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Could New Teams Save Old Mellon Arena?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010
By Mark Belko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For some, it’s a pipe dream. For Aubrey Bruce, it’s a mission.

A former music promoter, Mr. Bruce hopes to save Mellon Arena by recruiting an arena football team, a Women’s National Basketball Association team and an American Basketball Association team to play there.

It’s debatable which is the biggest challenge.

Still, Mr. Bruce, who writes sports columns for the New Pittsburgh Courier, has formed Seastorm Sports Management Group with hopes of salvaging Mellon Arena by recruiting teams to play under its iconic silver dome.

“We understand that it is going to be a hard road to climb,” he acknowledged.

Mr. Bruce has talked to Rob Pfaffmann, the Downtown architect who is leading the effort to save the Igloo about his ideas. He also plans to make a presentation to the city-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority as part of the historic review process, but has yet to do so. He said his main objective is to rescue Mellon Arena, which was slated for demolition as part of a plan by the Penguins to redevelop the property with offices, residences and commercial ventures.

“Our goal is to save the Civic Arena,” he said. “It’s symbolic of Pittsburgh shedding its industrial skin and moving into the electronic age. It’s a very important symbol, I think, of Pittsburgh.”

Mr. Bruce has had some preliminary contact with the Arena Football League about his idea, but has yet to talk to Commissioner Jerry Kurz or an owner or prospective owner with any interest in placing a team in Pittsburgh.

However, Mr. Kurz, at a news conference in February, did say that the 15-team reconstituted league, under new leadership after folding last year, had an interest in expanding into Pittsburgh and several other cities by 2011.

Linnea Coulter, manager of media services for the Arena Football League, said she had talked to Mr. Bruce about a month and a half ago and forwarded his information to Mr. Kurz. She said she has not heard anything since then.

Mr. Bruce has had no formal contact with the WNBA, but said he had spoken with a marketing representative with the affiliated National Basketball Association. He said he also had talked to Joe Newman, the American Basketball Association CEO. The ABA currently has a team in Pittsburgh, the Phantoms, which played at Carnegie Library in Homestead last season.

Neither Mr. Newman nor Ron Howard, director of WNBA communications, could be reached for comment.

While Mr. Bruce readily acknowledges that he has yet to get anything close to a commitment from any of the leagues, he believes teams would be interested in playing in a redesigned Mellon Arena with seating for 5,000 to 6,000 people.

He is hoping the SEA, which owns the old building, will issue a moratorium that would prevent any demolition for at least a year.

There are big obstacles, however. Unclear is who would pay the millions of dollars to renovate Mellon Arena or foot the bill for the costs of operating and maintaining it. The SEA has estimated that insurance and utility costs alone could run as much as $100,000 a month. Mr. Bruce believes rent from the teams would pay part of it.

The former promoter also may have to battle the Penguins ownership, which isn’t keen about the idea of keeping two arenas side by side. And an arena football team could fill open dates at the new arena.

Penguins President David Morehouse said Tuesday that revenues from arena football and WNBA and ABA basketball would not pay for the cost of redoing and maintaining the arena.

“If an arena football team came to Pittsburgh, they would want to play in the brand new Consol Energy Center,” he said.

Mr. Morehouse also questioned the viability of plans floated in an effort to save Mellon Arena. “There are all kind of cockamamy ideas out there. The question is: Does anyone have anything that’s financially viable?” he asked.

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