The US Bank Arena project is pretty much dead. The one thing that was giving that project real momentum was the possibility that the Republican Convention in 2016 could be coming to Cincinnati. With the convention going to Cleveland all the momentum that existed for that project has been extinguished. UC has not even received a proposal from AEG/ The Nederlander Group on having the Bearcats playing downtown at US Bank Arena. The need for a first class arena in Cincinnati has not gone unnoticed, and should it come to pass the Bearcats really are the perfect primary tenant for just such an arena. UC basketball really is the city's college basketball, whatever Xavier fans say. Such a project is far from being realized, and that makes the decision an easy one, the Bearcats are staying on campus unless something drastic happens in the coming months.
So the question changes from being one about picking a venue into a question of maximizing the return on the investment the department makes towards renovation. That investment will be substantial.
Bohn estimated the cost of a Fifth Third renovation in the $40 million to $70 million range, depending on what the school settles on if it decides to move forward with the renovation rather than move Downtown. He said he did not yet know how the project would be funded.
If there is a 30 million dollar difference in the estimated price of the project it suggests, at the very least, two different plans; a lower end and a higher end. There is almost certainly a plan (or plans) in between the two announced price points. Those middle plans have (presumably) been discussed and discarded under the "Ain't No Half Steppin" principal. The same principal applies to the lower end project as well, more on that in a moment.
If fundraising strategies aren't even being made public it suggests that this is relatively early days. Then again there wasn't a concrete fundraising plan in place with the Nippert Expansion when the project was announced. The financial modeling came after the initial announcement with Nippert, and will probably do so again here. In the case of Nippert there was about a 6 month period where sales and the demand for spots in the new tower played an active role in finalizing the design, for suites in particular, but the size shapes and options for the club seats as well. Consumer demand will certainly shape the final plans for Fifth Third renovations should Bohn make that decision.
In this project there is only one option to take, they have to do the higher end version of the renovation (say it with me!), and they have to approach that with a particular world view in mind.
"You're gonna end up with fewer but bigger theatres. Going to the movies is gonna cost you $50, maybe $100, maybe $150."
"Like Broadway costs today."
"Yeah, it's like Broadway or a football game; it's going to be an expensive thing. Movies will be these big ticket items because people will still take their chances [with them]. But everything else is going to look more like cable television or TiVo, with great programming that's usually more interesting than what you're going to see in the movie theatre. You can get it whenever you want and it's going to be niche marketed, which means [directors] can really take chances if they can figure there's a small group of people that will react to it. Then it's really a matter of marketing, which is the biggest issue - just making sure that people know you're there - and with the internet there's a whole process for doing that now. That's what will [become of] what used to be the 'movie business' - and I include television and movies. It's going be a television business that actually has nothing to do with television anymore."
That is George Lucas (and Stephen Spielberg) talking about the future of movies, which is going to look pretty similar to the future of sports, both professional and collegiate. Sports and movies are but subject to, and increasingly suffering from, the same broader economic and technological factors. Both fall under the broader accounting umbrella of "entertainment" and both are being constrained and squeezed by the same general trends. The fact that an ever growing share of homes now have DVR service (45 percent) hooked up to a High-definition television (72 percent). Those homes also probably have a person's favorite chair and consistently fast WiFi connection which has spawned the creation of the second screen experience.
These trends are currently effecting movies more viciously than they are affecting the sports world, but they are still having a noticeable effect. College football attendance has effectively plateaued over the last decade, the same phenomenon is playing out in college basketball, just in a much more dispersed fashion*. At the same time ratings for college football and college basketball have both gone through the roof. These aren't disparate phenomenon, they are closely correlated events that have an obvious trend line, and broad implications for the way that the market for the consumer's sports/entertainment dollar is going to change in the future.
* As you would expect in a sport with 300+ members playing
Being frank I think that we can all agree that going to a game a Fifth Third Arena generally sucks, especially if you are seating in the mezzanine. Its hard to get into and out of, simply getting around the building is a massive pain in the butt. The concessions are inadequate for the crowds that it serves, ditto for the restrooms. The seats are cramped and uncomfortable with weird sight lines. When the game starts it's a different matter, because when the game is being played the building is secondary. All of those are massive impediments to getting people to keep coming back. All of the things mentioned above have one thing in common, they can be remedied with physical changes. If Mike Bohn decides on the most complete transformation of the arena that is on the table that will take care of the physical changes and make it a comfortable place for fans to experience a game at. Particularly so if the plan he adapts includes reducing capacity by a few thousand. That will solve the problems that people have with the building today. But if you are going to spend that much money on a project, trying to figure out and solve tomorrow's problems is a good idea as well.
If Mike Bohn is going to renovate Fifth Third he needs to go for the option that gives him the most complete physical transformation of the arena. Anything that he chooses to do that does not include tearing out the rollaway bleachers and building a brand new more intimate seating bowl would be a colossal mistake. That would be the half steppin we were discussing earlier.
This renovation can't just be about making Fifth Third physically more comfortable. They have to improve the club experience for basketball, same for the suites, even though there will probably be fewer of them. All of that is obviously a huge priority obviously, but it is only the starting point. Most of all they have to improve the in arena experience for fans, and they have to do it with an eye towards the future. They have to put real thought into what the fan of 2020 will want from the arena. UC is only going to get one shot to do this. If they get it right the Bearcats can have a home for the next 25 years, if they get it wrong we will be right back in the same place in 5 or 10 years.
It could be theorized that the most difficult part of planning this kind of renovation isn't getting the physical part of it correct. It's hard, and has its own challenges to be sure, but trying to predict future demand for things is more difficult. Once you have done that you still need to develop methods for supplying solutions to problems that fans haven't yet expressed desire to correct. In other words, to give your fans an experience that they didn't even know they wanted before they wanted it. There is really only one way to do that with this project, and that is by bringing the second screen experience to the arena.
I don't often ask you, dear reader, to do this for me, but I am asking you to now. Close your eyes....wait I didn't think that through. OK, keep your eyes open, but imagine a hypothetical trip to a future Fifth Third Arena. You and your buddie/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/child (delete as applicable) arrive at your seats in the new lower seating bowl like a good little Bearcat, 30 minutes before tip off with your color appropriate shirt for the night on. Upon arriving you pull out your iPhone 6 (or 7) or your Galaxy S6 (or7) and touch your Fifth Third Arena app. The first prompt asks you where your seats are? Upon supplying that information you are instantly directed to a feed of information pertinent to the night's game; who the refs are, the projected starting lineups for both teams, stats for all the players for the season to date, records that could be in play, a rundown of all the other conference games, ranked games, relevant news stories, whatever you need to get ready for the game.
As the teams get ready to tip off you hit a tab on your Fifth Third Arena app that brings up live video feeds from several cameras in the arena. By double tapping any one feed you can make that your default video feed. By swiping the edge of your screen you can switch to a different view. Each feed is fully manipulable, meaning that you can pause, rewind, zoom in or out. Essentially you become the director of your very own personal broadcast. So if player Y gets called for a charge you can check on your phone, rewind the play and zoom in on the restricted circle, and see that the clearly biased ref missed the call, boo accordingly.
With about two minutes to play in the first half you hit another tab in the app that brings up your dining choices. Every item that is on sale and edible is included on the menu. Say you wanted a slice of Donato's* pizza, a beer and a water because you gotta hydrate. Just as you go to place your order you remember, that your buddie/girlfriend/boyfriend/child might want something as well. As it turns out they want a hot pretzel and a beer, you scroll down the menu and see the universal symbol for none of this over the pretzel. No luck on the pretzel, but you order the beer. The app has saved your credit card info from your previous trip to a game, asks you if you want to use that card, so you do and see your confirmation number/receipt. Based on the location of your seats your order is routed to the nearest concession stand capable of filling your entire order. You are then given directions to said concession should you need them. Upon arriving you skip the line, show the confirmation of your order to an associate who scans your phone to verify your order and supplies it.
*or whoever the official Pizza of the Bearcats will be X number of years in the future. Don't get hung up on the details dude.
Just before the start of the second half you hit another tab on the app which takes you to stats central for this game. Armed with that information you are ready for the second half to start. As ever the Bearcats romp home in a laugher and you head for the exits, closing your Fifth Third Arena app as you go. Until next time.
Obviously the scenario that played out in the four paragraphs above is highly idealized, but its not far fetched. All the technology you would need to implement such a vast information network already exists. Creating a WiFi network robust enough to support thousands of connections and requests simultaneously isn't a huge issue. Creating an in house app that ties all these things together and puts it in the palm of the users hands is very complex and thus costly. However it has already been done, and is only going to become more common as the price associated with setting it up falls.
It is not the norm at the moment, but that is the direction that these things are headed, and recognizing that trend is imperative. With recognition you have a chance to get out in front of it. For Mike Bohn the goal has to be to create an experience in the arena that isn't just superior to sitting at home on your favorite couch, but one that creates a unique experience every time out, and personalizing the experience to the individual fan is a great way to do just that. It won't be cheap, but it will be worth it.
That is the most fascinating thing about what is going on with the Bearcats right now is that they are undergoing massive renovations and expansions of their facilities at the exact same time that the financial model with which the old facilities were originally built is falling apart. Its not just that the Bearcats are going to a premium seating model now. The premium seating model has been done in other places before, what makes what the Bearcats can do different is that they can push the fan amenities angle to its limit while they are under construction. These aren't cheap things to do in general, but it will be easier and cheaper to do them while the things are being built. Pushing this angle would give the Bearcats something new for a change, a spot on the cutting edge of a trend. You just hope that Mike Bohn and Santa Ono see the opportunity for what it is.