making the venue friendly for both sports without creating crippling compromises in the process. Of the arena’s nearly 20,000 seats, only 14,000 are permanent. Even though Portland only has the Blazers as a major league franchise, a NHL team could easily move in without batting an eyelash. Below are a Wikipedia picture of an empty Rose Garden in hoops configuration, and a diagram of the technology used for the seats from Irwin Seating.
If San Jose’s truly serious about bringing an NBA team, this is the biggest improvement they’ll need to make. Not only would it make the building better suited for hoops, it would probably bring basketball capacity over 19,000. A new arena in San Francisco would also have this feature as a given. It’s not cheap, but in the long run it’s a worthwhile investment. This is even the case if, like the Oakland remodel, a San Francisco arena had a basketball-focused seating bowl. It makes more sense to have as much floor area as possible to accommodate as many dates and events as possible. The Cow Palace doesn’t have any great technical innovations, but as part of a larger exhibition complex it has a lot of available floor space, which is a big reason why it continues to be in demand when other much younger venues have long since been reduced to rubble.