The 1969 face of the land stretches out in parking spaces before us: asphalt waves of carports with houses attached, of shopping centers named Gateway and Northwind, of Holiday Inns and Burger Chefs, Sunocos, TraveLodges, Dairy Queens, Citgos, Minnie Pearls, McDonalds. And now to this Americana scene can be added a structural newcomer, the round parking-lot-surrounded mounds that rise like giant mushrooms across the horizon. They are the new arenas, a municipal phenomenon that is bringing high-quality sport into every nook and cranny of America, just the way the other modern establishments have brought to every man the best in French fries, vibrating beds and piano bars. The arena, more than any other, is the building for this time, an edifice held in such esteem by a proud citizenry that it is usually called "The Coliseum," for no name can be too highfalutin. It is a phenomenon that all by itself is changing the entertainment habits and sporting interests of millions.
AudArena Stadium guide estimates that there are already at least 355 arenas in North America with a seating capacity of 5,000 or more, and 105 with 10,000 or more. Two out of every three arenas standing today have been constructed in the last 20 years. Almost a quarter of them are five years old or less, and the boom is not likely to stop until every ambitious town of any size has treated itself to one.
The state of Virginia offers a worthy example of the trend, for until recently the Old Dominion did not possess a single arena large enough to fit a fair-sized Virginia reel into. Then, in 1967, Salem—a town of 24,000 that lies near Interstate 81—built itself a mushroom that can seat 7,000, almost one-third the population, and park 3,500 cars. Almost at once Salem had its own professional ice hockey team and was being visited by such attractions as ice shows and the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus—something no other town its size could claim.
Five miles east of Salem is Roanoke, pop. 102,000. Seeing what Salem had wrought, Roanoke is building an 11,000-seat arena. A scant 25 miles the other way, down U:S. 11 and over to Blacksburg, pop. 7,000, another 11,000-seat arena has been completed, this one on the Virginia Tech campus. If events are ever scheduled at the same time in all three buildings, warm bodies will have to be bussed in from Radford and Lynchburg to fill them up. Yet this is still minor league compared to what is going on farther east where, in a 100-mile corridor of Richmond, Hampton and Norfolk, three arenas are going up that will cost a total of $65 million and seat 35,000.
Suddenly there are so many arenas that the metropolitan area that does not possess one seems emasculated in its efforts to attract industry, tourists, conventions, publicity or even plain old suburbanites. Besides, a town's residents—having seen top entertainment on TV—are no longer content to while away the hours kicking tires down at the Mobil station. Says Carson Bain, the ebullient mayor of Greensboro, N.C., which has just committed itself to $5 million in improvements for an arena that is only a decade old: "These buildings are no longer luxuries. They are necessities for the cities of the '70s. I mean that. America needs them for the happiness of a community, and in the long run, I'm afraid, for civic peace as well."
In years past, the arena has been dismissed as nothing more than a place of rough male discourse, tart cigar fumes and drab rows of heavy pleated pants, a building whose antecedents were the gymnasium, the union hall and the poolroom down on the corner. But if this were once true, it is no longer. Indeed, at a time when populations tend to splinter into numerous demanding interest groups, the arena has become a rare cynosure that the whole community can focus upon. In that way it is descended from a traditional, and vital, building line, having a common historical function with the church of colonial times, with the country store of frontier days, with the town hall or the county courthouse.
Until the arenas began to emerge in the '50s, there was no apparent modern heir to this line of crucial civic structures. Cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands had to satisfy their sporting tastes with minor league baseball teams and the ragged skirmishing of high school rivals. The circus was dusty, and in a tent. The ice show crowded into a rink called Iceland. There wasn't a hall large enough to pay the way of a big-time entertainer.
The arenas have altered all of this. They have saved the circus. They have enabled Liberace or Andy Williams to come right into your town, live, just like Las Vegas. But most of all, they have brought in sport. The new coliseums made the NBA major league, they are the last hope of the ABA, they lifted college basketball out of the economic shadow of football. They have brought a whole new division to the NHL and have made minor league hockey a success in towns that never saw ice, unless it was in glasses.
The arena binge made most of its early headway in the South, but now it is visible in every section of the country. Fayetteville, N.C. has a new building that seats 7,000; Odessa, Texas has one for 9,300. Monroe, La. (pop. 65,000) recently finished a complex that includes an 8,000-seat arena, a 15,000-square-foot conference hall and a 2,200-seat theater, all with a "Symphonic Colorfall" out front. Bismarck, N.D., which is about half as big as Monroe, has a 7,000-seat arena under construction.
How does an arena fit into a community? A revealing example of an arena, and an arena town, is Greensboro, a pleasant Piedmont municipality of 145,000. It has a progressive leadership to go with the remnants of a Southern rural heritage of Gospel, tobacco and souped-up automobiles. Greensboro has no special tourist attraction, and strong waters cannot be purchased there by the drink. Were a man not disposed to golf, patio barbecueing or drive-in movies, time might lie heavy on his hands. But this year more than 800,000 people will, by accurate count, go through the gates at the 9,000-seat Greensboro War Memorial Coliseum. The popularity of the structure can be, and has been, translated into votes. Last year the question of whether to float a municipal bond issue to enlarge the coliseum to 16,500 seats was put on the ballot. The coliseum bond led the whole ticket, outpolling such things as water, sewage bonds and government buildings.