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The arena experience of the future will be very different - and it has nothing to do with the pandemic

Technology and changing tastes will force franchises and building operators to adapt, but there are new ideas for every income bracket. This is how online gambling and unique experiences will govern the future of fandom.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If and when the NHL returns this season, games may have to be played in different circumstances due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of playing games at select locations has been floated, with Grand Forks, North Dakota (home of the University of North Dakota) and Manchester, New Hampshire (where the ECHL Monarchs play) at the top of the list.

What is very likely is that at least some of the games will be played in empty arenas. Naturally, this would only be a short-term solution to a problem we all hope goes away as quickly as possible, but it did get me thinking about the future of game experiences. Earlier this season, I was chatting with a high-ranking NHL team executive who works on the business side of his franchise. I asked him if the arenas of the future will be bigger or smaller than the current buildings and before I even finished asking the question, he responded "smaller."

Now, don't take this as a sign that live sports were in trouble before the pandemic. Far from it; the executive was actually very enthusiastic about the future. He looked at how fans view and consume sports now and saw an opportunity for evolution.

First, there is the pragmatic assessment that a lot of fans, particularly younger ones, don't just watch one thing at a time anymore. At home, that means multiple screens. Live, that means fans in the stands who are also on their phones, snapping selfies and video for social media or checking out statistics while they watch the actual game in front of them. If you're old-school, this probably irks you to no end, but it is the reality we live in. How will sports adapt? The 2019 All-Star Game in San Jose gave a pretty good indication of that. Because the festivities were held on Silicon Valley's turf, there was a lot of talk about the future, which included a very interesting symposium featuring commissioner Gary Bettman and a host of experts in the tech and gambling fields.

Online gambling has become a big field of interest for major sports leagues around the world and the NHL is no exception. Being able to deliver real-time stats on people's phones paves the way for a brand-new world of bets, from how fast Connor McDavid can skate in a game to how fast an Alex Ovechkin shot goes from his stick to the back of the net. Naturally, all the industry players are still working out the kinks of this and the technology will undoubtedly improve in the coming years, but all the experiments the NHL has tried with player tracking recently will help solidify this as reality instead of science fiction. And it goes without saying there's a lot of money in gambling.

Another interesting avenue to consider is how the live experience itself will evolve. Remember; smaller arenas don't necessarily mean smaller revenues - pro sports is a business, after all - it just means doing business differently as tastes evolve. At the high end, that means luxury suites and ticket packages will become even more of a focal point for arena operators. But there's another area that still allows room for the fan who can't put down the equivalent of a mortgage on season tickets.

The NHL business exec I spoke with pointed to what the NBA's Toronto Raptors did during their march to the 2019 championship title: turning the area outside of Scotiabank Arena into 'Jurassic Park,' an ever-growing party zone where fans flocked to watch their Raptors on outdoor screens. The 2019 playoffs weren't the first time this happened in Toronto - both the Maple Leafs and Raptors had done it before - but the championship run by the Raptors really showed what the potential was for such a gathering. Branding and ad revenue opportunities in such an area are no-brainers and there's no reason other franchises couldn't explore similar options in the future, even if it's a special section inside the building, perhaps a re-imagining of standing-room only sections in the back (and if you think that won't work, recall that Edmonton Oilers fans were willing to pay $80 just to stand around the arena's concourse during the 2017 playoffs).

The fly in the ointment will be TV partners, who haven't always been on board with large gatherings of fans watching one giant screen (because that's not how TV ratings work) but if they are included in the presentation and branding, I'm sure something can be worked out.

When will this new future become reality? It's impossible to say right now, but it will likely happen in spurts. Seattle's new/renovated arena will have a capacity of 17,300 for hockey, while the New York Islanders are looking at a capacity of 17,113 for Belmont Park. They won't be the biggest rinks in the league, but they won't be the smallest, either (Winnipeg holds that honor at a little more than 15,000 - and the Jets pack the house). But what will happen when another team needs a new building in, say, five years?

It's impossible to predict the future, but it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.


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