New Arena Shines in the Art of Entertaining

The Register Guard – September 2, 2011 – By Paul Omundson –

Versatility built into its design, Matthew Knight Arena plays host to epic productions and community events. 

“You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Those lyrics from Bachman Turner Overdrive’s 1974 hit sum up the Matthew Knight Arena as the University of Oregon’s new basketball home evolves into a major Northwest performing arts venue able to attract top entertainment acts from around the world.

Twenty-five performances have taken place so far at the venue, beginning with Disney Live on Jan. 20, followed by Elton John, Jeff Dunham and Avenged Sevenfold. Other events proved the arena’s transformational powers: the “Nike Clash of the Champions” tennis matches featuring Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka; Cirque du Soleil; monster trucks; and bull riding.

Mike Duncan, UO’s senior associate athletic director who runs Matthew Knight Arena’s nonathletic events, says his target is 50 to 60 shows a year under the gleaming silver dome.

Most of these would have skipped Eugene in the past.

The next-largest indoor facility is the Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, which tops out at a 2,500 seat capacity — not nearly enough seating or available staging space to support the kind of indoor mega shows that until now locals had to go to Portland or Seattle to see.

Duncan points to innovative, flexible state-of-the-art design as key to the arena’s success as a performance venue.

Seating capacity ranges from 4,000 to 12,000. With an ingenious set of curtains and barriers to keep sound from bouncing off unused seats in the arena’s upper levels, the facility allows smaller, more intimate concerts as well as larger events.

But no matter what the event’s size, engineers designed Knight for great acoustics. Sound baffling at ceiling level and different panels along the upper floor allow show crews to come in, set up their equipment and “dial in the sound on the day of the show,” Duncan says.

“You have to look at the guts of the new arena to really get a sense of how well it can accommodate the needs,” Duncan adds as he points to a huge steel rigging grid in the ceiling that most people won’t even notice.

The rigging supports many thousands of pounds of equipment. Also crucial to the operations are four special loading docks in the bowels of the arena, allowing big rigs to roll right onto the main floor for easy setups.

The facility might be new, but Duncan is a long-time veteran of arena management. The 1980 UO journalism major spent 24 years in similar capacities at Sacramento’s Arco Arena and heeded the call a couple of years ago when his alma mater wooed him back to be at the helm of the new arena’s nonathletic events.

Duncan brought along another veteran who worked with him in Sacramento, Devon Shea, who is director of arena events and production. Both have long relationships with promoters and agents, and that may indeed be a reason for Matthew Knight Arena’s quick jump-start in the variety and quality of shows so far.

“We’re ready for anything,” Duncan says. “We’ve seen it all.”

Put to the test

Although Duncan points out that every show is a learning experience, things have gone smoothly. The venue already has proved its mettle.

One of the first tests of Matthew Knight Arena’s flexibility was the challenge of setting up for a bull-riding event less than 24 hours after the UO men’s basketball team unexpectedly hosted and won the final game of the College Basketball Invitational tournament.

“After the game we had to take up the basketball floor (made up of 200 sections that fit together like a puzzle) and bring in 40 dump truck loads of dirt,” Duncan recalls. “We couldn’t have done it in time if the arena’s design didn’t allow trucks to come right onto the floor. As a result, we were able to change quickly from one configuration to another.”

The biggest production to date in terms of equipment was the June 8-12 Cirque du Soleil “Dralion” show that brought 18 semi-truck loads of staging gear. When the company comes back Nov. 15 and 16 for an elaborate Michael Jackson tribute, Duncan expects equipment and rigging needs to nearly double.

What’s ahead?

As Matt Knight Arena continues its first year of operation, excitement is brewing. The possibilities are especially enticing for local performing arts institutions and patrons.

Although just in the talking stages right now, the UO’s Oregon Bach Festival and the Eugene Symphony are weighing the possibility of using the venue to bring more internationally acclaimed classical music superstars to Eugene.

“It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art, landmark venue,” says John Evans, executive director of the Bach festival. “We’re intrigued by the possibility of performing there, especially where we could take advantage of the space for one of the iconic choral-orchestral works, such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.”

Duncan has visions of his own.

“I can see us booking classic rock groups like The Eagles, opera superstars such as Andrea Bocelli, and other artists of that caliber,” he says. “We haven’t had a country show in the arena yet. (Hint: Look for a major country artist to perform there this fall.) We’re hoping to bring World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), family ice-skating shows, and as we get closer to the 2012 presidential elections we may host political figures.”

But what Duncan is most proud of is developing the arena as a community asset for the area and UO students. He points to the April memorial service for slain Eugene police officer Chris Kilcullen as an example of what Matthew Knight Arena can provide. The arena also continues to book internal events and speakers geared specifically for the university community.

Fasten your seat belts. A lot more is still to come, both in entertainment and in community-focused events at Matthew Knight Arena.

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