An arena with zero premium offerings builds a full hospitality menu, all while retaining an architectural icon.
After over five years of planning, as well as three years and six phases of construction, the comprehensive renovations to State Farm Center at the University of Illinois are finished, completely transforming the venue, yet effectively retaining the legacy and tradition of one of the sports venue marketplace’s great architectural achievements.
The result is an arena that feels new, performs new, and accomplishes the university’s clear objectives to create a new revenue model for the building, as well as the best possible in-game basketball environment with wow factors upon arrival and in premium spaces that fans had previously been unable to experience.
Prior to the renovation, there wasn’t one single seat in the building designated as premium, not one broom closet patrons could access for hospitality to sweep their guests off their feet. Now there are suites, loge seats, courtside seats with club access, a student club, and two additional spaces aptly named the Traditions Club and the Legacy Club.
A History Lesson
To understand how we got here, we must first understand the building’s rich history. State Farm Center is a mid-century modern icon. The famous concrete dome structure, which opened as Assembly Hall on March 2, 1963, was originally designed by acclaimed architect and University of Illinois alumnus Max Abramovitz of Harrison & Abramovitz fame.
“Lots of significant work came from [Abramovitz] and that office,” says Greg Brown, Project Designer/Senior Associate at AECOM and project leader for the State Farm Center renovations. “A lot of decisions, in keeping with the spirit of the iconic building that we inherited, were made for us.”
In addition to their desire to remain true to Abramovitz’s original vision, Brown and his design team also took cues from history to inform design decisions because the building is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Working closely with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), the existing features of the building that make it iconic were identified and celebrated in the renovation design.
The most prominent example is the 360-degree, angled-in glass curtain wall that forms the boundary of the venue’s upper concourse and encloses the arena underneath the dome, whose unique shape gives the illusion that a flying saucer has landed in the middle of Champaign, Illinois. The challenge for AECOM became maintaining the building’s transparent feature while replacing the alien experience on the upper concourse with programmable square footage needed for contemporary standards.
Prior to the renovation, the upper concourse level, which services 10,000 seats, was without a permanent concession point of sale or a permanent restroom fixture. In fact, there were only four restrooms in the entire facility.
“It’s hard to imagine that when they first built it, the plan was to not have any concessions in the facility,” says Warren Hood, Deputy Director of Athletics at the University of Illinois. “And if you can imagine, especially for a basketball game, all of those 10,000 people [in the upper concourse] would come downstairs to the four bathrooms. The lines were incredibly long. So from a fan experience perspective, it was not adequate at all for today’s standards. It really needed to be brought up to the 21st century with the amenities that people expect in this day and age.”
To maintain the historic form of the building while simultaneously installing restrooms and concession stands, the glass curtain wall was taken down, bumped out 12 feet, and laid back at a shallower angle in order to create additional width on the upper concourse.
“Our goal was to create a building that was completely transformed, yet felt entirely familiar,” says Brown. “We tried to make that familiar statement but make it in a contemporary fashion that also would allow us to accomplish the things we needed to accomplish from a programming standpoint.”
“Our goal was to create a building that was completely transformed, yet felt entirely familiar.” – Greg Brown, AECOM
Additional Facility Enhancements
Also prior to the renovation, State Farm Center had no real entrance into the building. Now on both the east and west sides, new expansive entryways have been built, alleviating the need for fans to have to wait outside in the single-digit temperatures of a January night in Illinois before gaining entry into the building or picking up tickets at will call.
The fan experience has also been made more comfortable for the warm summer months. Previously, the building had no air conditioning, making it impossible to program for at least three months out of the year. Now State Farm Center operates as a multi-purpose facility for all 12 months of the year and, in addition to Fighting Illini men’s and women’s basketball, boasts an event calendar in 2016-17 that includes Dierks Bentley (who christened the re-opened building on October 27th), Jason Derulo, Green Day, and the WCIA 3 Broadway Series. Premium seat donors have first right of refusal and are granted presale access to concerts and other events in the arena.
Additional amenities available for all fans include new seats from Irwin Seating, a Panasonic center-hung video board, ribbon boards, and LED lights.
Premium Seating Rundown
“On the premium amenity side, we had none,” says Hood. “Absolutely nothing existed there before.”
Now State Farm Center has something for everybody in terms of different styles of premium seating with different price points and vantage points.
“On the premium amenity side, we had none. Absolutely nothing existed there before.” – Warren Hood, University of Illinois
Starting on the floor, two rows of 60 courtside seats have been inserted. These seat holders have access to the newly introduced Club 53, which is named for former Illini player Dave Downy who holds the single game record for points scored with 53. State Farm Center’s most premium and intimate space is designed with conventional components, such as a high-end bar and banquette seating, but it’s the flexible space in the front of the room where Club 53 shines in the premium product portfolio.
This highest-priced club option is located in the bowels of the building on the event level, adjacent to storage and back-of-house spaces. But because of its proximity to the circulation path for the Fighting Illini players going to and from their locker room, AECOM developed a pop-up concept that spills out of Club 53 into the back-of-house space.
With some subtle interior elements – tile on the floor, metal mesh drapery, and moveable furniture – Club 53 extends to accommodate demand for the space that might flex up or down from event to event, or even during events in peak moments, such as pregame, when the players make their way to the court.
Perhaps the most unique features of the renovation are the building’s 12 new suites, which were shaped out of a portion of State Farm Center’s 48 raker beams that hold up the edge-supported dome.
“We went in and excavated between the structural buttresses,” Brown says. “We found space within the building that previously didn’t even exist and carved out volume to tuck suites in between the existing structural buttresses.”
By using the arena’s given constraints to their advantage, Brown and his design team created a suite product with optimal sightlines and exclusivity, but also one that is fused with the energy of the seating bowl, a product that intervenes the mid to lower bowl, but one that is intentionally woven into the bowl’s continuous rake.
The resulting form is an unconventional suite that’s one-third covered with a ceiling, tucked underneath the upper level seats above, and two-thirds open to the seating bowl.
“When you’re sitting in that suite, you definitely feel much more a part of the atmosphere than you would in a conventional condition,” Brown says.
The 12 suites are adjacent to what is now the largest club in State Farm Center. The Traditions Club, which straddles the lower and upper concourses, is flanked by six suites to its right, six suites to its left. Its interior design celebrates expressions of the 53-year-old architecture, acknowledging the building’s proud heritage.
Fans are now able to walk through and between the newly exposed raker beams, which are the essence of the building, connecting the concrete compression ring at the bottom of the arena with the tension ring holding up the dome all the way at its top.
Suite holders share access to the Traditions Club, its history lessons, and its direct connection to the seating bowl and in-game experience with 1,188 club seat holders. The leading-edge of the Traditions Club, dubbed “the patio”, is a popular viewing platform with a mid-court condition that offers patrons with a place to congregate and share a social experience in arguably the best location in the house.
“We’ve found a lot of people don’t even go down to their seats,” says Hood. “That was something we hadn’t planned. [The patio] has really turned into a social hub.”
Orange Krush Club
Another unique feature in the building in terms of a club space is its student-specific club space – the Orange Krush Club.
The Orange Krush is the student support group of the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team. This student group has a proud presence at home games and a proud history of service to the community and to the university, including to the arena renovation. The Orange Krush made a significant donation in addition to a $25 per semester student fee that was self-imposed to help fund the project.
The students have been rewarded with a space all to themselves and twice the number of seats on the court. Three-quarters of the seats on the court will now be populated by students.
“It was important to the University of Illinois to make sure that they were taking care of their students and paying them back for the support,” says Brown.
The Orange Krush Club, a first of its kind in college athletics, provides students with a hub for pregame activity. So no more having to wait in tents in the freezing cold to get into the arena before games. Once in the club, students find lots of multimedia opportunities and cheaper concessions. There is a no alcohol policy.
New for the 2016-2017 season is the Legacy Club, located directly across from the Orange Krush Club on the south side of the building. Both of these clubs were created on what was previously mechanical mezzanine space where all of the 53-year-old mechanical equipment was located. New mechanical rooms were created outside of the existing footprint to make room for the new premium amenities.
“A theme of the design work was finding spaces within the building with some opportunities to flip those spaces or transform the use of those spaces,” says Brown.
Unlike the Traditions Club, the Legacy Club does not have views of the court, but it does offer a premium space behind the south basket for club seat holders (whose seats are above the club) who previously had no such amenity option.
The thematic overlay of the Legacy Club incorporates the entire campus and recognizes the names of famous Illinois alums, not necessarily just athletic alums.
“You don’t see [loge boxes] a lot in central Illinois. They gave our fans a whole new way to watch a game.” – Bobbi Busboom, University of Illinois
Rounding out the new premium portfolio are 144 loge seats with granite countertops and in-seat service located behind the north basket. Loge seat holders do not have a dedicated club space, but they are provided access to the Traditions Club.
The loge space sold with less velocity than the other premium products, explained by the fact that most fans were not familiar with the concept of loge seats, as they are not as popular in college venues as they are in professional arenas.
“You don’t see [loge boxes] a lot in central Illinois,” says Bobbi Busboom, Assistant Athletics Director for Development Operations at the University of Illinois. “They gave our fans a whole new way to watch a game.”
“Once people got into that space and experienced it, many found it to be the best experience in the building,” adds Hood.
Food & Beverage
With new premium space comes new premium food and beverage. In partnership with foodservice provider Sodexo, a new F&B experience was built at State Farm Center, as was the kitchen and pantry space required to deliver that experience.
A large new central kitchen, adjacent to the Traditions Club, now serves all club spaces in the building, including the Orange Krush and Legacy Clubs on the mezzanine, then also with an assist from a new elevator bank, Club 53 at the event level.
From a general concessions standpoint, all the concession stands are self-contained, and most locations have new equipment to support new menus.
A Story of Legacy and Tradition
The legacy of State Farm Center continues. The integrity of Max Abramovitz’s original masterpiece remains intact, now with an updated business model, product mix, and brushstrokes that add new layers of tradition to that masterpiece, allowing new generations to experience its history and future.
“We feel great about making the building viable and able to perform at a high level for another 50 years,” says Brown.
Keep Reading: Visit with ALSD Member Bobbi Busboom, Assistant Athletic Director for Development Operations at the University of Illinois.