Calgary Flames

What the Calgary Flames’ new arena should copy from the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay

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 the SAP Center in San Jose, the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, and the Flames’ current home in the Saddledome, let’s turn our eyes to Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, FL, another similar project to the new arena in Calgary. The arena is located in a mid-sized city like Calgary, but has integrated itself well into the broader plan of the area.

Here is what the Flames should borrow and definitely not borrow from the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

History of Amalie Arena

Opened in 1996, the arena—originally known as the Ice Palace—has a unique funding structure. It was paid for by a mix of the State of Florida, Hillsborough County, the City of Tampa, and the team—using mostly public bond money. All in all, the project cost around $160 million, with the team putting in approximately $53 million and the government putting in a combined $86 million. The arena is owned by the County and leased to Tampa Sports Authority who then lease it to the team, similar to the way the Saddledome is operated.

In addition to over 19,000 seats for hockey, the arena can be expanded to up to 21,500 seats for larger scale events which happen year round. On top of that, the arena has 72 boxes, split between the main level and upper level. Perhaps most unique, the arena has 3,000 seats in their Palace Club—a VIP area for season ticket holders that includes concierge services, private dining, and more.

The arena has undergone one major renovation in its lifetime: a $35 million project that saw the creation of the upper deck, new lightning, new seats, and much more. There was also a massive new videoboard installed in the same timeframe in 2012. The only other enhancement made was the installation of a one-acre vegetable garden at the back of the arena to help supply food to the restaurants of the arena.

Beyond hockey, the arena has played host to UFC, WWF, AFL, college basketball and more. It was also home to the Toronto Raptors during the 2020–21 season and home to the Frozen Four in 2012, 2016, and 2023. The arena is used for other events beyond sports as well.

To wear or to tear

Here is what the Flames’ new home should borrow (wear) or not (tear) from the home of the Lightning.

Wear: Exceptional use of outdoor spaces

The excitement of catching a game in Tampa starts well before you even enter the arena. The team has created a giant outdoor area called Thunder Alley as part of their pre-game entertainment. This comes with a stage, open area, bar, and much more. This entices fans to come to the arena in advance, minimizing the traffic disruption of everyone arriving at the same time, grows the brand in the area, and creates an additional revenue stream through drink sales in advance of the game. It’s basically the Red Lot on steroids every single game. Take a look at the photos below for some idea of what it looks like:

On the one hand, Calgary and Florida have very different climates, and this would be far more fun in Florida year round than in Calgary in mid-January, but that should not be a reason to scrap this idea entirely. The Flames should look to adopt this infrastructure and transform it to be used in the wintertime, but particularly in the fall and spring. Imagine sitting outside in a semi-heated terrace on a fall evening sipping a beverage pre-game with some local live music or even having seasonal themed events year round that you can grab and go for on the way to and from the arena.

Is this easier to do in Florida? For sure. But is it possible to do with some changes in Calgary? Absolutely. The Flames should absolutely look to enhance the vibrancy of the area around the arena to create a better pre and post-game atmosphere.

Wear: Quality interior entertainment and food options

This is where Amalie Arena really shines. It’s a great example of how an arena should be designed, incorporating all the elements you want in an arena with all the amenities you simply don’t find elsewhere. Let’s start with some pictures:

The arena has multiple levels and multiple concourses which allow for the flow of people without overcrowding generally. They are well designed, leaving out the heavy concrete look of other arenas like Seattle and the Saddledome, and feature multiple video boards for entertainment.

What’s really cool about the video boards is that they have a lot of fan experience elements for fans who are not in the stands during the game. This is great for engagement and attracting fans who may still be learning about hockey.

Now, let’s talk about the food. Amalie Arena is one of the only ones I’ve seen where there were perhaps more food options than people. There were so many choices to eat at, and because of this, the lines were reasonable throughout. While the prices were high (coming from CAD), they weren’t exorbitant by any means. What did stand out in particular was the diversity of food options, with everything from typical foods to wraps, salads, sandwiches, and so much more.

In what may be a foreign concept to Flames fans used to the Saddledome, there were comfortable seating areas throughout the arena, with lots of spots to have a snack or take a seat before going to sit in the arena. This was such a welcome addition, especially when waiting for friends to get food, use the washrooms, or otherwise. It’s such a simple addition, but it makes a huge difference. Definitely something that the new Flames arena should incorporate.

Finally, the crowning jewel of Amalie Arena is the top floor semi-covered patio, which was open all gam long. It included food and drink stands, and was a great spot to relax between periods. It also had a really nice view of downtown Tampa.

The Flames should try to incorporate as much of this as they can in the new arena. Adding in a diversity of food options is helpful to attract fans of different backgrounds, and particular people who want to go watch a hockey game and also have a healthier meal. There should also be lots of seating options available throughout the arena, both from an accessibility perspective but also from a comfort perspective, to make the arena more enjoyable to be in. Finally, if the Flames could swing an outdoor patio area in the new arena, that would be wonderful, but again given the climate in Calgary, it’s probably much more of a liability to handle than its worth.

Wear: Exceptional fan experience

There are few places that are more exciting to catch a game in than Tampa. Not only is the fanbase engaged and loud, the arena and team do an excellent job facilitating that engagement. Let’s look at some photos:

The videoboard plays a huge part in this- and you can tell from the picture just how large it is! The team does a great job using it for engagement, but what is especially cool is how much information they show on it. This shot shows not only a fact about Kurcherov, but also team stats, 50/50 draw numbers, out of town scoreboard, and so much more all at the same time.

Their pre-game warm up is exciting, bringing out flags, drums, and more to get fans engaged, but not the best in the league. That said, you still feel like you want to run through a wall when it gets started.

Coolest of all is the team has installed Tesla coils on the ceiling that they use in the pre-game and every time the team scores a goal. It’s such a fun feature that complements the theme of the team. Similar to the flamethrowers that go off periodically in the Saddledome, this is something that the Flames should continue going forward.

Finally, the Lightning have dedicated an area of the arena as their entertainment area, with bands, dancers, flags, and more to keep fans engaged. This area is like Red Corner at the Saddledome, but about ten times the size, and with a giant video board above it. This creates a really fun atmosphere for fans and allows for more engaging fan participation.

As good as Red Corner is in Calgary, having an actual entertainment platform would be huge for entertainment and engagement in the new arena. The Flames should absolutely employ this in the new arena.

Tear: Nothing?

It’s genuinely difficult to find things at Amalie Arena that are worth tearing. The arena itself is pretty, with lots of glass and big windwos. I guess it could have a cooler shape like the Saddledome, but it is far from the ugliest barn in the league. The entertainment options both inside and outside the arena are excellent, and the fan experience is top class. This should be a model that the Flames look to follow for their new arena.

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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