The framed Kobe Bryant jersey that greets visitors as they enter Tony Vail’s office at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor may not ingratiate him with Boston Celtics fans, but it surely provides evidence of his credentials as a basketball guy.
Before arriving last year as the venue’s new general manager, he was in Oakland, California. There he worked at Oracle Arena — former home of the Golden State Warriors — and at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, the most recent home of the baseball Athletics and football Raiders.
Vail quickly realized that the Maine Principals’ Association high school basketball tournament his facility hosts each February is just as important to Maine fans as the Warriors are to the Bay Area.
“I can’t wait,” said Vail, a veteran of more than two decades of arena management. “I’m a basketball guy at heart, so having a weeklong tournament, with hopefully some really good basketball, I’m looking forward to it.”
One significant change tournament fans will experience at the Cross Insurance Center during this year’s tournament is security screening that includes bag searches and the use of metal detectors.
Vail said four to six magnetometers await fans as they enter the main doors to the building, with sufficient staff on hand to make the process as quick as possible.
The screening process, which has been in place for other Cross Center events since last fall, is routine in midsize and major arenas around the country, Vail said. A similar system was already in place for 2019 tournament games played at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
“For any arena or mass-gathering facility of this size anywhere in the country, whether it be in this part of Maine or Portland or anywhere, you want all the guests and staff to feel safe and secure,” he said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from people that are now getting used to it and seeing it here and are actually complimenting us and feeling good about knowing that they’re in a safe environment.”
Vail said two large tents have been erected just outside the main entrance to provide additional cover for any overflow of fans who may have to wait in line before entering the arena.
“We know we might have some people outside at times so we figured we’d add the tents to give people another level of cover to help with whatever the weather is doing during the tournament,” Vail said.
The Cross Insurance Center has a bag policy for all events. Any purses, briefcases, luggage, rollerbags and large hardside bags will not be allowed into the building.
Prohibited items included, but are not limited to: guns, knives, stun guns, self-defense sprays (mace, pepper), flying discs, beach balls, balloons, alcohol, illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia. Outside food and beverage, except for baby food and medically necessary items, are prohibited, as well as bottles, cans or other beverage containers.
Considering the cost
A key part of Vail’s job at the Cross Insurance Center has been to negotiate contracts with tenants such as the principals association. Putting on events costs money.
Some negotiations became slightly more public than usual leading up to this year’s North regional tourney scheduled to begin Friday afternoon. John Bapst Memorial High School of Bangor, which had played most of its home basketball games at the facility since it opened, was for cost reasons only able to work out four January dates there this season.
“When you have an event and someone says we’ve got to look at these numbers and these costs, hey, I would question it, too,” Vail said. “It’s negotiating, and we do our best to make it work for everybody.”
Vail needs only to look at the statistics for the building he oversees for Spectra Venue Management — the Philadelphia-based firm that has operated the Cross Insurance Center for the city since the arena opened in 2013 — to see the importance of the tournament to the arena and the area.
More than 290,000 people have attended tourney games at the arena since the event moved there in 2014, an average of approximately 47,000 fans a year.
“This is a huge, huge event, way bigger actually than the Cross Center because of the hotels, the restaurants and all the people that come to this community during the tournament,” Vail said. “I recognize that and we want to keep those kinds of events coming here.”
The negotiations include weighing all the costs for the event against the value of each event to the city.
“Sometimes it’s not always about the bottom line and the bottom dollar, it’s about what the community wants,” Vail said. “My job is not just to shove a bunch of shows in here and charge people a lot of money. You have to walk a fine line. It’s a balancing act at times, a lot of negotiations that go on, and the main thing is we just ask people to be open and patient.
“Some deals we know aren’t the best for the building, but that’s OK because we know how important the event is, just like the MPA tournament.”
Vail anticipates more than 100 people, both full and part time, will work the tournament in collaboration with numerous principals association staff.
“The MPA tournament is as important to us now and going forward as it’s ever been,” he said. “Our sole goal is we always want to make an event better and better and better, that’s all we want to do.
“We certainly recognize the value of the tournament to the building, and we don’t want it going anywhere else.”