While it has its multipurpose functions, the vision for the new $40 million, 5,500-capacity Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix is definitely single-purpose: to promote the on-campus/on-line university to the world.

Grand Canyon University Arena will never have a title sponsor, said Bob Machen, senior VP, campus development. It is there to tell the world about Grand Canyon University, a 60-year-old private, Christian university that recently changed ownership. It has already grown to 4,200 students on campus, with another 44,000 online, Machen said. Prior to major new construction, enrollment had been stagnant at 1,500 students on campus.

Machen has overseen over $135 million in improvements to the campus in two years and expects the total to end up well over $200 million. “We are expanding the campus significantly,” he said. 

The new arena helps differentiate Grand Canyon University from all other on-line schools as well. Both on-line and on-site students can now identify with a sports team and sports facilities.

“It’s a dynamic, fun place. The graduates who come back find it jaw-dropping,” Machen said. “They are so excited about what is happening here.”

The first basketball game at Grand Canyon University Arena will be a scrimmage with Arizona State University. GCU is a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II school, with a goal to make Division I.

And two events coming in are going to be nationally televised.

One is Mannheim Steamroller’s holiday ice show, which will be nationally televised on NBC the day after Thanksgiving and on the Hallmark network Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. GCU will get national advertising.

The other is a martial arts show Oct. 16 for Showtime.

Cathey Moses, VP, booking and marketing, is responsible for bringing in the shows. She is excited with the M-1 Challenge XXVII mixed martial arts event, which will be shown internationally. “The venue they were supposed to have it in was not approved by Showtime. On a whim, they checked us out,” she recalled. “Showtime flew in to walk the arena and they just loved it. They’ve already got a couple more dates on hold with us.”

Her projected goal is to book 150 events in the first calendar year for Grand Canyon University Arena, but she expects to exceed that. Bookings include 19 college basketball games for the GCU Antelopes, plus possible playoffs. The venue will host six high school tournaments before the end of the year. And she is budgeting for 20-28 concerts. With speakers, graduations and other events, “we will easily reach our goal,” she said.

“We have things booked into 2015,” she added, declining to reveal the sporting event that is the furthest out and still under wraps.

The Mannheim Steamroller Christmas show will be the first, but probably not the last, ice event at GCU Arena. The venue has a permanent wood basketball floor. There had been no plans to have ice, but this event, called Pandora Unforgettable Moments on Ice, produced by Steve Disson, was too good to pass on. The Nov. 12 event will be televised later. “Ice skaters are so few and far between these days,” Moses said. She is looking forward to bringing the sport to the West Valley.

“I have a permanent wood floor and I’m putting in ice; can you believe it?” added Machen.

One of the features most flaunted about Grand Canyon University Arena is the steep, intimate seating bowl, Machen said. “We can put up a half-house in two different places. It’s as steep as you can legally have it, so the top row seat is closer to the action. We spent a lot of time investigating the angle.”

“Our 6mm video board is as good as any university in this country,” Machen added. The board will be used to promote Grand Canyon University and arena events, not sponsors, he said.

“We are selling advertising, but it will be limited. My goal is only $500,000 in advertising,” Machen said. His mandate from the university is to break even on operating and to get as many people as possible into the arena. 

A view of the new Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix

“Our theme for the university is ‘Find Your Purpose’ and the more we can talk about finding your purpose the better off we are.”

Security and housekeeping are in-house. Ticketing is branded and controlled by the university. They are using TicketBiscuit as the provider.

“We chose TicketBiscuit because we want to completely control ticket fees,” Machen said. “We will have very, very low fees. And it will look like our own ticketing system.”

And Grand Canyon University Arena will be competitive with acquiring events. Machen, who has worked for U.S. Airways Arena, Dodge Theatre and Bank One Ballpark, now Chase Field, all in Phoenix, is very aware the market is flush with venues. His story is low fees and affordable pricing. Parking is free. “We need to be able to attract events — that’s how we’ll do it,” Machen said. Still, with college athletics, he has had to turn away as many as 10 shows because no dates are available, he said.

The first public show was Casting Crowns Sept. 23. It drew a sellout crowd of 5,020, grossing $164,418 from tickets priced from $49.50 for VIPs to $15 for students. Price tiers also included $35.50 and $25.50.

Per cap spending was in the $5 range, without alcohol, Moses said. She overheard many comments about the affordability of the food. “I heard a gentleman say to his wife, ‘can you believe we had dinner here for $16?’”

Casting Crowns was promoted by Jon Robberson, Celebration Concerts, who called GCU Arena “a fantastic venue. It has the attributes of a larger arena but in a smaller context.” He was particularly impressed with the helpfulness and quality of the staff, which includes a fair number of students.

“It has the arena feel with no upper bowl,” he added. “And it’s a great size. I think 5,000 seats is the sweet spot.”

Robberson also lauded the backstage amenities. Moses said the venue has three loading bays, four designated dressing rooms, and four designated locker rooms with large coaches offices, which can be converted to dressing rooms.

The arena staff totals 13 full time, including Jamie Santiago, director of marketing.

Event staff for Casting Crowns, not including concessions or parking, totalled 86.

Bookings to date include: David Crowder Band, The 7 Tour, Oct. 6, which is a general admission show promoted by Extreme Faith Productions; M1 Challenge XXVII headlining Guran vs. Garner, Oct. 14; Ravi Zacharias, Oct. 16; Switchfoot, Oct. 21; GCU basketball scrimmage with ASU, Nov. 5; Mannheim Steamroller’s Pandora Unforgettable Moments on Ice featuring Kristi Yamaguchi, with musical guest David Archuleta, Nov. 12; and Lady Antebellum, Nov. 17, promoted by Danny Zelisko Presents; followed by Third Day Nov. 20, promoted by Rush Concerts.

She has also booked a holiday concert with the Phoenix Symphony and 400 high school choirists doing the Messiah. “Everyone here works very well together,” she said of scheduling.

Interviewed for this story: Bob Machen, (602) 639-6893; Cathey Moses, (602) 639-8052; Jon Robberson, (408) 369-8222, X15