Monday, March 27, 2023

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Feature Story

A few days in the life of Wells Fargo Arena


Harold Peterson

The horse is smarter than your average bucking bronc. All the others just bucked forward and bucked back as they went around in a circle in the Wells Fargo Arena. Not this horse. He bucks forward, bucks back, and then does a twisting buck forward. Really? A twist? Is the horse training for a gymnastic floor routine? The rodeo rider doesn’t stand a chance as he flies out of the saddle and lands on…

… the hardwood floor losing the ball. Picking himself off the floor, the Iowa Wolves player sprints to the other end of the court. Grabs a quick steal and back he comes. The clock is ticking down. The player looks up, dribbles directly into the lane of big men and leaps high over arms and bodies and dunks the ball into the basket. The crowd erupts as the ball rolls across…

… the ice. The score is tied 1 to 1. The goalie is superhuman. Shot after shot by the other team is blocked. But now the overtime is over, the score is tied and it is a shootout — the goalie all alone against the opposing player. Can the Iowa Wild win once again? “Craaaack” goes the hockey stick against the puck.


Wells Fargo Arena sits like a gigantic, perched gargoyle overlooking Des Moines’ downtown. It is early morning. The northwest parking lot is empty. No one is moving. But the air shimmers with anticipation for the crowds to come. The old man in the parking booth waives me on with a smile. “Go check it out,” he says. So I do.

CNA - Stop HIV Iowa (March)

I wait inside with Elly Simpson, the marketing manager of the Iowa Events Center, which includes the Wells Fargo Arena. It is cold. Elly has other work to do. And a long weekend of shows is just beginning. But she kindly stands with me in the early morning. I practice my Iowanese: 

“It sure is cold.”

“It sure is.”

“I think it’s mostly the wind.”

“And that wet air, don’t you think?”

We are waiting the arrival of the dump trucks with dirt for the rodeo floor. Elly earlier explained to me that the rodeo is on Friday and Saturday, the basketball team plays on Sunday, and the hockey team has a game on Monday. All in the same location at Wells Fargo Arena.

“My goodness,” I say cleverly, “won’t it be hard to play basketball in rodeo dirt? And how will those hockey skates work on a hardwood floor? And won’t the horses slip on the ice?”

Elly, still young and kind, smiles patiently. 

A big truck backs in, beeper sounding, lights flashing, and dumps its load. A teaspoon of dirt in a large sandbox.

Harold Peterson, director of operations for Iowa Events Center, later joins me. Personable and calm, he is perfect for the job.

“Our ice is down for the hockey season. So we cover our ice with ice board decking, then a layer of plastic over the ice board decking and then plywood. The dirt comes in on top of that.”

Mary Ann

We go down to the arena floor.

“Roughly 40-50 dump trucks of dirt for a rodeo. Twice that amount of dirt is used for a Monster Jam.” 

Harold enjoys his job and doesn’t realize that I’m a boring old man and don’t have a clue what a Monster Jam is, but I smile and nod along.  

“It will get incredibly dusty over the next few days. So we really have a small window to allow all the dust to settle and wipe down all the seats, detail clean, and dust the entire building. The dirt will be out between the 3-5 a.m., and then a crew of 30 guys and a cleaning crew of 50 will come in just to turn the building.”


And several hours later, voila — home for bucking broncs, cowboys, cowgirls, a clown and a herd of bulls. Although I am curious how the young man, floating several feet above the bull, is going to experience the well-made dirt floor.

Billy Snyder and his family come down to the dirt to do some roping with a real cowboy before the main rodeo starts on Friday. 

“We love the rodeo and the chance to come down before the show,” says Eric Snyder, the father of Billy. “We’ll be here every year for this event.” 

And Billy, how did the roping go?

“Loved it. I’ll be better next year.”

The dirt floor is holding up well. As the show goes on, I sit next to David Jones. I explain that I am here to check out Wells Fargo and all these floor transitions from event to event. 

“Do you want to hear about another transformation?” he says. 


“Have you ever heard of the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz?’ ”

And David Jones goes on to explain . . .

“We all met in the hospital when we were on heart-assisted devices. Dan, one of us, received a Tin Man from someone because, of course, the Tin Man needed a heart. Two days later, he got a call and got a heart. Dan passed the Tin Man to me, and I got a call for my heart. Then I passed it to my brother, who got his heart six months later. He then passed it on to another guy named Mike, and Mike got his shortly after.”

Unbelievable. Four heart transplants and a lucky talisman. The Tin Man Club. 

So, bucking broncs, cowboys, cowgirls, a clown, a herd of bulls, a young boy roping and . . . a heart transplant survivor. All at the rodeo on a Friday night. 


“As the dirt comes out, the plywood goes out, the plastic goes out. Clean the ice decking and lay down the court. We will lay it down by 6 a.m. and be ready for basketball at 1 p.m. We have a really strong crew here.” 

Sure enough, all happens as Harold Peterson predicts. By 2 p.m., the Iowa Wolves are tipping off. But, first, I have to get past Mary Ann. 

Mary Ann has been working nearly 12 years for the Iowa Events Center. Today she is taking tickets for the basketball game. 

“I have been working here since my daughter’s wedding. I have a full-time job but needed the extra money. And now I keep saying this is my retirement job for when I eventually retire.” 

Mary Ann laughs at her crazy work schedule.  

“I enjoy it all. I’ve done tickets and been an usher and been down on the stage. I’ve gotten to see so many shows.” 

And she does enjoy it. She is a regular to the regulars who come for the games. When she takes a day off, they are concerned about her whereabouts. 

Marlon Ballentine

She smiles her slanting smile and helps the next person in line.

My wife and I find our way into the game. But to the amazement of no one but me, a loser who never watches sports, I soon discover watching the game is just one of many options in the arena. There is the amazing Howl-O-Meter, which measures the loudness of the wolf howls from the crowd during opposing team free throws. There are T-shirts being tossed into the stands to screaming fans holding giant foam wolf paws. And there is a wolf mascot tumbling, jumping, yelling, rolling and scootering around the court exciting the crowd. But my favorite non-game activity? The Kiss Cam. Yup, audience members smooch for the big screen as the camera zooms in for a close-up. My wife, thrilled by this idea, quickly moves a couple rows down. 

The Wolves win in the last seconds. The crowd goes wild. Everyone goes home happy. Another day passes.


Marlon Ballentine is soft spoken, easy to smile, gentle eyes. Don’t be fooled. He’s the boss. He is operations supervisor at the Events Center and is in charge of maintaining the buildings and the changes with the floor. He’s done this since he was 18 years old. He exudes competence.

“We are now changing out from basketball to hockey. We will pull out all the decking and then start taking the court apart. We are standing on the ice decking now. These are 4 by 8 sheets. Once we get the decking out, we’ll put the hockey glass in. The basketball floor will be the last thing we pull. We’ll be done within four to five hours, depending on the manpower we have.”

“How did you handle the rodeo dirt?”

“We didn’t remove the dirt. The rodeo takes care of that. However, we clean the arena after the rodeo. No matter how hard we clean, the dirt from the rodeo will linger for a while.”

“Do you like your job?”

Marlon looks at me with his crooked smile.

“I’ve done this my whole life. I’m from Des Moines. Born and raised. I started when I was 18 years old. This is what I do.”

And that is what he does as he takes over tearing apart the basketball court and directing the 20 or so other helpers.

“Marlon, just wondering, how many pieces to the basketball floor?”

“The basketball floor is 4 by 8 sheets. We have about 500 sheets.” 

So, 500 sheets and 24 hours later, the Iowa Wild are in a tight hockey game that goes into a shootout. Zane McIntyre is in the goal. He saves shot after shot all game long. He has to save one more. One on one. The puck is shifted back and forth by the player for the Grand Rapids Griffins. First to the right, then to the left, then small pulses of the puck back and forth. He shoots… McIntyre effortlessly blocks it with his right hand. Yahoo! The Wild win.

And how could they not win after more than 60 kids from Van Meter Elementary School have sung the National Anthem, and Pack 383 from Altoona have been the standard-bearers? It’s like having Mother Teresa rooting for you. Goodbye, opponent. Hello, victory. 

David Jones


And the day ends. The floor, at last, sits quietly. The crews of workers are punched out. The parking lot is empty. The old man in the booth has gone home. And Wells Fargo Arena settles gently into its foundation. All is well.

So, what’s up next for Wells Fargo Arena? Of course… THE MONSTER JAM! ♦

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