Navigating the Renovation Process at United Center

The most recent installment of a larger master plan, a new atrium addition introduces new fan amenities and office space. By pulling these elements out of the original building, space became available for new premium offerings and other revenue drivers.


Eleven years ago, Chicago’s United Center embarked on a master plan that, to date, has resulted in the completion of some two dozen total projects and more than $250 million in total renovation and new building work. In that time, the building’s management has implemented a diverse, immersive, and forward-looking mix of innovative seating products and design solutions that have changed the fan experience at United Center and shaped the industry.

As owners and operators across the country plan for renovations large and small, lessons learned at United Center can serve as a guide for navigating the renovation process and future-proofing facilities.

Understand the Fan Base

The first and most important step in any renovation process is to research and analyze the demographics of your existing fan base and identify your potential future fan base. Ask hard questions about how your spaces currently meet the needs of those demographics and candidly discuss the findings from your data. This understanding of who your fans are and how your space does or doesn’t attract and retain your fan base should serve as the jumping off point for decisions made about diversifying seating products, introducing new social spaces, and addressing specific food, beverage, and retail opportunities.

For example, research shows that next-generation fans value the broader social experience of sporting events, so by bringing together previously separate experiences – such as a technology lounge and an NBA game – you uncover opportunities to create more meaningful sponsorship opportunities, generate revenue, and attract valuable future fans.

At the same time, remember that no group’s needs are static. Fans will only come back if they enjoy the experience. If you limit your venue by aggressively addressing the needs of just one fan type – for example, Millennials – in a renovation, you miss an opportunity to create fans of different demographics.

By limiting a renovation to only the needs of one fan type (such as Millennials), venues miss opportunities to create fans of different demographics.

Identify Underutilized Spaces

Working with our clients, we complete a thorough study of the building, identifying existing spaces in need of renovation, and proposing solutions for how underutilized spaces can be uncovered to create new revenue opportunities.

At United Center, this strategic look at the revenue program and square footage helped us identify that valuable real estate was occupied by office space. The solution was the United Center’s East Addition project (completed in 2017), which moved the administrative offices for the Bulls, Blackhawks, and United Center to a new addition to free up space within the arena for revenue-generating amenities, including a retail store, atrium, and box office.

Diversify Offerings 

Diversification of seating products and amenities is central to every renovation project. At United Center, the initial master plan looked at fan demographics, underutilized spaces, and the diversity of offerings to determine key opportunities. That initial groundwork spawned new ideas such as view bars, the Harris Club, and theater boxes – creative concepts that have remained timeless. From social spaces like these examples to branded environments, current and desired fan demographics should serve as the foundation for diversified concepts.

Similar creative thinking is happening at Philips Arena in Atlanta. A renovation currently underway includes plans for the first courtside bar in the NBA, two barber shops with views of the court, and a Topgolf Swing Suite that will provide entertainment options beyond the game. These features provide fans with a broad offering of activities that both maximize space and increase revenue potential.

Test the Market

As proven at United Center, phased renovations provide an opportunity to test how a new seating concept or social experience performs with a fan base. In 2009, we worked with United Center’s ownership to design two view bars in corners of the arena. Within a year of operation, the bars had earned enough revenue to pay for themselves. This measured success led the venue to open two similar bars the following year.

Products should be designed to upsell a general admission ticket. Designers of sports facilities need to understand their client's inventory and avoid new products that align too closely with an existing product.

Analyze Inventory and Pricing

When designing phased renovations, it’s important to think strategically about timing to ensure your organization’s marketing team has plenty of opportunity to research, explore, and better understand how they plan to market and price a new product or offering.

We encourage our clients to think about where the seating product fits within their existing inventory. Will this product cannibalize on sales to another type of ticket holder? If so, we need to go back to the drawing board.

Ideally, products should be designed to upsell a general admission ticket. Designers of sports facilities need to understand their client’s inventory and be strategic to avoid designing a product that aligns too closely with an existing product the venue is already selling.

Creative Funding

With major arena renovation projects generally costing between $150 million and $250 million, it’s no surprise that any opportunity to alleviate costs is welcome. As sponsorship and activation models evolve, venues are increasingly partnering with sponsors to fund the renovation of spaces. These incubator spaces are a win-win, giving sponsors the opportunity to create immersive environments that embody their brand while offering the venue the opportunity to renovate a space or introduce a new food and beverage or seating concept to fans.

Key to the success of each project is a management group committed to its fan base and strategic in ensuring that the fan experience evolves to both capture new audiences and retain current ones. Terry Savarise, Senior Vice President of Operations for United Center, and his team looked to the master plan for his facility as the guide for all potential projects. While the spaces themselves adapted to rapidly changing fan expectations, the master plan provided a calculated road map for planned and future growth.

Whether implemented in one season or over a decade, the master plan is foundational to any renovation project’s success. Building flexibility into the master plan allows organizations to respond to trends in venue design, keep pace with new technology, easily adapt to fan feedback, and track performance metrics on completed phases.

United Center reminds us that not every successful renovation is an overhaul completed in a single season. Incremental changes, season by season, can help venues stay ahead of trends and keep fans coming back for more. The master plan is the foundation for it all. 

Micheal Day, LEED AP, is a Vice President and Senior Project Manager for HOK’s global Sports + Recreation + Entertainment practice. He specializes in the design of professional arenas, stadiums, and training facilities.


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