Chase Center seeks to push NBA arenas further into the future

  •  New arena reflects a quickly redeveloping San Francisco
  •  Seating bowl features NBA’s largest scoreboard
  • Fanbase has largely moved with the club across the bay from Oakland

For all of the success of the Golden State Warriors, their five National Basketball Association championships, and their long embrace of San Francisco, the team has not been able to call the city home since 1967. 

That all now dramatically changes.

After starting their California existence in 1962 at the Cow Palace in neighboring Daly City, having a brief three-season interlude at the undersized San Francisco Civic Auditorium, and then spending 47 years across the bay in Oakland at what is now called Oakland Arena, the Warriors have come back to San Francisco. And they have done so in the privately funded $1.6bn (€1.5bn) Chase Center that gives the city its first arena of this size ever, and seeks to push the league’s facility paradigm as far forward as possible.

“So far, so good. It’s been amazing,” says Rick Welts, the team’s long-time president and chief operating officer. “This has been a labor of love for [Warriors owners] Joe Lacob and Peter Guber for it to be the best it can be.”

Welts took SportBusiness on a tour of the grandiose, Manica Architecture-designed facility, which is flanked by the San Francisco Bay on its west side and offers spectacular views through a series of glass windows. The 18,000-seat arena has sought to merge both futuristic and artistic elements in the new building, combining the NBA’s largest scoreboard at 9,700 square feet and a high-end, data-driven performance center for team members with a large open atrium, exterior plaza, and a heavy commitment to public art throughout the facility.

The latter point was particularly critical, as the facility is replete with original art and sculpture both inside and out. Among the key pieces is a one-of-a-kind Alexander Calder white mobile on loan from the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hanging above one of arena’s two main lobbies.

“San Francisco has an awesome law,” Welts says. “You have to spend 1 per cent of your construction budget on public art. We really embraced that and overspent on that.” 

Overall, the $1.6bn outlay is roughly three times the amount spent for Fiserv Forum, which opened last year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

“It was a seven-year process that has now just ended,” Welts says of the Chase Center development. “It’s not a formula I would recommend.”

A changing San Francisco

Chase Center is located in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, about a mile and half of Oracle Park, the home of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants since 2000.

Much like the Giants’ ambitious $2.5bn Mission Rock mixed-use development now beginning to take shape, the Warriors have their own mixed-use development plans for the 11.5 acre arena property, what they are calling Thrive City.

The team has developed two office buildings combining for 580,000 square feet that will be leased by ride-sharing service Uber for the next two decades. The Warriors also have planned a second phase of construction that will include a 133-room boutique hotel in partnership with 1 Hotels, as well extensive plans for the wide outdoor plaza between Third Street and the arena itself. More than two dozen retail and restaurant spaces have been leased and are due to come online shortly.

“It will be awesome,” Welts says of the Mission Bay development. “Mission Bay is a whole master-planned area. A lot of it is [the University of California San Francisco] Medical Center’s Mission Bay campus. A lot of businesses, a lot of residential, and more to come. But there have been no amenities if you want to live here.

“This arena is a game changer. [The Giants’ project] will come in stages. I only think it will be additive, and will make it better for the people who are here. This is a place people are going to be coming no matter if there’s anything going on in the area.”

The Giants and Warriors have spent considerable time together to work through potential traffic and infrastructure conflicts given the overlap of their game schedules in both the spring and early fall and the relative adjacency of their facilities.

“So far things have gone very well,” said Jack Bair, Giants executive vice president and general counsel, and president of their real estate arm. Giants Development Corp. “We have a number of months now before we have next conflicts. Staffs for the Giants and Warriors are working together to make sure everything is smooth.”

The Warriors are also putting in a five and a half acre park outside the arena that will complement the similar five-acre park the Giants are in putting in for the first phase of their Mission Rock.

“It’s the biggest new park in San Francisco in decades,” Welts says of the Warriors’ effort. “That will be the only thing between Chase Center and San Francisco Bay.”

The Warriors also succeeded, against considerable odds, getting approval to install a 2,800-square-foot outdoor videoboard for the plaza that will allow additional fans to watch simulcasts of games going on inside the arena.

“This was one of the big victories,” Welts says. “San Francisco’s only outdoor videoboard. We don’t do videoboards in San Francisco, and getting this one approved took two years of our lives.”

At 9,700 square feet, the scoreboard at the new Chase Center is the largest in the NBA. (Golden State Warriors)

A bit of history

The Warriors move to a gleaming, modern new facility, designed specifically for them, runs counter to their entire history in California playing in ill-suited venues. After moving west from Philadelphia in 1962, the team started at the Cow Palace, so named because its use for livestock exhibitions. The facility seated 13,000, but constantly smelled of sawdust, cowhide, and manure. 

The Warriors two years later shifted to the Civic Auditorium, but that facility opened in 1915 and seats just 8,500, making it both too outdated and far too small for proper NBA use, though they did reach the NBA Finals in 1967.

A return in the fall of 1967 to the Cow Palace didn’t make the aromas there any better, and a subsequent shift across to Oakland in 1971 finally gave the team a more proper venue. 

But the Warriors were also forced for much of their decades there to share the venue with a near-constant parade of ice hockey, roller hockey, indoor soccer, tennis, and college teams, as well as some of the offices for the MLB’s neighboring Oakland A’s. And a Warriors run to the 1975 NBA championship came as such a surprise, arena officials booked an Ice Follies performance that wasn’t moved and temporarily forced the Warriors back to the Cow Palace for two Finals games.

A fan shift across the bay

The opening of Chase Center comes with two critical questions: will season-ticket holders in Oakland make the move with the team across the San Francisco Bay? And with a marked reduction in parking spaces from about 10,000 at Oakland Arena to roughly a third of that in the immediate arena neighborhood, will fans effectively shift to public transportation to get to the arena?

Welts already has preliminary answers to both questions.

About 70 per cent of the team’s existing season-ticket base renewed, and given their five straight trips to the NBA Finals quickly built back up from there. Season-ticket sales were capped at 13,000 full-season equivalents, with 40,000 more people on a waiting list.

“We think that’s a really big number and higher than we expected,” he says. “We consider that to be a big victory for us.”

Season-ticket holders each were required to a pay a $10,000 “membership fee,” that exists somewhat like a personal seat license. The fee is transferrable, inheritable, and refunded in full after 30 years. 

Ticket prices themselves in the new arena range from $5,000 per game for courtside seats to $150 for upper-deck seats. Programs remain in the works, however, to offer some additional lower-cost options. A sold-out slate of suite inventory ranged from $200,000 to $2m per season depending on size, location, and amenities. 

“One of the great learnings of the past when teams sell out their buildings for the [entire] season in advance is don’t do it,” Welts says. “Keep about 5,000 tickets per game for people who aren’t a position to see [all] 44 games a year, which is what we have.”

As for transportation question, about 30 per cent of fans attending initial concerts at Chase Center, including a facility-opening event last month with Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony, used public transit. 

The team is pushing multiple options fans can take to reach the venue, including light rail and bus service. The Warriors also cleverly struck an agreement with the San Francisco Municipal Railway to enable each game ticket to also be good for a free all-day pass to the city’s entire Muni system. Just swipe the ticket and the team knows who is using the transit system.

The 30-per-cent usage figure should also increase once permanent water ferry service begins to be offered. An approved voter measure dedicated bridge toll funds to create the ferry service, but that measure is now being challenged in court, leaving a timeline to start the service unknown. 

“The money is being collected, but we can’t spend it,” Welts says. “The good news is, and it’s kind of a miracle, we’re actually starting ferry service from Pier 48, which is just an eight-minute walk to the north.”

The Warriors initially expect about 1,100 to arrive to games by ferry, roughly half of what the neighboring Giants get for their games by that means. 

And if that isn’t preferable, the Warriors have even created a glass-enclosed cubby space for 300 people to store bicycles at the arena.

One of two new buildings part of the Thrive City complex adjacent to Chase Center. (Golden State Warriors)

Thinking of everything 

The inside of Chase Center is designed with a deep pitch to keep the seats as low to the floor as possible while maintaining optimal sight lines for basketball.

“There is one level of [luxury] suites rather than two, which brings the lower bowl even closer to the court,” Welts says. “We went to 18,000 seats instead of 19,500, which brings fans even closer. Intimate is the word that people are using.”

Welts says the challenge for the architects was to make each seat in the building as close or closer than its comparable seat at Oakland Arena.

“I haven’t measured them all, but I’m told we succeed in that,” he says.

One row of 16 suites, called courtside lounges, was brought down to floor level and comes with a private hospitality area. 

A false ceiling, meanwhile, allows the scoreboard despite its massive size to disappear into a hidden compartment during concerts and other non-Warriors events.

Much like the locally focused Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Bay Area eateries have a sizable presence for the Chase Center concessions operations, with Bon Appétit Management Company and Levy Restaurants working to bring in a variety of local providers and artisan kitchens. 

Given the presence of Silicon Valley down the road, interactive features are also predictably prevalent in and around Chase Center. Warriors Hooptopia, also part of the Thrive City complex, is a 14,000-square-foot interactive space where a fan can do everything from shake the hand of a cut-out of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at the NBA Draft to riding the slam dunk machine used in the famed 1990s film Space Jam. There is even a champagne celebration room where fans can mimic winning a NBA Finals of their own.

Much of the space was designed with fans’ social media usage in mind.

“Welcome to 2019. Instagram is all it,” Welts says.

The training center, recently named for pain relief brand Biofreeze, meanwhile features two full-length basketball courts, six basketball hoops, a 4,000-square-foot weight room, the team’s locker room, training and treatment areas which includes a sauna, a cryo-treatment chamber, and a hydro room with float tanks and an underwater treadmill. 

Additional amenity spaces include a kitchen, team lounge, a barber shop, and a cinema. The court area also has a facial recognition tracking system capable of measuring individual shots.

“The film room looks like a beautiful theatre. The players’ lounge looks like a club in a hotel,” Welts says. “The chef is there.”

The new facility has also been a revenue goldmine for the Warriors as the team has more than $2bn in contractually committed revenue already between tickets, suites, and sponsorships. 

Despite all that San Francisco glitz, the Warriors are still attempting to not leave Oakland entirely behind. The team’s prior practice facility in downtown Oakland is being repurposed to teach youth players, and their former offices are being utilized by non-profits through the Warriors Community Foundation to improve education opportunities for youth.

“We spent all last year celebrating the 47 years there,” Welts says. “Our ongoing commitment to Oakland is right there in how we’re using our old facilities.”

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