Hatbox in the Marshlands
By Edited by Thomas K. Arnold
(page 3 of 3)It took construction crews exactly 364 days to build what was originally called the San Diego International Sports Arena. On November 17, 1966, the arena held its first event: Breitbard’s newly acquired San Diego Gulls, the latest addition to the Western Hockey League, won their home opener, 4-1, against the Seattle Totems, before a sellout crowd of 13,700.
Professional basketball arrived at the arena in 1967 with the San Diego Rockets, followed in subsequent years by another basketball team, the San Diego Clippers, and the 10-time Major Indoor Soccer League champs, the San Diego Sockers. Today, the arena is home to the resurrected Gulls and Sockers as well as the San Diego Riptide, who play the relatively new sport of indoor football.
The arena’s first concert featured James Brown, the “godfather of soul,” in November 1967. A parade of celebrated rock moments followed, including a 1970 appearance by Elvis Presley in which the King of Rock ’n’ Roll presented a security guard, who happened to be from his hometown, with a brand-new Cadillac.
Most of these early rock shows—including James Brown’s 1967 appearance—were produced by former dance promoter James Pagni. At the time, the arena still had open seating, and Pagni remembers packing in as many as 16,800 people—nearly 2,000 more than the legal capacity—for a Moody Blues concert.
When concerts were first held at the arena, there were only ushers to maintain order, generally older men who were no match for the wild young rock fans. “We started having crowd-control problems—we had to keep kids off the stage, because they kept running up and trying to get drumsticks and other souvenirs—so I brought in these big Samoans and dressed them in yellow so people could see them,” Pagni recalls. “They were unbelievably huge; you just couldn’t hurt those guys. And that really quieted things down.”
Michael Pieratt worked his way up from ticket seller to assistant manager between 1971 and 1979. Now a mortgage broker, Pieratt, 52, says the arena holds fond memories. “I remember Paul McCartney coming in early to do his own sound check, and watching him walk around the building,” Pieratt says. “Everyone knew the building had bad sound, and he just walked around with this look on his face.
“Rod Stewart came in one year and moved the first 20 rows of seats out so he could play soccer with his roadies right before the show. And Neil Diamond, when he was the biggest of the big, refused to go on until the San Diego Chicken left, so we had to go tell him, ‘Your act is over; get out of here,’ and the show ended up going on 15 or 20 minutes late because of that.”
Ernie Hahn, who heads the group that has held the Sports Arena’s lease since 1991, is well aware of the building’s legacy—and he concedes it hurts him, just a little, that sometime over the next 10 years the arena will likely be torn down and replaced with a grander, more luxurious facility able to attract a National Basketball Association franchise.
“There are so many San Diegans who literally grew up in our backyard, or with our events, and that’s history you honor,” he says, talking up the banners highlighting four milestone arena events that are going up soon along Sports Arena Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue. Deemed banner-worthy: the Ali-Norton fight, 1973; Andrea Bocelli, 1979; Garth Brooks, 1996; and U-2, 2001.
Under the Hahn group’s auspices, the arena has continued to flourish, with as many as 175 events a year. Three pro teams ensure a steady flow of sports action; a deal with broadcasting giant Clear Channel, which owns one of the nation’s biggest concert-promoting firms, helps keep up the music-show action as well. Upcoming: a November 14 appearance by the Rolling Stones and a December 1 performance by Cher.
To further boost income, the parking lot each weekend hosts Kobey’s Swap Meet, and the Hahn group recently leased surplus space to Krispy Kreme, the doughnut franchise, as well as to Arco, for a gas station.
Hahn, 35, a grandson of the late shopping center developer Ernest Hahn, has spent $6 million over the past 10 years upgrading the arena. He’s purchased a new $1.3 million scoreboard, installed a new sound system with acoustic baffling, built new bars and concession stands in the concourse and remodeled the backstage area with a production room for artists as well as dressing rooms with showers and private restrooms.
Even so, the Sports Arena’s days are numbered.
“At some point—I would say sooner rather than later—we will have to build a new arena, either on the existing site or somewhere else, maybe next to [Qualcomm] Stadium,” Hahn says. “Infrastructure gets old, and at some point there’s going to be a new arena, just like there’s going to be a new stadium. You can look at a Cadillac from 1966 that’s been kept in pretty good condition, and look at a Cadillac from 2002. All the bells and whistles of 1966 are bare-bones amenities of the 2002 model.
“But in the meantime, we’ve spent the last year celebrating 35 years of the San Diego Sports Arena, where so many people here saw their first concert or attended their first ballgame. One could almost argue that the Sports Arena is a historic landmark. Thirty-five million people have come through this facility, and that’s a lot of people —and a lot of memories.”