If the Warriors and the City of Santa Cruz can hammer out a deal, we may see pro sports in Surf City for the first time in… ever?
After having talks with officials in San Jose, the W’s are looking at Santa Cruz, which has no existing pro sports franchises that could compete with a D-League franchise. Last summer the W’s bought the Dakota Wizards, who play their home games in Bismarck, ND. Rumors surfaced quickly that the team could be on the move as the big team could look to cut travel costs and make the affiliate more accessible, the same way MLB teams have been reining in minor league franchises to be local satellites. The key to the relationship is that the W’s are one of a handful teams that wholly control their D-League affiliate, as opposed to other affiliates which may have players from two or three NBA teams on their rosters.
Update: The Warriors have posted a FAQ which includes details of a future permanent 5,000-seat arena, which would be built in conjunction with UCSC. They also have additional renderings, which I’ve downloaded (Exterior in Warrior colors, Exterior in pink/purple)
Santa Cruz is a small city that has generally resisted big-ticket civic projects. While the area is not known for sports, Santa Cruz High has had a legacy of prep hoops success, especially under Pete Newell Jr. There certainly are sports fans in town, and the lack of fervor for intercollegiate sports at UCSC could play into the franchise’s favor since there’s little competition nearby. There is the usual California issue of having other entertainment alternatives, but Santa Cruz’s relative isolation and the D-League’s winter schedule may help attract interest.
The City has a limited number of sports facilities, none that could properly house the relocated Wizards. High school gyms and the gym at Cabrillo College are out of the question. The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium is a nice, WWII-era arena with a basketball floor, but its hoops capacity is only 1,000 or so, making it far too small for what the W’s are looking for. UC Santa Cruz’s West Fieldhouse has room for about 500 spectators and would be a parking nightmare. The City has very little available land upon which an arena of any size could be built. That means the W’s and the City need to be creative, and that’s where it gets interesting.
According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, both parties are looking at a parking lot at the fringe of downtown, at the corner of Front Street and Laurel Street Extension. Location-wise, it’s at the foot of Beach Hill in a sort of commercial no-man’s land, two blocks from the City’s transit center. The lot is owned by the Seaside Company, operator of the Beach Boardwalk and owner of just about everything in and around the tourist attraction. Currently the roughly one acre lot is used for Boardwalk employee parking, and while the Boardwalk is open all year round, it’s much more a summer destination than anything else. That creates an opening for a land lease, where the Seaside Company makes money off its little-used property while the City gets new downtown visitors. Seaside could also use the space as a small convention facility, as the only one it controls is the 20,000-square foot Cocoanut Grove.
$2.5 million is being discussed as a budget for the facility, which would be paid upfront by the City and half-reimbursed by the W’s. Revenues from holding the games would presumably pay off the City’s half over time. That budget is pretty small for what would ostensibly be a 3,200-seat arena. Cost savings would be achieved by building a large, one-acre tent. Comparisons are being made to the tents Cirque du Soleil uses for its touring shows, but I think a better example is the $6 million South Hall of the San Jose Convention Center. At 80,000 square feet, the South Hall is more than twice the size the W’s are looking for. The lot’s irregularly shape could hold a 185′ x 185′ footprint, which is enough to build an arena with three full courts, plus space on the floor for 20-row telescoping seating platforms on the sidelines and some retractable bleachers along the baselines. Concessions and restrooms would have to be placed in the corners or along the ends. Locker rooms may have to be in an outbuilding of some sort if they couldn’t be fit within the arena footprint. Update: Outbuildings it is.
W’s VP Jim Weyermann, formerly of the San Jose Giants, said that the facility would have hard walls, so it may look similar to the picture above. If you look closely, you’ll see that the tent itself is anchored to a raised concrete foundation on the sides, a technique that could also be applied to a Santa Cruz tent arena. The problem with this kind of structure is that it’s meant to be temporary, with a roof lifespan of 10 years. If the team proves popular, the City and W’s are guaranteed to have another major expenditure down the road for either a new structure or a replacement facility. On the other hand, D-League franchises are not the most stable form of pro sports ownership. The W’s could decide at any time to suspend operation of the team or fold it altogether. Last season the Utah Jazz folded its D-League affiliate, making 15 teams that have folded in the decade-plus the league has been in operation. The Los Angeles Lakers suspended their affiliate for the 2010-11 season, then this season had the affiliate play its home games at the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo to cut costs. There is risk for both parties regardless of the expenditure. At least with an initial outlay of $2.5 million, it isn’t something that will cripple the City. It’s not much different than the economic realities for other minor league sports. Potential exists for the arena’s use as a concert venue, though the tent structure can’t be as good at containing noise as thick concrete walls.
The D-League’s season is normally 50 games long, running from mid-November to early April. Playoffs consist of eight teams playing in up to three rounds of a best-of-three series format. Not coincidentally, this announcement was made after the Wizards’ last home game on Tuesday. Plans for the tent arena may have the team in Santa Cruz as early as this November. I’m not clear on how permitting works for something like this, but this is Santa Cruz, so you can expect the plans to get a healthy amount of scrutiny. I wouldn’t bet on Weyermann and the W’s to be able to pull off a deal like this and construct the facility by November, but if they can, more power to them. I’ll definitely hit a few games here and there.