Penguins' plans aim to make life better for loyal fans

Sunday, April 01, 2007
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Elvis won't want to leave this building.

Not with the larger seats, more leg room, better views, more concessions, and high-definition video.

The Penguins are designing a new $290 million arena that will be fit for a king -- or better yet, for the fans who have endured roof leaks, obstructed views, and cramped concourses at the Igloo for years.

From a glass atrium that will span some five stories and offer views of the Downtown skyline to open concourses at each end that will allow people to catch the action below while buying a hot dog, the goal is to provide a "cutting-edge" experience for fans, Penguins President Ken Sawyer said.

"I just think we're going to have such a terrific building. People are going to be dazzled by the feel inside of it," he said.

The Penguins also will be looking out for the fans at home. They intend to invite broadcast crews and the National Hockey League into the new building to scout out the best locations for TV cameras, lock those in first, and then build around them.

"With HD technology, you particularly want to make sure you maximize the TV experience," Mr. Sawyer said.

The Penguins are working with HOK, the national architectural firm that designed PNC Park and Heinz Field, to develop plans for their new home, which will be built across the street from Mellon Arena. They've been crafting the design for nearly two months, even as they wrangled with state and local leaders to get a new arena deal.

While much of the work is still in the conceptual stage, the team has plenty of ideas to capitalize on the revenue-generating potential of the building.

What once was considered a curse -- the many years it took to get an arena deal in place -- now is working to the Penguins' advantage, as they are able to pick the best features of the newer arenas and incorporate them into their design.

Among the buildings that will serve as guides will be those in Minnesota, Columbus, Florida, Phoenix and Montreal.

The new arena will have about 18,500 seats, some 1,500 more than Mellon. The seats will be larger, with more leg room in the aisles, and "great sight lines from the lowest seat to the absolute highest," Mr. Sawyer said.

There will 65 to 70 suites; there are 50 at Mellon Arena. Mr. Sawyer said they will be larger than the current suites and closer to the ice. The suites also will have Internet access, concierge service and other amenities.

As in Mellon Arena, the Penguins plan to offer more expensive club seating between the blue lines. Fans with those seats also will have their own lounge, the major difference being this one will be at concourse level so they can watch the action rather than going inside without a view of the ice.

The Penguins are promising improved views for virtually all ticket holders. Seats generally will be closer to the ice. The team also is looking at design innovations to bring the upper end zone sections closer to the action.

There will be no obstructed views, as there are in Mellon Arena, where some ticket holders can't see the scoreboard and a few others don't have a look at center ice.

And there will be wider concourses, more concessions, some with a distinct Pittsburgh flavor, and more souvenir stations. In all, the new arena will total some 700,000 square feet, compared to 420,000 at Mellon.

The new scoreboard will feature larger video screens, with high definition capability. An LED board will ring the arena at the suite level and will be used for statistics, animation and advertising.

But with the improved views, better seats, and new amenities usually comes higher ticket prices. A Penguins spokesman said it was too early to discuss ticket prices, but the Steelers and Pirates both raised ticket prices when they moved into their new homes in 2001.

For Sidney Crosby and his teammates, the new arena will feature improved locker rooms and training and exercise facilities.

The players will be able to go directly to the locker room from the bench without having to cross the ice. There also will be a small theater in the locker room where coaches and players can watch tapes of opponents and other film.

Any palace fit for a king should have an entrance, and the new arena will be no exception. It will feature a glass atrium, rising from Fifth Avenue and spanning five stories.

There will be escalators to take fans to the ticketing level and the main concourse.

At the suite level, the team is planning a large restaurant facing Downtown, where diners will be able to look out at the skyline and watch the crowd coming into the arena. Above that, a brew pub is in the works, also with views of the skyline.

Mr. Sawyer said the atrium with its open feel and the views of Downtown and the Epiphany Church, which will sit in front of the arena, probably will be what visitors remember most about the building.

Just as Heinz Field has the Coca-Cola Great Hall, the Penguins also intend to pay homage to their on-the-ice legends.

Their proposed hall of fame, albeit smaller, will pay tribute to team history, the Penguins' Stanley Cup runs in the early 1990s, and, of course, Mario Lemieux. And, Mr. Sawyer said playfully, the team might set aside some space "for another player coming along" right now.

Construction of the arena is expected to begin in the fall. Mr. Sawyer said keeping the project within the $290 million budget will be a "challenge" but he added he believes it can be done.

"We certainly have that expectation as we sit here now," he said.

The construction will be funded with $15 million a year in slots gambling-related revenues and $4.2 million a year from the team.

Like Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the Penguins hope to take advantage of the arena's newness to recruit more events and concerts. Mr. Sawyer said promoters like new buildings because they generally create a "buzz" and generate larger audiences.

The Penguins already have talked to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about bringing another All-Star Game to Pittsburgh. The last was here in 1990. They also have an interest in hosting the "Frozen Four," the NCAA hockey equivalent of the Final Four in basketball.

Mr. Sawyer said the Penguins also want to work with Pitt and Duquesne to bring the NCAA men's basketball tournament back. The city hosted the early rounds in 1997 and 2002.

"Clearly with college basketball being so significant here in Pittsburgh, I think we would be a great host city," he said. "We'll now have the capacity to do it."

But don't expect the National Basketball League to be part of the action. Mr. Sawyer said he doesn't believe a market the size of Pittsburgh can support professional basketball and hockey.

"It's just not possible," he said. "The NBA just wouldn't come here. The market's not big enough."

However, the Penguins might take a stab at bringing the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Pittsburgh and maybe even national political conventions.

They also have a keen interest in hosting the NHL's annual entry draft, held each year in June. "Although we don't expect to be picking high," Mr. Sawyer added with a chuckle, because the teams with the worst records pick first.
Post-Gazette

I can't wait to see some the preliminary drawings for the new arena. I like how they are thinking about the fans both at the games and at home as well.