Abandoned stadiums fight to stay in the money game; Many turn to rock concerts, minor sports, exhibits

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A8

Across America, state-of-the-art arenas are sprouting from the ground – shiny futuristic beacons, testaments to progress and the economic pull of luxury boxes. Cities pour millions into building them, and fans love going to them.

But it’s easy to forget what they leave behind: perfectly functioning buildings whose only problem was being too old.

Someone once poured millions into their construction too, and fans once thrilled to watch their hometown team play there.

Welcome to the graveyard of old stadiums.

For every new star like Gund Arena, there are places such as the Richfield Coliseum, the former home of Cleveland’s Cavaliers.

Cities are trying to find new ways to make money from these old buildings.

“It’s certainly been a change,” said Neville Waters, marketing director for Washington’s Sports and Entertainment Commission, which runs Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Until 1997, RFK was the home of the Washington Redskins, but they’ve since moved to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in suburban Maryland.

The Redskins’s eight home games a year – and the team’s rabid fans – funneled almost $2 million annually into the stadium. When the team moved, it left behind a huge financial hole.

So RFK officials had to refocus. They decided to put their efforts behind soccer, the sport analysts have long said is ready to become enormous in the United States. The stadium’s new major tenant is D.C. United, one of the top teams in Major League Soccer.

RFK has also hosted the Tibetan Freedom Concert (an enormous festival of rock acts, including the Beastie Boys and Beck) and a mass wedding of 56,000 people by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Throw in a few baseball exhibitions, a Promise Keepers gathering, and some concerts, and you have a result that surprised even RFK officials: the stadium is still in the black.

“We were anticipating net losses these last two years, but we’ve ended up making a small profit,” Mr. Waters said.

“Things have really gone better than we would have expected,” he said.

There’s progress in Portland, Ore., too, where the 38-year-old Memorial Coliseum was supplanted in 1995 by the modern Rose Garden, built only 50 yards away.

The city’s professional basketball team, the Trail Blazers, moved into the Garden, leaving the old building without its major tenant.

Coliseum officials have found two ways to save money running the old facility. First, the Rose Garden’s staff also runs the Coliseum, which saves money on personnel costs.

Secondly, the city of Portland is paying for the renovations required to keep the building usable.

Without those artificial props, the Coliseum would be losing money.

“The Coliseum is in the black, but just barely,” said J. Isaac, senior vice president of the Oregon Arena Corp., which runs both facilities.

The Coliseum attracts some concerts that are better suited for its smaller size, but most of the building’s business occurs on days when the Rose Garden is booked, he said.

“It would be very, very difficult to make a profit if we were competing head-to-head with a newer facility,” he said.

With the new stadium push of the 1990s, even not-so-old arenas are falling victim to new competition.

In Florida, the Miami Arena has lost its NHL team, the Florida Panthers, to a new arena one county to the north; its NBA team, the Miami Heat, will leave after this season.

Miami Arena is only 11 years old, but it is already considered outdated. In an attempt to generate revenues, the arena brought in an East Coast Hockey League team. But its attendance numbers have been dead last in the league. It pulls in fewer than 2,000 fans a night.

Passed-over arenas have tended to focus on lower-prestige events, such as high school basketball, indoor football, or tractor pulls.

But some owners find it makes more economic sense just to tear down the past. In Cleveland, Municipal Stadium has been torn down to make way for the new home of the Browns.

Since it closed in 1994, the owners of the Richfield Coliseum in Summit County have fielded dozens of proposals for the empty hulk, including turning it into a state prison, a church, or an indoor amusement park.

But in January, they announced they had made up their minds.

The building will be torn down, and the area will be turned into a park. Officials at the time said they hoped that, in a few years, no one will be able to tell where the Coliseum had once stood.