Cincy arena owner: NCAA wants snazzier locker rooms, might as well tear the whole place down

The NCAA has awarded a round of its 2022 basketball tournament to Cincinnati, for the first time in 30 years. Yay, Cincinnati! But this is conditional on Hamilton County making $200 million in upgrades to its arena. Boo, NCAA! But actually the NCAA’s upgrade demands aren’t that major or costly, it’s just the arena’s owner/operator who’s trying to leverage this into a major upgrade:

U.S. Bank Arena needs to add two locker rooms and greatly expand media space below the seating area if it’s going to host the first- and second-round games, Ray Harris, CEO of Nederlander Entertainment, which operates and is majority owner of the arena, told me on Wednesday…

Harris is shooting to make those changes as part of a planned massive overhaul of U.S. Bank Arena that would likely cost anywhere from $200 million to $350 million, he said.
“We’d certainly advocate the major renovation that addresses what the NCAA needs and provides additional amenities as opposed to losing events,” Harris said. “That’s certainly our hope. We think this is a great time to address all the shortcomings of this facility. It would put Cincinnati on the map to be competitive with all the major cities around us.”

Well, sure, you’d advocate that the city chip in on $200 million to $350 million of upgrades to your arena, rather than just adding two locker rooms and some media space. And what would that greater renovation entail, exactly?

[Harris] said Wednesday that the current plan to prepare for the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball championship includes tearing down the arena and building a new, larger arena in its place.

Okay, then!

Some backstory: Harris has been proposing a major overhaul of the arena for two years now, with the minor snag that he wants the county to help pay for it, and after coughing up big bucks for new stadiums for the Reds and the Bengals, spending nine figures on an arena whose highest-profile tenants is a minor-league hockey team isn’t exactly likely to be a priority. But if it’s about making the NCAA happy, and “putting Cincinnati on the map” — hey, sure, maybe somebody will buy it. Not anyone on the county commission, admittedly — commissioner Todd Portune replied yesterday, “Go do it. It’s your arena. We’ll be happy to help with permits and zoning, but don’t think that the county has a pot of money over here that we’re waiting to make available” — but maybe somebody somewhere.

AEG asks Cincinnati to help pay for $200 million renovation of arena, no one laughs for some reason

Show of hands: Did you even know that Cincinnati had a basketball and hockey arena? It hasn’t had an NBA team since the Royals moved to Kansas City in 1972, and major-league hockey since the Stingers went away with the folding of the WHA in 1979. But it still has the U.S. Bank Arena, built in 1975 as the Riverfront Coliseum, and probably best known as the reason we don’t have general admission rock shows anymore.

Anyway, the arena is, according to its LinkedIn page, “a first-class, state-of-the-art venue,” and

U.S. Bank Arena’s owners unveiled a plan Tuesday morning that showed how long-anticipated and extensive renovations could support the Downtown venue’s future.

Right, that’s what I meant, it needs $200 million in renovations to gut the place and add luxury suites and “revitalize downtown Cincinnati” and all that. Because after all, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The 40-year-old arena has not undergone a major renovation since 1997”! Can’t be having that!

The arena is co-owned by theater operators Nederlander Entertainment and venue mega-managers AEG, neither of whom have said anything about how this major renovation will be paid for, though the Enquirer reports that “taxpayers will be asked to pay at least part of the bill for any improvements.” This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if taxpayers also got a share of arena revenues to help repay their investment, but something tells me that’s not what Nederlander and AEG are thinking.

Anyway, one hopes that Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials will drive a hard bargain here, and — oh, who are we kidding, this is Cincinnati. Once your elected officials have bought into the notion that having concerts in the same place with nicer cupholders is going to “revitalize” your downtown, all hope is lost. Unless you get some different elected officials.