Rafi Kohan Talks Arenas

Rafi Kohan traveled the U.S. reporting on the country’s arenas and stadiums. The resulting book, “The Arena,” covers topics from concessions to operations to mascots. Along the way, Kohan, who has written for publications like the Wall Street Journal, talks to plenty of GMs and local politicians. Pollstar asked Kohan his overall impressions of the venue world.

Are there any arenas that are particularly good or bad when it comes to security?

Security falls under the umbrella of operations and logistics. The best were places that obviously took the time to think about their logistics, to think about these touch points of customer/fan/concert-attendee interaction when it came to things like crowd control/ingress.

Rafi Kohan
– Rafi Kohan

Even at concession stands. Even moments where maybe you are waiting in line and there are 10 folks in front of you. How long does it take for you to get up to the front?  The answer to that kind of question, to how quickly you move through that, is probably a good tea leaf in terms as to how the arena or stadium will treat its fans in general. 

I’ve been to some venues where it just feels like the fan experience is an afterthought in terms of getting you through the gate, and I can say it’s perhaps the places where they take your money for granted. It is places that feel entitled to have you come through the doors.

Other places are great, like Citi Field, which had Lady Gaga this week. From the very early stages of planning they brought in their VP of operations, Mike Landeen, and were really thoughtful in terms of how the building was going to operate, how it was going to interact with the public, and how people were going to interact with it. Little things like stacking the kitchens and plumbing efficiencies. But, then, zooming out from it, how their staff and their team from concessions to security were going to interact with the fans, from the first point of interaction to the last. At least, from my times there, it translates. You can sort of feel there was a thoughtful process, creating efficiencies or more pleasant points of contact.

I wonder – and maybe it’s not all malicious – maybe they haven’t thought about it and aren’t just taking you for granted. Just consider Citi Field versus Shea Stadium, the facility it replaced. When they built Shea they weren’t thinking about where the concession stands were going to go. It was more like, “Oh, there’s an empty corner where we can stuff a hot dog stand.”  Now I think people have a little more forethought in regards to those things, and have the opportunity to take that forethought. When they do, I think it shows.

Can you give a specific example of something that is an indicator of the experience as a whole?

Yes, it’s very specific: It is concessions. Very recently I had an experience where I went to a venue and got there maybe 15 minutes before the start of the event. There was such a crowd crush even finding your way to the proper gate where you could line up to get in that by the time I got in I missed the first 20 minutes of the event. It took me from getting off the train to getting inside in 30 minutes. It felt very disorganized. It was kind of a free-for-all.  It was a bad way to start your event.

The Arena
– The Arena

But of course, when you get in you’re willing to forgive and forget. But by the time we got to our seats, about a half hour into the event, we decide to get some food and settle in.

We got in line for barbecue at a known restaurant that had set up a stand. It seemed to be a medium-sized line, about 10 people. I swear to you, it literally took us 50 minutes to get our food.  And I watched it.

Now, when I go to events, games or concerts, I pay attention to those things. That’s one of the lessons of the book. The GMs and operations people tell me they can never go to another event because all they do is look at the mustard stains on the concession carts and the duct tape on the HVAC overhead and can’t watch the game itself. 

So I was watching the concession stand workers and one would literally shout out an order and they would stand still for about five minutes, waiting for someone else to take care of the order. There was clear operational inefficiencies. For them to not be aware of it, it could not be new. The idea that, one, they could turn over significantly more people and sell more barbecue if they had a better system but, two, my takeaway was that they really didn’t care.  They at least didn’t care enough to find out.

So, by the time I finally got back to my seat with the barbecue, the event was half over.  I couldn’t believe that was my fan/customer experience after spending a lot of money and getting a marked-up brisket, marked-up beer and the hassle of getting there and back. These little touchpoints that could make such a difference as to how I would feel after an event were unconsidered.

As you asked, it translates from the first point, security, to ticket-taking to everything inside the stadium walls.

Have you seen anything that all or most facilities could improve upon?

I do think at arenas, specifically, because they are more intimate than ballparks and stadiums, one trend is that the seating bowls are becoming more stratified.

Barclays Center
Courtesy Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment
– Barclays Center

At Barclays Center (in Brooklyn) there are two levels of luxury seats before you get to the upper deck. Up there, you feel like you’re in the upper ozone. And it’s not to say these teams shouldn’t be trying to make money. I have no problem with that, but I feel that it’s less of a communal, consistent experience.  I’ve been to a few concerts at Barclays and when I sat in those upper seats you feel so far away you wonder why you came.  Maybe it goes back to the design stages but people should be thinking more about that kind of holistic experience. 

In sports, like at Barclays Center, they’re trying to create this new fan base. It’s not a legacy fan base – there were no Nets fans in Brooklyn before 2012 and it’s debatable as to whether there are any now (laughs) – but I think the experience of creating some kind of community within the venue is important, some kind of shared experience.  Obviously that doesn’t preclude standing-room bars or bunker suites and other add-ons, but I think when it becomes so stratified that you feel separate from what’s happening below. It takes away from everyone’s experience. 

I don’t think we should proceed too far down that path before we think about where it’s headed.

Bruce Springsteen once famously commented, when playing the Staples Center’s very first concert, that he wanted the people in the luxury suites to leave their “skyboxes” and join the “rock show.”

It’s an energy suck.  Especially at a concert because the artist is seeing that, seeing some goober in a suit trying to schmooze someone.  I think the fans just feel it intrinsically. It just takes away. The more you have that kind of energy suck, the more you’re going to have less energy (laughs).

I read this great quote from a sociologist named John Bale, from an essay in a book called “Stadium and the City.” It came out about 20 years ago. He was bemoaning the idea that, already then, sports had become so dignified, and the question is why.  Why do we require all these creature comforts, like high-end hotdog stands?  Things you’d never think to require if you were going hunting. “I’m doing deer hunting and I do not expect there will be a beautiful toilet around the corner followed by a craft beer selection.”  You’re going to get wet; you’re going to be uncomfortable.

When I went to Bonnaroo, it was pretty uncomfortable.  I slept in a tent. But it was about the experience.  I know no stadiums would do this but why won’t we strip it back and just have the most elemental parts – the playing field, metal bleacher benches, and that’s it.  It’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to watch the damned game.  And you’ll be in it with everyone else.  I suppose a festival is about as close to that as we’re going to get.

Anything else?

Xcel Energy Center
– Xcel Energy Center

One of the biggest things I learned about new arenas – what makes for a good one – is the ease of use for roadies, for load-in and load-out.  It’s why all the big shows go to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Everything’s becoming so plug-and-play.  If you’re going to create a space that’s a pleasure for the stagehands to work in, that word is going to trickle up and you’ll find yourself attracting a better caliber of artist.

“The Arena” is available at www.rafikohan.com and Amazon.