Compared to three seasons ago, the Golden State Warriors’ core roster looks much the same: with Steph Curry at the helm, a team of veteran and rising stars conjures a thrilling style of play marked by euphoric three-point runs and fourth-quarter comebacks.
But the fan experience couldn’t be more different. I can attest to the joys of the old Oracle Arena, where Warriors games featured campy entertainment, cheap tickets and extra-loud fans, some of them fortified by all manner of quasi-legal substances. At the sleek new Chase Center, the scene is very different—fancy food, ultra-luxe lounges, ubiquitous video screens—reflecting both the Warriors’ success on the court and the big-money evolution of big-time sports.
But a game is still, as the team’s slogan once said, a Great Night Out.
The $1.4 billion Chase Center anchors an 11-acre village of eateries, shops and waterfront spaces, with all the amenities a San Franciscan could want: an extensive wine list, a bike valet, an art collection, and ample locally sourced food, including multiple Bakesale Betty’s, an Oakland favorite. At the May 20 game, my first at Chase Center and the team’s 426th straight sellout, I enjoyed myself immensely lurking in the stadium’s lounges and mezzanines and cheering another come from behind victory.
It was a different kind of pleasure from the old days, when the simple joy of cheering the team had to take the place of basking in championship glory. The Warriors won roughly one out of every five games in the particularly cursed 2000-01 season, the nadir of a years-long losing streak, and the franchise had to get more creative to keep butts in seats than they do today.
Before the Splash Brothers, there was Thunder, who served honorably as the Warriors’ mascot from 1997 to 2008. Thunder, who looked like a roided-up member of the Blue Man Group, did dunks off a trampoline and camped for cheers from dedicated fans who gritted it out through the team’s worst years. At one point, the Warriors installed a cover band in unused seats to play some combination of “Love Train” and “Ladies’ Night” on repeat during breaks in play. Who wouldn’t show up for that?
Best of all, tickets in the cheap seats (Section 217, rest in peace) cost less than the price of a Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer at the new Chase Center. For that, according to stadium legend and certainly not personal experience, ushers reacted with a shrug if fans chose to medicate the pain of 10 losing seasons in a row with cannabis.
Back then, stadium entertainment featured homegrown Bay Area talent that was perhaps a bit too authentic for prime time: At one game in 2012, the entertainment was a fierce competition between then-point guard Monta Ellis and a pre-teen boy over who could pull tissues out of a box the fastest. (Ellis won, but not by much.) There were Burning Man-style circus acts and the Weekend Warriors, an all-male, overalls-clad dance troupe that looked more fit for a barstool than an NBA court. And at the end of the game, fans had plenty of time to ponder what next season could bring on the long trudge over the desolate pedestrian overpass linking Oracle Arena to BART’s Coliseum stop.
The differences are more than just cosmetic: the two arenas reflect a fading past and an innovative, global-facing future of not just the Warriors themselves, but of the entire business of sports.
Oracle, nicknamed “Roaracle” for its loud fans and imposing acoustics, was among the last in a dying breed of professional sports arenas. Built in the mid-1960s with $26 million backed by municipal bonds, the stadium was a major attraction for a mid-sized city angling to compete with its more glamorous neighbor across the Bay.
Such arrangements have since grown more controversial, with taxpayers less willing to foot the bill for municipal arenas and skeptical of whatever public benefits come with the ballooning cost of financing new stadiums. Given the billions in infrastructure and maintenance costs since then, they have reason to be.
Compare Oakland’s mid-century boosterism to San Francisco’s $1.4 billion new Chase Center, which was self-financed by the Warriors franchise.
A perfect storm of circumstances, not least the team’s three championships in the Splash Brothers era and the gusher of media money that’s inflating every corner of the sports economy, has allowed the team to splurge on an opulent home that includes 44 club suites, 32 courtside lounges outfitted with courtside cameras, and the largest LED screen in the NBA, among other amenities.
Chase Center is also a revenue machine. In addition to attached retail and office space—not to mention lounge rentals that can run into the nine figures–stadium details are sponsored to the teeth. At the May 20 game, the Warriors Dance Team performed a routine in Top Gun jackets, tying into the Tom Cruise franchise’s latest installment. With San Francisco’s moneyed new fans in mind, ads encircling the mezzanine hawked West Elm, Google Workspace and Pottery Barn. Even the fans who shot three-pointers for a chance at $1,000 wore Rakuten T-shirts. It’s no wonder the Warriors’ valuation soared past $5 billion last year, topping even the Los Angeles Lakers.
What’s more, the Golden State Warriors’ fan base has rocketed way past the die-hard Oaklanders (and some San Franciscans) who filled seats long before Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The charismatic Curry’s status as a global megastar helped to win the Warriors 144 million fans in the Asia-Pacific region, and the new Chase Center is tailored to both local fans and a newer international audience that includes the likes of Adele and the K-Pop sensation BamBam.
Despite the many differences with Oracle, some of the most important details remain thankfully intact: Stadium staff are still the best of any Bay Area team, longtime team DJ D-Sharp is still on the decks, and the game still featured an excellent cover band (albeit just outside the arena). After the Warriors’ thrilling comeback win, I simply hopped on the next T-line on my way back home, mildly stunned by the convenience of it all.
The Warriors are undoubtedly in their prime. The team is barreling towards another trip to the NBA Finals, and its sparkling new arena is at least a few years away from being overrun by feral cats. Newer, San Francisco-based fans have not had their patience tested during a few down seasons, should that ever happen again. But with lofty ambitions comes lofty expectations, and for now, the Warriors and Chase Center have the eyes of the world.