MLSE looks to improve fan experience at Scotiabank Arena both inside and out

TORONTO — While the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors gear up for next season, Scotiabank Arena is getting a multimillion-dollar facelift.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president and CEO Michael Friisdahl calls it a “reimagination” of the venue that opened in February 1999.

“We’ve got to keep getting better, we’ve got to keep improving the experience,” said Friisdahl. “We won a championship — we’ve won four championships in the last three years. That, if anything, motivates us to do even more.”

Friisdahl, who took up his position at MLSE in December 2015, declined to put a price-tag on the improvements other than to say it’s “multi, multimillion dollars.”

“Eventually when it’s all said and done, you will notice that everything will have be touched in one way or another to improve the overall (fan) experience,” he added.

MLSE is coming off a major high thanks to the Raptors’ feel-good NBA championship run in June. That followed titles by Toronto FC (MLS) and Raptors 905 (G League) in 2017 and the Marlies (American Hockey League) in 2018.

The Argos also won the Grey Cup in 2017 with MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum a part-owner. But MLSE didn’t take over full ownership until just after the team won the CFL title.

Friisdahl (pronounced FREEZE-dale) says MLSE’s investment is to ensure the arena is both a “gathering place” for fans but also a destination in the city, going hand-in-hand with the money that has gone into renovating nearby Union Station.

A pedestrian bridge is being built over Bay Street from CIBC Square, currently under construction. It will connect with a new second floor to the galleria on the north side of the arena, as well as the city’s underground Path network.

The bridge should help ease the post-game flow of fans, some of whom dodge traffic to get to the other side on their way to a transit hub located to the east. Via the galleria, it will also allow daily access to the arena’s Hot Stove Lounge and other special dining areas now just open during events.

The galleria improvements should be completed in the next 12 months, part of a larger plan that will take four to five years. The goal is to make the changes with the least amount of interruption to the facility.

On the west side of the arena, a new video board is going up at Jurassic Park. The new screen is 40 per cent bigger, measuring 10.7 by 18.6 metres compared to the 9.1-by-15.5 old one.

Friisdahl notes proudly that the Raptors’ playoff run sparked close to 60 Jurassic Parks across the country. “So it’s really taken on a real life of its own with our fans.”

Hence the new, improved video screen. There will also be smaller video screens near the west entrance of the galleria, to help on nights with multiple games. Plus the arena is getting new digital Scotiabank signage that can light up in different colours, replacing the temporary arena signs.

Across the street, Real Sports Bar & Grill is being gutted. Since its opening in 2010, the cavernous restaurant-bar has been a man cave on steroids. It’s getting a makeover.

“We’re going to step that up another notch … There isn’t a stitch that isn’t being retouched in here,” said Friisdahl.

Inside the arena, the Chairman’s Suite — a restaurant and premium bar/lounge area on the south side — is being renovated. Outside, extra entrances for premium guests are being added to ease getting in.

While the arena footprint cannot be changed, Friisdahl says MLSE will spend the money needed to keep the building “best in class.”

That includes using technology to further connect with fans. You can already order food and merchandise from your seat via the team apps but Friisdahl says more in that vein is coming.

“We want to be able to communicate with our fans one-on-one as opposed to one-to-many,” he said.

That will include being able to consult your app to determine concession areas and washrooms with the smallest lineups — and to pre-order food and drink to pick up en route to your seat.

“That also requires tuning up our infrastructure within the arena because that requires a different level of support. And that’s part of the reimagination,” said the MLSE boss.

The arena is rarely empty. As Friisdahl looked over the floor of the arena this week, the stage was set up for John Mayer.

Scotiabank Arena is one of the “top-10 busiest buildings in the world,” according to Friisdahl. It staged a record number of events in 2018 with more than 110 live shows over and above NHL and NBA games.

MLSE is also trying to interact with fans who can’t get to the games, looking to connect them via social media. Friisdahl notes that more than 50 per cent of the Raptors’ followers are outside of North America.

The basketball team has 2.1 million followers on Twitter and 2.9 million on Instagram.

Friisdahl was part of the Raptors’ victory parade, which he called “an experience beyond belief.”

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