Special Reports

Can the City's downtown arena survive without sports?

Special report Survive without sports

EL PASO, Texas - A judge has told the City of El Paso the new multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center, set to be built in the Duranguito neighborhood, cannot include sports.

Despite sports being part of the conversation before, during and after the bond referendum that will fund the project, the City did not disclose to the state the City would include sports, so the judge told the City -- you end up with the project you pitched.

Can an arena break even or turn a profit without hosting sporting events?

ABC-7 analyzed a year's worth of events at New Mexico State University's Pan American Center and the University of Texas of El Paso's Don Haskins Center.

Both arenas seat more than 12,000 people and both host sports. The competition to book concerts and other events is fierce, organizers told ABC-7.

Country music superstar Garth Brooks played not one, but five shows this year at the Pan American center in Las Cruces.

UTEP's Don Haskins center scored some big names as well. Elton John fans from all over the Borderland traveled to catch his show at the Don Haskins Center last March.

El Paso and Las Cruces are not considered top entertainment markets, which means luring entertainment acts to the Borderland is a challenge.

"There's not enough entertainment. I wish my dark nights were less and less. I still have this building darker than I would like to have it. I would like to have a show every day, but that's not a reality," said Jorge Vazquez, the executive director of special events at UTEP.

While Vazquez  travels the country competing for acts to book, such as the Gala of Royal Horses, he knows he can always count on the UTEP Miners basketball teams to fill some seats. 

"If we were limited, let's say the Don Haskins Center was limited to only sports, or to only concerts, absolutely that would make my job as a general manager selling this usage of the space a lot more difficult because then my sources of revenue are limited," Vazquez said.

The Pan American Center, home to NMSU Aggies basketball and volleyball teams, has a similar safety net.

So just how important is sports to the success of an arena?

"I do not see how they could make it without some type of affiliation in the sports world," said Barbara "Mother" Hubbard, a former NMSU director of special events and a legend in the industry.

To get an idea of how much the university arenas depend on sports, ABC-7 took at look at every event held during 2016. 

We included setup and take down because the arenas charge for those days or they are included in the contracts.

The Don Haskins Center was used a total of 250 days out of the year or 68 percent.

Of those, 106 days were booked for special events or 42 percent. 207 days were used for sports, including practice, or 82 percent.

The percentages don't add up to a 100 percent because of special events and sports overlapped on some days.

The Pan American Center was used 260 days out of the year, or 71 percent.

Of those, 44 days were used for special events or 16 percent. 224 days were used for sporting events or 86 percent.

For both arenas more than 80 percent of the usage time is for sports.

But Brian Kennedy, CEO of the El Paso Sports Commission, believes there is another way to look at the numbers.

"In my opinion, it is disingenuous for arenas to include practice and set up days when calculating their activity. Actual event days are the more valid snapshot of the entertainment and quality of life being provided by a facility," Kennedy said.

The El Paso Sports Commission oversees the El Paso County Coliseum.

During 2016, the Coliseum had 239 active days including practice and set up days. 

There were 129 actual event days and 42 actual sports event days.

33 percent of the actual event days were sports days.

If we do not count practice days,  the Pan Am Center was used for actual games about 24 percent of the total usage.

Without practice days, the Don Haskins Center was used about 15 percent of the total usage for actual games.

Bryan Crowe, the executive director of Destination El Paso, which manages entertainment facilities for the city, is optimistic saying if they arena does not have sports it could open the calendar for other types of entertainment.

"Don Haskins Center has obligations to men's and women's basketball, university events and other things related to the academic function of the university, those take up dates in their availability calendar," Crowe said. 

"Your downtown arena, being state of the art and everything, you know how everybody is, they go see the new stuff, and it will hurt, both universities," Hubbard said.

Hubbard worries long term, breaking even or turning a profit without sports could lead to the downtown arena dropping its rental prices to book acts which could impact how much other entertainment venues can charge.

"We are almost going to have to give the building away or your $180 million arena is going to have to do the same thing," Hubbard said.

In October, an Austin judge reaffirmed her prior ruling prohibiting the city of El Paso from using bond money to build an arena that can include sports.

"A sports arena does not comport with the quality-of-life purpose the voters approved," Judge Amy Clark Meachum wrote in her order.

Judge Meachum ruled the city can use bond money for a facility in downtown El Paso to function as a performing arts facility to accommodate musical performances, theater and other stage performances - but not sports.

The judge also tied the city's hands by banning them from using money from other sources to accommodate sports in the arena.

"No funding from other sources may be used to modify, complete or enhance the Facility beyond this voter-approved, quality-of-life purpose," her ruling states. The city, which intends to appeal the ruling, emailed ABC-7 the following statement:

"The city of El Paso believes the judgment (denying sporting events) should have been more in keeping with the guidance provided by the Texas Attorney General before the election.  The city acted in reliance of that guidance and the voters approved an MPC which would allow for some sporting events in addition to the other entertainment and performing arts events. Also, it is outside the bounds of the Bond Validation Case for the court to supplant the discretion of the Mayor and City Council and prohibit the City from using funds in addition to bond proceeds to complete the Quality of Life Projects. The court today issued 'Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law,' which is a necessary step for the appellate process.  The City will continue with its plans to appeal the final judgment to fulfill the wishes of the voters of the 2012 Bond Election."

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