Yet-to-open Alamodome is a hit already booked through 2005

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SAN ANTONIO -- Welcome to the Alamodome, a $177 million palace that soon will become the new home for David Robinson's Spurs, monster truck shows, and perhaps even Madonna.

Throw in the 1993 U.S. Olympic Sports Festival, a new football bowl game, Hulk Hogan, dance shows, Billy Graham, the Moscow Circus and professional hockey.

Hockey in San Antonio?

"We can dream, can't we?" said general manager Carol Darby, whose dome will open April 1, 1993. "Even L.A. has hockey."

And San Antonio will claim one of the most versatile stadiums ever designed. Alamodome planners say the facility's mission is to offer something for everyone. The early returns appear favorable -- the Alamodome is booked solid with conventions and sporting events through the year 2005.

The Alamodome will become the crown jewel of a Tex-Mex city that revels in tourism. The dome is a stone's throw from the Riverwalk and a short jog from the Alamo. One who walks through its unfinished corridors feels the triple-decker dome will carry the city through the 21st century.

And beyond.

"It's going to be the most state-of-the-art facility in Texas," said Russ Bookbinder, vice president of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team.

San Antonio sports officials can be excused for their unabashed enthusiasm. Construction of the dome is roughly halfway done. Architect Mary Burton said the Alamodome will be used for 24 types of events.

Yes, there appears to be something for everyone.

The San Antonio Sports Foundation, a group of 120 sports-minded citizens, spearheaded the effort to fund construction of the Alamodome. Their first major catch was the 1993 Olympic Sports Festival, which should anchor an impressive list of sporting events for the balance of the decade.

The Spurs will begin playing at their new home in the 1993-94 season. The San Antonio Riders of the World League of 'f American Football likely will play a few football home games there next spring. The facility also will be used for high school sporting events, ice shows and pro tennis.

The key to the 65,000-seat stadium's versatility, Darby said, is the 12,000 retractable field-level seats. When the Spurs play, seats from one side of the stadium will be moved to courtside. When big-name NBA teams come to town -- Chicago, Boston, Detroit -- capacity will be 32,500. For most games, capacity will be limited to 20,000.

Darby sees unlimited potential for the Alamodome. Darby was the deputy stadium director at the Kingdome in Seattle before moving to San Antonio last May.

"The possibilities here are tremendous," Darby said.

The Alamodome will be unique in many ways. First, the building is rectangular. Second, the roof is lower than that of most domed stadiums. The Alamodome's metal ceiling stretches 170 feet from the ground, compared to 250 feet for the Houston Astrodome.

Dome critics contend that San Antonio, which recently was rejected for an NFL franchise, does not need such a large stadium. City officials said they will apply again, hoping the nation's ninth-largest city will be rewarded one in the next century.

The facility also is being criticizing for fouling off one major sport -- baseball. The Alamodome will not be large enough to accommodate a baseball game. By constructing the building large enough for baseball, the price of the dome would have escalated by more than $24 million.

Also, San Antonio officials believe they had little chance to attract a major-league baseball team.

Baseball is not interested in expanding to cities that use domes, Darby said. The only way to get around that is to have a retractable roof, and that would have doubled the price. The only such stadium in baseball is the Sky Dome in Toronto, which came with a price tag of $490 million.

The Alamodome received a morale boost last week. The NCAA gave conditional approval of the city's bid to stage a bowl game. The first Alamo Bowl will be played on New Year's Eve 1993. The bowl already has signed a five-year contract to have the game televised by Raycom TV. The next major step is to gain a corporate sponsor to help with the minimum $750,000 payoffs each team receives.

The bowl will seek the best at-large teams it can sign next year. After that, there is speculation that the Alamo Bowl and Southwest Conference will strike a deal to have the SWC's No. 2 team represented at the game.

The Southwest Conference has taken a close look at the dome for other future considerations. SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby said several SWC sporting events -- ranging from football to indoor track -- may be staged in San Antonio.

"We see a great deal of potential in that stadium," said Jacoby, who toured the facility last week. "And San Antonio is one of the largest markets in the country that does not have [an NCAA] Division I football program."

It did not take the SWC long to get involved. Houston and Texas Tech will play their 1993 football game at the Alamodome. Jacoby said Texas and SMU are discussing the possibility of moving their 1993 game to the Alamodome. The game currently is scheduled to be played in Dallas.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds is in favor of having Longhorns football games in San Antonio, but prefers not to move any Texas home games. There has been speculation that the Air Force Academy might play Texas in San Antonio, a city that boasts three Air Force bases.

The SWC and Alamodome could have another bond. Jacoby said the conference is considering moving its annual basketball tournament to San Antonio. The tournament will remain in Dallas in 1993, but the league could transfer to another city beginning in 1994.

The Alamodome's artificial turf comes in 14 sections that weigh 3,500 pounds apiece. A $175,000 machine called a grasshopper will roll out the turf and then pick it up.

Once in place, the turf sections will be seamed together with zippers.

The basketball floor will come in sections, too. It fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, Darby said.

As for seating at basketball games, it will take 12 to 15 hours to move the retractable seats to courtside. The sections of seats will be moved across the stadium on a track.

The dome also comes with two ice sheets -- one for hockey, one for ice shows. Under-floor chillers will spray water that freezes to form the ice sheets. The first major ice event will be the Olympic Festival, which is expected to bring 4,200 athletes to San Antonio next year.

And there will be much more.

Darby said San Antonio wants to play host to the NCAA Final Four, perhaps in 1998. The Houston Oilers will play both of their 1993 home exhibition games at the Alamodome. The city might also be exposed to National Hockey League exhibitions.

A half-cent sales tax levied in San Antonio in 1989 is paying for the project. City officials predict the Alamodome will be completely paid for by 1994.

A concert will highlight opening-day ceremonies on April 2, 1993. After that, the Alamodome will boast a world of attractions.

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