The Kansas Coliseum has considerable charms that loyal Wichita Thunder hockey fans truly appreciate. To put it nicely, they are close to the action, and every seat yields a good view of the action. In a word — intimate. So much so, Thunder opponents in the Central Hockey League are probably just counting the days with glee until the Thunder moves into their new downtown Wichita digs.Year Opened: 1978
Capacity: 9,600 for hockey; up to 12,400 for concerts
Owner: Sedgwick County
Original Cost: $10.3 million
Web Site: KansasColiseum.com
Phone: 316/264-4625 (Thunder box office)
Anchor Tenant: Wichita Thunder (CHL)
Parking: Plenty of free parking is available surrounding the arena.
Directions: 1229 E. 85th St., Valley Center. Take I-35 (turnpike) north to K-15 exit to merge onto I-135, north to exit 17. The arena is located on 85 Street, west of I-135.
The Kansas Coliseum has considerable charms that loyal Wichita Thunder hockey fans truly appreciate. To put it nicely, they are close to the action, and every seat yields a good view of the action. In a word — intimate. So much so, Thunder opponents in the Central Hockey League are probably just counting the days with glee until the Thunder moves into their new downtown Wichita digs.
Despite all its charms for local puck fans, the question of whether or not the aging Kansas Coliseum will be otherwise viable after the main tenet leaves in 2010 remains up in the air. Plans for fixing up the multiuse arena are necessarily quite substantial and detailed, but the ultimate decision on which way to go will have to be made in the coming months. Can Sedgwick County support an outer-suburban, 12,000-seat facility that saw its best days nearly three decades ago at the same time as a state-of-the-art 15,000-seat downtown arena comes online?
That question likely will be answered by the Sedgwick County Commissioners sometime in 2008. No matter the answer, it is pretty much certain that the Kansas Coliseum will lose the Thunder to the newly named Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita. In an interview with ArenaDigest.com, Thunder President Chris Presson said the formal agreement is just a matter of sitting down with arena management firm SMG and working out the details. So, you have only through 2009 to check out the Kansas Coliseum for the chance to see rough-and-tumble CHL hockey.
On opening night, the Thunder hosted a charity event that included special commemorative jerseys (in white) with Greensburg Rangers logos. Victims of the 2007 Greensburg, Kans. tornado benefited as the jerseys raised money in a silent auction.
The Kansas Coliseum is a great place to see a hockey game, especially on those nights when the Thunder is taking on their arch-rival – the Oklahoma City Blazers. We were lucky enough to see the rivals match up at the Coliseum early in the 2007-08 season. It is always a great time in Wichita when the Thunder and Blazers hook up. Oklahoma City will bring up to two busloads of their fans to the event, and the place roars even for those games that turn out to be less than stellar competition. That was the case, unfortunately, when we visited the Kansas Coliseum. From the very early moments, the visitors outhustled the Thunder, and the score quickly went to 3-0 early on, ending at 5-1 favoring Oklahoma City.
The most remarkable aspect of the game was the enthusiasm expressed by the Thunder fans, who were not about to allow the Blazers contingent to take over the joint. The game sent the Thunder decidedly in the wrong direction for the year, though. Not only did they lose the game – badly – but team captain Jason Duda came away injured for most of the first half of the season, other injuries mounted, and Wichita was mired uncharacteristically far out of contention well before the playoffs. It should be noted that Duda started out with Oklahoma City early in his CHL rookie year, but he has been with Wichita ever since – a symbol of the rivalry. As a turncoat rookie, he played a huge role in dramatically upsetting the high-flying Blazers in the first round of the 1997 playoffs.
As for Thunder President Chris Presson – he also started with Oklahoma City in the 1990s, became GM there from 2000-04, then crossed enemy lines a year later. In three years with the Thunder, Presson is credited with making the most of a difficult situation. Wichita fans are great — even in a losing year — but the Kansas Coliseum creates real challenges for management. "Challenges" are a euphemism for lack of revenue potential.
"The biggest challenge, really, is space," Presson says.
Foldaway tables set up in the widest part of a super-narrow concourse are a poor stand-in for a real team store; this serves neither the team nor the fans well at all. Concessions are limited to standard fare, all reasonably priced. You can get a margarita for $6, and the standalone Mexican food stand has tasty meat and beans. You can pick from three sizes of Polish, priced from $3-4.50. Chris Presson wants to offer more food variety and some higher-priced gourmet meal options, but the Coliseum’s facilities simply don’t allow for it. And frankly, you really don’t have much room to sit and enjoy your food anyway.
The scoreboard is basic and readable, but lacking the animation that would attract substantial advertising revenue. How about animated ribbon boards for advertising? No way. The most exciting lighting aspect is the mixture of incandescent and mercury vapor lighting. While this has a very pleasant, balanced overall affect, those incandescent lamps must cost a mint to keep lit. Anyhow, the place is in no danger of losing its groovy 1970s feel. No wonder the place has attracted Cher, Elton John and the Eagles to play concerts here.
As for the interior of the hockey arena, it has a lot going for it from the fans’ point of view. The seating is standard 1970s’ oval; good sight lines all around. Acoustics are hard. The seats are hard but wide (and bright orange), except for the temporaries near ice level (those are brown, narrow and extra hard). All the hard seats work out OK because the fans stand up and yell a lot of the time. No, they aren’t yelling in pain. (Although the Thunder’s play overall this year certainly has caused its share of pain.)
Thunderdog on his four-wheeler tosses out promotional mini-Frisbees before the game. If it looks like those kids might be able to reach over the glass — well, that’s because they probably can reach over the glass.
CHL-style play is excitingly fierce, and the fans get into it. The fans right next to the player benches really get into it — sometimes literally — as the low glass allows for a lot of face-to-face interaction. Opposing teams have complained to the Thunder, and even asked the league to intervene. Presson simply says "no" when asked to limit the fan access. "It is something we’ll never let go."
Presson has a brand image to protect. The Thunder not only lost a lot of games earlier this year, but they got handled while losing, prompting an early exit for coach Mark French. Interim coach Rob Weingartner restored a more physical style. "We know what our fans like," Presson said. "We have gotten back to that rough-and-tumble style of play.
"The building has been very good to us," Presson said. "It gets the job done."
It also requires a lot scrambling to maximize the limited revenues available. Blazers Assistant GM Josh Evans praises Presson — his former colleague — for getting the most out of a difficult situation. For instance, if you go to a game you’re bound to notice that the Thunder has a sponsored National Anthem. "We had to create inventory," Presson said. A potential advertiser actually approached the team with the idea for a National Anthem sponsorship, and Thunder fans have accepted it. Obviously, the Coliseum lacks club seats or even so much as rudimentary suites.
Beyond much doubt, it will feel a little strange when the Thunder makes a likely mid-season move in 2009-10. By all indications, Intrust Bank Arena will be a very good fit for the Thunder. Expect all the modern amenities. For most games, a curtain similar to the one used by the Blazers at Ford Center in Oklahoma City will keep things intimate. On occasion, the curtain can be raised for high-demand games (like rivalry tilts between Wichita and Oklahoma City).
Some folks in Wichita are grumbling that the new downtown arena — with a capacity of 15,000 – is smaller than the 18,000-seat capacity of the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. We can tell you from experience that 15,000 can be a real sweet spot in modern arena design. For the vast majority of events, this arena size will typically yield a far-better overall audience experience than many of the larger arenas built in recent years.
As for the multi-use Kansas Coliseum, the arena faces an all-or-nothing situation. The work on Britt Brown Arena (main seating area) and two pavilions will require extensive changes, including substantial upgrades for ADA compliance, a new roof, and major improvements to the lobby, concourse and lighting, as well as many other costly renovations. Located 18 miles north of downtown, Sedgwick County might have overestimated metro Wichita growth patterns at the time it was sited. Now, with fuel prices rising much faster than inflation, an overhaul of Kansas Coliseum after the Thunder heads downtown might not make good financial sense. The sales tax that funded the downtown arena has expired. A county decision on the old arena’s fate is expected later this year.