Growing up in New Jersey, Rafi Kohan remembers visits to Yankee Stadium (the pre-2009 version), being awed not just by the green grass and the prospect of a great game. Everything, from the roar of the crowd, the smell from the concession stands, the raking of the dirt by the grounds crew, felt special.
It’s this obsession with all facets of sports venues that led Kohan to write The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sports (Liveright, 401 pps. $27.95), a breezy but deep look at some of those aspects that make these arenas function and give them each a unique identity.
For his dive into concessions, Kohan selected Citi Field, a chapter that fans of everything edible and potable will find fascinating. “They gave me great access, even into the room with all the beer kegs,” Kohan told NYSportsDay, almost wistfully.
Indeed, the planning and manpower that goes into the food service at Citi Field are massive, with computer models helping predict how many of the thousands of pounds of hot dogs, burgers, popcorn and dozens of other ballpark delicacies — not to mention beer and soda — will be needed — and where — across the stadium’s expanse.
This efficiency, the longtime Yankee fan somewhat sadly admits, is miles ahead of the ballpark his favorite team calls home.
“The last game I went to [at Yankee Stadium], there were about 10 people on line and it literally took 50 minutes to get barbecue,” he lamented. “There is no commitment to the fan experience.”
But The Arena isn’t about what is lacking at venues; rather, it highlights what makes them great and in many cases unique. A night spent with the changeover crew at Newark’s Prudential Center and time with the MetLife Stadium Giants-Jets transition team are great behind-the-scene looks at how the transformation magic happens.
While Kohan traveled across the country unearthing stories, there is a special attention to his hometown region. In addition to delving into the political machinations that helped get the Barclays Center built in Brooklyn, he writes of his chance to fire the t-shirt cannon at Rutgers and helping Long Island native Gary “The Amazing” Sladek perform his death-defying chair handstand.
“That showed me how truly simultaneously thrilling and terrifying it is,” said Kohan of Sladek’s act, which involves the now near 60-something climbing on top of six stacked chairs and performing said handstand, often at NBA halftimes. “I thought I would kill him.”
Being a New Yorker who has been to the six current pro facilities in the area among the “40 or 50” or so arenas he estimated that he had visited, Kohan ranked the six thusly when asked:
1. Madison Square Garden: “when the team is good and it gets rocking, there is nothing like it”
2. Citi Field: “so much attention is paid to the fan experience”
3. Barclays Center: a great place to watch a basketball game. Though not so for hockey.”
4. Prudential Center
6. Yankee Stadium: “all the atmosphere of the old Stadium is gone.”