EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Meadowlands Arena, once the home of professional basketball and hockey showdowns, is staging an atypical second act.
Aging stadiums are usually demolished after their expiration date; like plastic bags, they can be tedious to recycle. And in the New York area, several newer or renovated venues canceled out the need for a concrete cavern that dated back to 1981.
The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority technically closed Meadowlands Arena, last known as the Izod Center, in early 2015.
But on a November afternoon inside the arena, next to where the Nets guard Jason Kidd routinely blew kisses in the air before shooting free throws, workers were constructing a prison interview room.
Over the past year, the dormant arena has been reincarnated and discreetly used as a soundstage for NBC prime-time dramas. NBCUniversal invested more than $750,000 to prepare the space for production and has so far hired more than 1,250 people to work there. The series “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector,” which premieres Friday, began filming there in September.
The New York area was becoming an increasingly popular shooting locale over Los Angeles and Atlanta, said Robin Trantham, a consultant at CoStar, which analyzes the commercial real estate industry. In July, Robert De Niro announced plans to open a $400 million production studio in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens.
In the streaming era, production studios are being asked to provide more and more content, leading some to explore alternative spaces. But can a sports arena, once universally panned for its drab décor, become the next Universal Studios backlot?
There are financial reasons that NBC might consider an extended residency at Meadowlands Arena. In April 2018, the Garden State Film and Digital Media Jobs Act began offering tax credits of up to 30 percent to projects filming in New Jersey.
That sweetener has so far been beneficial. Productions bolstered the state’s economy by more than $300 million in 2019, up from $67 million two years ago, according to the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. The film “Joker” and HBO’s “Succession” are among the recent projects filmed in the state.
NBC is leasing Meadowlands Arena from the state’s sports authority through at least March. The facility’s current use is in keeping with an initiative by Gov. Phil Murphy to make New Jersey “a premier national location for television and movie studios and productions that bring millions of dollars in jobs and goods to the state as well as increased business to local merchants,” Brian Aberback, a spokesman for the New Jersey sports authority, said in an email.
Mr. Murphy’s office did not return requests for comment about Meadowlands Arena.
A permanent film set would be a drastic deviation from the building’s original use. For almost 30 years, Meadowlands Arena was primarily known for hosting the Nets of the National Basketball Association and the Devils of the National Hockey League. In 2007, the Devils moved 11 miles south to the Prudential Center in Newark. They were joined by the Nets for two seasons before that team moved to Brooklyn in fall 2012.
In 2015, before Meadowlands Arena’s shutdown, officials said it was projected to lose $8.5 million. Still, local politicians criticized the governor at the time, Chris Christie, and the state’s sports authority for closing the arena, citing the loss of tax revenue produced by events held there.
For the next three years, Meadowlands Arena was largely forgotten by the public, although some big-name musical acts have used the building as rehearsal space. One reason the facility remained standing may have been financial circumstances. Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which was about the same age and size of Meadowlands Arena, was demolished at a cost of $10 million after the Red Wings hockey team moved out.
Large structures for retail, mills and even military bases have found new life, sometimes as office complexes, e-commerce delivery centers or even e-sports arenas. But abandoned professional sports facilities almost never find tenants of similar stature, said Julius Blatt, who analyzes such venues at CBRE, a real estate services company.
“It loses its luster, and it’s hard because there’s typically one N.B.A. or N.H.L. team in a given market,” said Mr. Blatt, who could not name another arena that was transformed into a filming space. “It’s not like a big-box retailer where if Kohl’s moves out, Best Buy could move in.”
Sometimes old arenas can be repurposed. The Summit in Houston, former home of the N.B.A.’s Rockets, now hosts a megachurch. Richfield Coliseum, where the Cleveland Cavaliers once played, was turned into national park space.
Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission, had a different idea.
In the summer of 2018, NBC was looking for a New Jersey site to film its show “The Enemy Within.” Mr. Gorelick originally scouted warehouse spaces, but they were either too small or could not be ready in time for the September start date.
When he suggested Meadowlands Arena to NBC executives, he was initially greeted with silence.
“When you’re looking for studio space, you’re looking for large open areas,” Mr. Gorelick said. “Think of an arena floor. That has no obstructions and can be as high as you want. Normally you’re looking for 24 to 40 feet for television.”
The idea intrigued Rick Butler, production designer for “The Enemy Within” and a New Jersey native who grew up attending concerts at the arena.
Mr. Butler used an abandoned building at the nearby Meadowlands Racetrack to recreate F.B.I. headquarters. Meadowlands Arena became his personal Rube Goldberg device: The scoreboard listed each scene and take being filmed, and the hockey goal horn signaled cameras to start rolling.
“The walls were thicker — acoustically it was much sounder than we had expected,” he said. “It had good A.C., ample parking space.”
For “Lincoln Rhyme,” luxury boxes overlooking the arena floor were turned into offices for production assistants, accounting, props and other departments.
The Nets locker room served as costume headquarters. Instead of jerseys and high-top sneakers, stalls were filled with a variety of leather boots, women’s sweaters and a 5-month-old black Pomeranian, which belonged to the show’s costume designer.
In front of thousands of empty plum-colored seats, the arena floor was transformed into sets replicating Upper West Side brownstones. There was even a forensics evidence room complete with biohazard infectious waste containers and a DNA sequencer.
Despite the abundance of creative opportunities, a permanent soundstage is not Meadowlands Arena’s only possible future.
The best outcome would be a destination entertainment venue — hosting a show like Cirque du Soleil — or a convention center, said Jim Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce. His organization has sent proposals for such uses to Governor Murphy.
Mr. Kirkos added that such a facility could create a path for the long-discussed construction of casinos at the Meadowlands, providing visitors options to gamble, or shop at American Dream, the megamall next to Meadowlands Arena.
American Dream could play a pivotal role in Meadowlands Arena’s future.
Over the past two decades, the mall underwent name and ownership changes before finally opening its theme park portion on Oct. 25. Coincidentally, ads for Xanadu, the original name for the mall, still hang on a Meadowlands Arena scoreboard.
Representatives for Triple Five, the company that owns American Dream, declined to discuss Meadowlands Arena, even though mall officials occupy a few offices inside the building.
“I think many people are just waiting for American Dream to prove it can be sustainable,” Mr. Kirkos said. “It just makes sense that they be the ones to operate whatever is going to be there so it doesn’t become a scheduling nightmare.”