Most of the time, NHL teams and their arenas have the same types of problems. The Islanders live in the old, Nassau Coliseum and are desperately trying to get funding for a better home on August 1. They went through a similar situation with the Lighthouse Project referendum last summer. Edmonton residents are also going through a taxpayer/arena debate revolving around a downtown home to replace Rexall Place. The teams and cities may change, but the story is usually the same: an NHL team needs a new place to play because the old arena isn’t cutting it anymore.
Then, in the middle of the United States, there’s a curious case of the Sprint Center in Kansas City. It’s peculiar because their problem is the contradicts just about every other arena dispute in any other sport. The fine folks in Kansas City have already forked out taxpayer money and have already built a beautiful, state-of-the-art building that would be great for hockey. Now they just need a team to fill the building.
Unlike the residents of Nassau County, taxpayers have already agreed to a publically funded building. They did so without the tangible benefit of a team already in town. No, their problem isn’t a suitable building—it’s getting a team to play in the building. Luc Robitaille was the point man to find a permanent tenant for Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) when the Sprint Center opened its doors in 2006. He’s seen the obstacles to bringing hockey Kansas City.
“You have to have some kind of local buyer. I don’t know to what level were the talks in Kansas City, but there were some rumblings from time to time. But you have to have a buyer. What happened with Winnipeg is they had this buyer who was willing to do whatever it took for that.”
It’s been five years since the Sprint Center opened for business and it’s never been further from landing a team. First there was the possibility of the Pittsburgh Penguins relocating to Missouri. Then there were rumors that Boots Del Biaggio would buy the Predators to relocate the team to Kansas City. But after both of those deals fell through and the respective franchises stayed put, Kansas City and the Sprint Center have gradually fallen off the map.
A pair of preseason games with poor attendance certainly didn’t help the market’s cause either. A preseason game between the Coyotes and Kings only registered 11,603 tickets sold at the box office. The following year, the Islanders and Kings played in front of only 9,792 fans for a preseason game. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kansas City is barely even mentioned when a team is moving now.
Like Robitaille said, local ownership is a must if the Sprint Center is every going to house an NHL team. But for the market to be successful, fans in the area are going to have to be as passionate about the sport as any potential owner. True North and the residents of Winnipeg had the passion and determination to make it happen when the Atlanta Thrashers became available. Kansas City and their beautiful arena weren’t even on the radar. If the city of Glendale is unable to get a deal worked out with a new ownership group before the 2012-13 season, there’s a very good chance that the Coyotes will be on the move as well. There’s probably not a better arena in all of North America that is looking for an NHL tenant. But is there a demand to bring professional hockey back to Kansas City?
Until there is a local ownership group willing to make it happen, the building and fans will just have to settle for concerts and Big XII basketball.