Brief history of arenas in the Bay Area

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:

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.

13 thoughts on “Brief history of arenas in the Bay Area

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  2. It’s a shame that the Oracle is situated where it is. It’s a fine arena. On a different note, The Cow Palace is a fascinating place. Despite its age, location and lack of pretty much any modern amenities, it’s found a long life without a significant sports tenant.

    • Oracle is adequate, but it’s really not great compared to other NBA arenas. Aside from its location, the concourses are hideously cramped. The clubs, which were wedged in as an afterthought, are also cramped. The standard concessions are subpar and the Sideline Club concessions are no better than standard concessions at many other arenas. They are hardly the “premium” concessions one would expect for tickets costing in the neighborhood of $200.

  3. ML: You mentioned a seating conversion for HP would be “not cheap.” Do you have a ballpark idea how much it might cost?

    • I’ll guess that a renovation, which would probably include demo, the new seating, and relocation of existing facilities (possibly expansion), would cost somewhere in the mid eight figures.

      • Should a NBA relocation to San Jose and the possible A’s ballpark occur, wouldn’t the construction temporarily displace the Sharks (à la ’96 A”s )? Gutting the floor and lower level of the HP Pavilion seems like it’d be a lengthy project. Considering the age of the HP Pavilion, I’d think a massive renovation would be in order if San Jose is trying to lure in an NBA franchise.

        Speaking of converting sports facilities to accommodate new/returning tenants, the Bay Area has a bad track record. Candlestick ’72 and Mount Davis are probably the worst examples of how to go about this.

      • Anaheim was worse, but two out of three is bad (to paraphrase Meat Loaf).

      • No way the Big A (Rams expansion) was worse than Candlestick.

        Those retractable seats in RF at the ‘Stick look like they’re held together with shoestring and toothpicks. I can’t believe they’ve held up for as long as they have.

  4. I’ve been to a couple concerts at the LA Forum the last couple years, and I would call it neither “sublime” or “fabulous”. It’s amazing to think that a team played here on a permanent basis as recently as 11 years ago, least of all a high-profile team like the Lakers. It seems to me more like something on the Cow Palace’s level (I love the Cow Palace but I can see why teams wouldn’t want to play there). The concourses are cramped, you actually have to go to a fenced-off area outside to go around each end zone on the main concourse, the bathrooms are down stairs from the main concourse, the lines to the bathrooms are incredibly long and slow. For games, there was the added oddity of the press box being just a cordoned-off area of the stands ( )

    And I would beg to differ that the ’60’s West Coast arenas favored basketball over hockey. The LA Sports Arena, Forum, and Coliseum Arena all seemed OK for hockey (some obstructions when the puck went into the corner, but not too bad), and had wasted space and/or seats that had way too shallow of a rise in the end zones for basketball. ARCO (never seen hockey there but I imagine it would be terrible, and I don’t see how the Sharks could have played the regular season game a year there that they did from ’91 to ’94 or so) and America West are what you talk about if you’re talking about arenas that just don’t work for hockey.

    The dual-rise seats seem to help basketball setups quite a bit, and hockey setups slightly.

    • The Forum is over 40 years old. Based on the ownership situation, it is much closer to the state of the Cow Palace than Staples Center. The 60’s era was about building just enough building to make it work. The fact that the place had club seats was visionary for the time. Like most other arenas of the era, the Forum wasn’t built for concerts. Its acoustics were terrible. Most arenas didn’t have even decent acoustics until the last decade – HP Pavilion is not particularly good. And the press box? Well, that’s simply because Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want the press sitting sideline at Laker games. He wanted to sell tickets.

    • Growing up in LA and going to the Forum for Kings games, I would disagree. At the time is was an excellent arena. And the outside architecture was stunning. Sure it pales in comparison to modern arenas, but at one point in time it was probably one of the best. Nowadays there have been some changes and it’s under different ownership so I don’t know how well it’s been maintained, but I never had difficulty getting to the bathrooms…

  5. Excellent writeup ML. I’d never heard of the dual rise system until there was an epsiode of Junior Seau’s job show on Versus where he helped change the TD Garden from hockey to basketball and back to hockey. But I still didn’t quite understand what was going on with the lower level seats until I read this.

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