Does the University of Denver need a new or upgraded arena for non-hockey events? It’s a big question that’s been on the minds of DU’s athletic and academic administrations for a while now, as the rest of the Summit League continues to upgrade its athletic facilities, leaving DU’s Ritchie Center farther behind and now well older than the students who play there. Add rising interest rates and construction costs to the mix along wih the need for a major donor(s) and the possibility of a major new athletic facility looks challenging at best over the short term.
For example, the University of South Dakota (2016) and University of Nebraska-Omaha (2015) have opened new campus basketball arenas over the last decade. Other Summit League schools have recently completed major upgrades to basketball facilities, such as North Dakota State University (2014) and Oral Roberts (2022), which brought existing 1970s-era arenas up to current competitive standards via major renovations. Still other league schools have new arenas in the planning phases, including St. Thomas University, which announced plans for a $75 million multi-purpose hoops facility in January of 2023, and the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC), which is now taking bids for a mixed-use site that includes housing, retail and construction of an arena. The current UMKC request for proposal targets the development of a 5,000-seat arena on a five-acre campus parcel (pictured above). The business components of the project suggest potential arena construction and leaseback from a partner to UMKC to optimize cost and use.
While DU’s Magness Arena (completed in 1999) can hold 7,200 fans for basketball (and is sized ideally for college hockey at 6,026 seats), it is currently too large for DU basketball and volleyball games, which currently draw typical crowds of 750 – 1,200 fans per game, depending on the sport, game timing, and opponent. And the cost of converting Magness Arena from one sport configuration to another has become often prohibitive for DU, and is the other major reason why DU has relegated both of its hoops programs to the adjoining Hamilton Gym, with its capacity of about 2,500 in recent years.
DU men’s basketball did draw multiple crowds of 4,000-6,000 to Magness Arena about a decade ago when the DU program was a WAC regular season co-champion and went to the 2013 NIT second round. But many of those larger Magness hoops crowds were driven by free-ticket giveaways, and since the DU men’s hoops program has faded in quality in recent years, the crowds stopped coming.
Added to this dilemma, DU’s Hamilton Gym was never intended to house large-capacity athletic events, with its temporary pull-out, mostly bleacher seating, low ceiling and no capability for corporate suites. And while DU has upgraded the playing floor, scoreboards and some of the seating in Hamilton in recent years, the experience there still feels very much like low-end college basketball at best, and high-school-like at worst. The single nearby concession stand gets overwhelmed when more than 1,000 people attend, making the overall fan experience far from ideal. Yes, DU can and must optimize the current Hamilton Gym with some tweaks and basic upgrades, but other new arena options would provide a much better long-term solution. A better venue would not just benefit DU athletics recruiting, games, practices and fan experience, but would also better support the numerous recreational, civic and commercial events currently held at the Ritchie Center that often max out the current facility.
Further enlarging and upgrading of Hamilton Gym is one possible solution, but the current footprint would make it a challenging and costly space to expand. Ritchie Center was completed nearly 25 years ago in order to shoehorn many D-I sports facilities into a tight 440,000 sq. foot footprint and the gym, training facilities and locker rooms (outside of the recently revamped off-ice hockey facilities) are now nearing the end of their useful life, requiring extensive remodeling and upgrades to remain competitive in the NCAA sports world.
An ideal ground-up hoops/volleyball (and perhaps gymnastics) arena could offer a better solution of around 3,500-4,000 permanent seats with new locker rooms and much-needed new training/dedicated practice facilities — a solution likely falling in the $35-50 million range to build new. This new arena, once built, would also allow the existing Hamilton Gym to become designated for much-needed recreational campus use. Magness Arena would then become a hockey facility, while still retaining the capability to house other sports, concerts, and civic events when its larger seating capacity warrants such conversion.
There are perhaps three basic campus-area geographic options for a new arena, which are numbered below with rough location parcels outlined in yellow:
- The current site of the Stapleton Tennis Center, which has been ostensibly replaced (for DU vanity tennis use) by the recently constructed (2017) Denver Tennis Park (a partnership between DU and Denver Public Schools, across I-25), could be the site of a new 3,500-seat arena, but DU’s master plan to close sections of Asbury Avenue would need to be accelerated (and perhaps reconfigured) to accommodate a new hoops facility.
- There is the six-acre site along Buchtel and University Boulevards, which is currently a mix of largely outdated apartment buildings and campus parking, which was identified as the last piece of significant ‘developable land’ on campus. Denver Impact 2025 called for a “vibrant mix of retail, hotel, office, innovation, and both affordable and market-rate housing are seen as part of the planned college town developments” on the location. Various stakeholders have also suggested a hotel for that parcel as well. The site would be an obvious option because of its close (and connectable) proximity to Ritchie Center, but would also certainly be competing with other future DU needs for that parcel.
- A more remote freestanding option (and perhaps better suited to a UMKC-like partnership plan), would be the construction of a new arena on the DU land near the northeast corner of Buchtel Blvd. and University Blvd. That site, currently serving as DU’s parking lot 108, has the necessary room for an arena with close proximity to transportation (RTD Light Rail & I-25) and would be a short five-minute walk to the DU campus.
The stickler for any such new or upgraded arena plan, of course, is funding. Denver is breathing the exhaust of the recent $140+ million dollar expenditure of the Burwell Center (alumni & career center), Community Commons, and The Dimond Family Residential Village. It is somewhat harder to make the case that a new campus arena is more important than those critical recent campus additions were, and DU is also now in the quiet period of a new capital campaign in this post-Covid era of reduced overall revenue. Clearly, DU will need to cultivate major donors to step forward and fund any new arena project, if it is ever to happen. Or, it must seek a major partner(s), similar to the efforts by UMKC or the Denver Tennis Park, to help defray the cost of the project and optimize the use of the facility.
For the foreseeable future, Denver Athletics will likely have to juggle the very different capabilities of Magness Arena and Hamilton Gym for its athletic events, despite falling farther behind its Summit League competition.
Additionally, Ritchie Center is currently bursting at the seams with athletics, DU campus recreation, camps and community events, and while the bones are still rock solid, most of the facility is now badly in need of internal upgrades, also requiring more money.
Ultimately, a new arena facility is needed but, at this point, it looks more like a pipe dream, rather than an imminent reality.
Top Photo: UMKC future arena site