Calgary Flames

What the Calgary Flames’ new arena should copy from the American Airlines Center in Dallas

After much back and forth and endless political posturing by everyone involved, the Flames are officially going to have a new home in the coming years. The arena project is expected to include many other elements, including a community rink, outdoor and indoor meeting spaces, and more, but the key facility in all of this is the big shiny new arena for the Flames, Calgary Hitmen, Calgary Wranglers, and more.

Undoubtedly, whoever is contracted to design the new arena will be exploring rinks across North America and around the world to see what works and more importantly what doesn’t to determine what the new arena in Calgary should keep. Having already looked at San Jose, let’s turn our eyes to the American Airlines Center in Dallas Texas, another similar project to the new arena in Calgary. Dallas and Calgary share a ton of similarities, both in terms of economic market as well as having both arenas located downtown.

Here is what the Flames should borrow and definitely not borrow from the home of the Dallas Stars.

History of American Airlines Center

The arena was opened in 2001, with the Mavericks and Stars needing a larger facility to play out of. The agreement was that the cost was to be split between the City of Dallas, through bonds, as well as a tax on hotel rooms and rental cars. The remainder was picked up by the two teams. The City actually did quite well in retrospect, picking up just $155 million on a fixed amount agreement, and the teams paying the balance including cost overruns.

Originally, the site that became home to the Stars and Mavericks was a contaminated area that was most recently an abandoned railyard and and old power plant, but between the federal and local governments, the area was remediated to make it usable to the public. This is reminiscent of early plans to move the Calgary arena to Sunalta, but with the city and province unable to come to an agreement on who was to pay to remediate the area, this plan was shelved.

The arena seats 18,532 people, and has 144 suites. It has undergone some renovations since it was opened, including an ongoing $18.5 million project to get a new LED display and new seats throughout. The biggest renovation was to fix the roof of the building, which has been prone to leaking in rainstorms. The City estimates it has spent around $100 million on renovations since the building was opened 22 years ago.

To wear or to tear

Here are the amenities from Dallas that the new Flames arena should have (wear) or not (tear):

Wear: Shape and street-front presence

The one thing that really stands out with American Airlines Center in Dallas is its look. The front of the building is a brick facade, complemented with limestone and granite. A very impressive front, the building is a clear standout in downtown Dallas, which includes a water feature (in the summer) and excellent streetscaping. Take a look below:

While the building is rectangular, the roof has a pillowy shape to it, giving it a poofy appearance from above and the sides. It will never be as aesthetically exciting of a building as the Saddledome, at least as far as rectangular arenas go, it punches well above its weight.

Wear: Exceptional layout and interior design

The inside is even more impressive than the exterior. Unlike the Saddledome and SAP Center in San Jose, the AA Center has next to no exposed concrete, instead using finished materials to create a more aesthetic experience for fans. There are multiple concourses, making traffic flow across the arena much easier, particularly in busier times like intermissions and the beginning and end of the game. Take a look below:

On top of that, they have really run with the American Airlines name, using planes and sky motifs throughout the arena. This creates a nice themed environment and experience for fans. Take a look at this image below.

Finally, what’s perhaps coolest is that AA Center has these floor-to-ceiling atriums that are themed by a specific advertiser. The one below is themed for Modelo, and includes a bar with Modelo drinks exclusively. This is both very aesthetic to look at, but is a great revenue source for the team. You can see it from every atrium level, which an added selling feature for brands who want their logos to be seen by as many eyes as possible.

Arenas are expensive, both to build as well as to maintain. The Flames’ new arena will need to do what it can to enhance revenue. This model seems to work well in Dallas and may be worth trying in Calgary.

But even more than that, the arena in Dallas is visually very appealing. It’s laid out well and minimizes congestion. This allows for a more relaxing fan environment and makes it easier to go to a game if you’re claustrophobic or don’t want to wait forever in a bathroom or hot dog line.

Wear: Exceptional fan experience prioritization

It truly is a treat to go to a Stars game as a neutral fan. You can’t help but get caught up in all of the excitement of both the fans, but also the way that the Stars put together their fan experience in the arena. This starts with an incredible pre-game light and entertainment show followed by the players skating through the LED Star to take the ice. Like the San Jose Sharks skating through the shark head, the Flames should absolutely try to adopt something similar.

But more than that, the arena is designed for fan experience. The LED boards throughout are used really effectively to showcase who scored, light up with ads, and play well in conjunction with the big LCD screens.

There is also a built-in stage behind the net for the Stars’ dance team to perform intermittently as part of the experience. Between dancing, music, and more, the off-ice product is always exciting, making it much easier to bring less avid hockey fans to the game. It’s also nice during TV time outs to have something to watch and listen to. The Flames do a fine job of this, but the Stars’ presentation is next-level. This is an area of opportunity in the new Calgary arena.

Tear: Lack of district master planning

The hard part about the area around the arena in Dallas is the lack of structured development to support it. While the arena is located in downtown Dallas, you would be surprised how little it feels like a downtown. There is lots of empty land being used for parking lots combined with a mix of high rise and low rise buildings for apartments and offices but no real structure as to what is used for what and why.

Texas has vastly different zoning laws from Calgary and it was clear that there is no master plan for the area around the arena. This makes it difficult to find many bars and restaurants in the vicinity, with them dotted sporadically but not clustered like you would see in areas with master plans like Chicago’s Wrigleyville or Edmonton’s ICE District. Calgary needs to incorporate a distinct master plan to the area around the arena to make more user-friendly.

What to expect

The Flames are still a few years away from having a new arena, but the hope is that it is among the most beautiful in the NHL. Given the fact that the City, Province, and CSEC are splitting the cost, this should be reasonable to expect. This should also be done in conjunction with the development of the surrounding area, to make the whole area feel like a real district, similar to Edmonton’s ICE District.

The part that I think Flames fans should hope for is that the new arena has an iconic shape. It’s very easy to make the new arena look like every other building in the league, but the Saddledome has been such a huge part of the Calgary skyline and the city should fight to build a building that continues that legacy. The Saddledome reflects the history and traditions of this city and province, and the new arena should do more of the same.

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