AAC AT 20 Dallas’ downtown arena is a Victory in every way By Jaime Aron
As the American Airlines Center turns 20, things are going great for its primary tenants. The Stars are coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and the Mavericks boast a dynamic duo led by the NBA’s most exciting young player. The building itself is doing quite well, too. The AAC has aged gracefully. What began as a shiny structure on the previously decrepit northwest section of downtown has become the anchor of a vibrant area filled with places to live, eat, work and, of course, play. “It’s obviously changed Dallas and the entire downtown,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “Most people don’t remember the ugly (power) plant that was there prior to the AAC. It truly was an unsightly part of Dallas. With the opening in 2001, the AAC not only brought concerts and sports and more, but it revitalized that entire part of town. Now it’s a foundational destination for Dallas and the AAC is renown around the world.”
This building is as relevant today as the day it opened. From looks (brick, granite and limestone exterior) to comfort (from the seats to the suites) to amenities (terrific video boards and sound system), it was well-built and it’s been well-maintained. When fans head to a game, their only question about the next few hours is whether the home team will win, meaning they take for granted that they’re going to have a smooth experience in and around the building. “We built a great, functional building in a great location,” said Jim Lites, one of the leading figures in creating the building on behalf of the Stars and still a key player as the hockey team’s chairman. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the AAC is to compare it to its predecessor, Reunion Arena. Start with this: When Reunion turned 20, its replacement was almost ready.
In fairness, Reunion was built in an entirely different era. How different? When ground was broken, the Mavericks didn’t exist. When the doors opened, the Minnesota North Stars were 13 years from coming south. The teams simply outgrew the place. It was cramped and lacked things becoming standard in other arenas, such as suites and bars and other places for fans to see and be seen. Efforts to build a Downtown Dallas Arena 2.0 finally gained traction in 1998. The turning point was Dallas
voters passing a plan to raise $140 million through added taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars, with the Mavericks and Stars agreeing to cover the rest of the bill. The site they chose was an absolute eyesore. Calling it a dump isn’t editorializing; it really had been a landfill. Other previous uses included a crematory, a meat packing plant, a power plant, grain silos and a railroad maintenance facility. But the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location, and this site boasted that in the form of a huge swath of land accessible by two highways.
There’s never been a private-public partnership that’s been more successful than the American Airlines Center and the City of Dallas
The final challenge was creating a building that would last. That meant big and beautiful, with no corners cut. By the time doors opened in July 2001, the building cost around $420 million. About one-third of that went into what the Environmental Protection Agency later called one of the nation’s largest and most successful cleanup projects. Through constant upgrades, this building that was built to last is showing every indication that it will. Most of all, the AAC has fulfilled its promise of transforming this entire section of downtown, with the arena the unquestioned heartbeat of it all. “There’s never been a private-public partnership that’s been more successful than the American Airlines Center and the City of Dallas,” Lites said. “It’s generated billions of dollars in tax revenue to the city. The surrounding area houses thousands of residents and has millions of square feet of office space. Land that was $8 a foot is now about $300 a foot. So it’s easy to say that it has exceeded bestcase scenario.” Further proof: The $140 million in bonds the city raised were supposed to be paid off in 2028. The debt was retired in 2011.
It’s an impressive story, a great case study for business school. But what’s really fun is reminiscing about the memorable performances. Ask a Mavs fan for their favorite memory and it might be NBA Finals games in 2006 and 2011, or one of countless other nights when Dirk Nowitzki did something special. Or maybe one of the growing number of highlight outings by Luka Doncic. Cuban’s favorite? “When we brought together 20,000 Mavs fans after winning the championship,” he said. “It was amazing.” He’s referring to the afternoon when they celebrated their 2011 championship with a parade followed by an oncourt ceremony … and, in between, the team went onto the balcony overlooking Victory Plaza and Nowitzki led a singalong of “We Are The Champions.” Since moving into the AAC, the closest the Stars have come to a championship was this past season, when the pandemic forced them to play the entire postseason in Canada. Still, over the years, players from Mike Modano to Tyler Seguin have provided plenty of magic moments, such as
a dominant regular season in 2005-06, hosting the NHL All-Star Game in 2007 and a run to the conference finals in 2008. After a tough stretch that included bankruptcy, Tom Gaglardi bought the team. His first move was bringing back Lites, which in turn led to his favorite AAC moment.
“I was on the ice with Tom for the first night he went out to drop the puck,” Lites said. “The reception he got from the fans gave me chills. The team had really fallen into disarray and this was their way of saying, `We’re happy to have the Stars under quality ownership again.’” Some of the other sports highlights outside the Mavs and Stars include: •
Plenty of great college basketball action, from Big 12 men’s tournaments to rounds of the NCAA men’s tournaments to the 2017 Women’s Final Four, which featured Mississippi State ending UConn’s record 111game winning streak with a buzzer-beater in overtime during the semifinal, then South Carolina winning the championship.
Like tough guys? Well, there’s been everything from bull riding to mixed-martial arts (UFC and Strikeforce).
There’s even been gymnastics, bowling, wrestling and football (Dallas Desperados).
“The building is run by Craig Courson, Dave Brown and more than 1,000 hard-working Dallasites that make it sparkle every day,” Cuban said. “They get all the credit.”
DAVE BROWN, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER AND GENERAL MANAGER OF THE AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER, REFLECTS ON THE FACILITY’S 20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY
Detailing stellar successes, recent challenges, and impactful pivots. He also describes the AAC’s limitless potential, with the Dallas Sports Commission playing a key role in its future… Now in its 20th anniversary year, what makes the American Airlines Center so special? It’s a combination of factors. It’s solid, consistent ownership-a group who had the vision to build this arena and breathe life into the area. It’s the partnership with the city, which actually owns the facility and has provided unwavering support over the years. And it’s a winning product, both on the ice and on the court. Those are the primary drivers. This is a sports town. There’s no disputing that. And I think our city is very proud of the Mavericks and the Stars, teams committed to Dallas and to downtown, in particular.
What has been the facility’s biggest challenge in the face of COVID-19, and how have you adapted? The biggest challenge has been staying relevant. Not hosting events was a shock to the system. You have to make adjustments to remain a viable business. But our responsibility goes beyond just hosting games and concerts. We are an asset the community depends on, and we had to pivot. The first thing we did was open up as a drive-through testing center for Dallas County in late March. In a hundred days, approximately 50,000 COVID tests were administered at the AAC. Then, we started adding blood drives, all at no cost. Next, we were able to serve as a voting center. I think it’s safe to say more citizens voted at American Airlines Center, through early voting and on election day, than any other site in Dallas County. All those efforts have helped us stay relevant, engaged, and give back. And they dramatically boosted morale for our staff, as our team was feeling a bit helpless. Our pivots provided purpose, and we are really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish for our community.
The Mavericks have started back up, and the Stars have announced they’ll be back in the building in January. How will that look differently? We hope there’s continued progress toward normalcy. But it’s going to be a process, a slow one. We’re optimistic that with the vaccine rollout we’ll be able to invite more and more guests into the building, as the season unfolds. We’re excited, yet we’re on guard. We know it’s our responsibility to reopen in a controlled, thoughtful and safe manner.
In terms of the facility and hosting events, what are you most looking forward to in 2021? It’s almost like going back 20 years ago and re-opening the building. We’re looking forward to executing everything that we’ve studied, learned and planned for, in allowing our staff to welcome guests back safely. We’ll probably see around 25% capacity at first, maybe 5,000 guests maximum for the next few months, depending on what conditions in the community dictate. We haven’t seen Mavs and Stars fans since early March, so just getting them back into the building will be an important part of return-to-normal process for sure.
Seeing what the arena has become now 20 years later, do you believe it’s what everyone had envisioned? Absolutely. There were some events that were passing us by-- major sporting events and major concerts. This is a market that loves its live entertainment and its sports. This building was constructed to accommodate that scale, and it’s been done in a magnificent way. We’ve provided an economic catalyst for Uptown and Victory Park. And we’re getting all the programming that we ever thought we deserved. Part of that success is a credit to The Dallas Sports Commission coming on board. Hosting two Women’s Final Four tournaments within a six-year time frame is a huge achievement. Cities would kill for that. And the NHL Winter Classic at Fair Park was a huge feather in our community’s cap. We’ve worked on rodeos, volleyball competitions, even events outside in the streets around the building. The Sports Commission has the expertise and experience to draw these events, and they’ve brought us multiple, big-time opportunities in the last five years.
How do you hope to build on the partnership with the Dallas Sports Commission and its leadership? Our partnership with the Sports Commission has been extremely productive and has taken us to a new level, especially in terms of amateur sports. We have plenty more in the pipeline. They provide the sales firepower that that we don’t have internally to seek out and bring the big events to Dallas. Monica’s leadership has been incredible for our business here at the AAC and for our community. We look forward to expanding on that, as we reopen.
is back S u n day, A p r i l 3 , 2 02 2 at AT&T Sta d i u m “WWE put on one of the most entertaining shows we’ve seen, and we expect an even bigger extravaganza this time around with WrestleMania 38 at AT&T Stadium” Charlotte Jones, Dallas Cowboys Chief Brand Officer
THE COMMISSION INTERN HIGHLIGHT
Aikman Kazee Aikman is a graduate of East Carolina University and is pursuing his MBA in Sport and Entertainment Management at UNT
MLK’S LEGACY Every year at this time our country pauses to reflect on the life and the legacy of one of our greatest civil rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we at the Dallas Sports Commission honor his legacy, it seems even more appropriate to lean on his words and his teachings. We are all experiencing trying times, and sometimes with difficulty comes duress. But we know better days are coming, both in Dallas and throughout our country. And we can look to sports and the teaching of Dr. King to lead the way. There are so many reasons why sports are so important in our society, not the least of which is that sports promote the values we as a society aspire to reflect. Sports bring us together, as teammates or as fans, quietly instilling in us proper life lessons. Dr. King once stated “we have to be together before we can learn how to live together.” Those clairvoyant words were not spoken about sports, but certainly can be validated by sports. Just look at the youth football and baseball and soccer fields you pass by every Saturday morning. You see young athletes, the future of our nation, learning how to work together as a team, learning how to relate to each other, and learning that they are better together in persuit of a common goal. But it’s more than just that. Sports teach character, leadership, integrity, and unity. It’s where we can learn about basic fairness and sacrifice. Sports allow us to work through and solve problems, to extend a hand out to a fallen teammate, and to rise above the outside noise. Sound familiar? Each of those concepts could have come out of Dr. King’s playbook for a better future of America. As we move forward to better days, let’s all take a moment to better live by the many lessons we can learn from both sports and Dr. King, who may have said it best when he proclaimed, “for when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”
Jasmine Childress Jasmine is a senior at UNT pursuing a degree in Hospitality Management and Tourism
F E B R UA RY 5 -7
American Volleyball Challenge // Dallas Area Venues
USYS National League Showcase // MoneyGram Soccer Complex
Tour of Texas & Texas Fest
// Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center
NCA All-Star National Championship // Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center
FEBRUARY 27 State Fair Classic // Cotton Bowl Stadium
NCA High School Nationals
// Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center
INAUGURAL SEASON February 27 to March 29 at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, Texas
Big Wins Happen Here and we want you to be a part of our Big Opportunities! Men’s and Women’s Final Four, WrestleMania, NFL Draft and College Football Playoff are just a few of the many exciting events in which our volunteers have played key roles. Join the team and be a part of our exciting lineup!
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