SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/In Depth

Variety pays off as venues fill event dates

Dark days are the bane of a sports facility’s existence. Major league tenants can fill only so many dates at arenas, and for NFL stadiums and racetracks, the gap extends much wider between primary events.

The key to plugging those holes and keeping revenue flowing is special events. Arenas typically rely on concerts and family shows to pick up the slack. But even then, there are only so many tours, and some markets miss out on shows depending on the routing. It takes creativity and an aggressive marketing department to keep the lights on and the turnstiles moving. In other cases, things fall in your lap.

Barclays Center has played host to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Photo by: Angela Cranford / Barclays Center
Take Barclays Center. The Brooklyn arena went through the typical honeymoon period after opening in the fall of 2012. Now, entering its third season, the building is getting into the business of hosting awards shows and television premieres.

To date, the MTV Music Video Awards and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony have been held at Barclays Center, and arena officials are looking to grow that part of the business in a part of New York going through a renaissance.

“Brooklyn is a hot borough and tells a great story,” said Sean Saadeh, the arena’s senior vice president of programming. “I take it upon myself to land one of these awards shows each year. It fits within our long-term strategy of developing a global presence in the facility world.”

The same thing is true for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” premiere held in March at Barclays Center. HBO contacted the arena to schedule the event there two weeks before the show’s fourth season debuted on the cable network.

Barclays Center officials restricted seating to 7,000 in the lower bowl for the event and set up a big screen at one end with a stage in front. “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, as well as some cast members, attended the sold-out event. Tickets were $15 plus service fees.

“We never thought of doing anything like this,” Saadeh said. “It opened our eyes, whether it’s Netflix, Showtime or Amazon. All have unique programming where they generate enough of a cult following that you can really have a successful event.”

NFL stadiums, meanwhile, are turning to more neutral-site college football games, international soccer, rugby,
country music festivals, graduation parties, 5K runs, corporate and religious events, and dirt shows to fill their calendars.

For corporate events alone, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, for example, can net $250,000 to $500,000 from a sit-down dinner on the field for up to 10,000 people attending a convention in New Orleans, said Doug Thornton, SMG’s executive vice president of stadiums and arenas.

Stadiums are still landing summer concerts, many through the efforts of the Gridiron Stadium Network, a group of about a dozen facilities marketing their buildings as viable concert venues. To guarantee dates, some teams take financial risk upfront to help promote shows.

This year, with Kenny Chesney off the road and Taylor Swift touring overseas, newer country acts such as Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have stepped up to play more stadiums. Bryan’s June 21 concert at Heinz Field attracted more than 50,000 and set an attendance record for a country music show in Pittsburgh.

“It’s been great partnering with Live Nation and AEG and taking some inventory that they weren’t always willing to share [outside of their own venues] and bring it into our cities and showcase it,” said Jimmie Sacco, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ executive director of stadium management.

One Direction, the British pop band sensation, ramps up its first stadium tour next month after booking 27 dates alone at NFL, MLB and college football stadiums. Several NFL facilities have multiple dates and Rose Bowl Stadium stands alone with three shows.

“We weren’t surprised it went to two shows, but very surprised it went to three,” said Darryl Dunn, the Rose Bowl’s CEO and general manager.

In addition, Jay Z and Beyonce, the husband-and-wife package tour, and Eminem/Rihanna, a short tour playing three stadiums this summer, are each playing two shows at the Rose Bowl.

Large corporate events at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome can net $250,000 to $500,000.
Photo by: SMG
The seven concerts are the most the Rose Bowl has done in one year, and Dunn points to the stadium’s new premium seat additions, part of $180 million in upgrades, as one factor driving promoters to Pasadena. For those seven shows, all straight rentals, the publicly owned Rose Bowl will generate revenue through concessions, parking and admission taxes, Dunn said.

Not to be outdone, MetLife Stadium has nine concerts this year, matching the most it has had since the building opened in 2010. All told, the stadium is posting its busiest year to date, booking more than 20 non-NFL events drawing a minimum of 35,000 attendees, said Ron VanDeVeen, senior vice president of events and guest services for the joint venture running the facility.

Two events were staged at MetLife Stadium for the first time. The recent Jehovah’s Witnesses international convention recently completed a run of six nights, drawing crowds of 50,000. In addition, 62,217 attending the AMA Monster Energy Supercross in April, breaking an attendance record set at old Giants Stadium.

“Everybody is looking for anything that can fill dates and that can bring in revenue, and that’s why we’re trying to grow our special events department,” VanDeVeen said.

Those bookings extend to the vast parking lots outside MetLife Stadium, where the joint venture books events such as Color Me Rad, in which competitors run a 5K course while people throw washable paint at them. The event can draw 15,000 to 20,000, VanDeVeen said.

In the same vein, SMG’s entertainment division works closely with the dozens of arenas and stadiums it operates and their sponsors to create ancillary events such as Dodgebrawl, the Rock ’n Rib Festival and Wingapalooza, three events on the grounds outside BOK Center in Tulsa.

“I realized we had a hot new building and it was going to do well,” said John Bolton, recently promoted to SMG’s vice president of entertainment after serving as BOK Center’s general manager for its first six years. “The question was how can we take advantage of that situation and create something that would become an annual event, and in the future when [the event calendar] isn’t as heavy, we have content moving forward.”

In keeping with the theme of booking annual events and riding the hot country wave, SMG teamed with promoter Quint Davis, the mastermind behind the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, to develop a country music festival at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

The Florida Country Superfest, held June 14-15, sold 80,000 tickets over the two days and is on its way to becoming a signature event in Jacksonville, Thornton said.

The event was modeled after the successful Bayou Country Superfest at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, promoted by Davis’ company, Festival Productions, and AEG Live, his strategic business partner.

For Davis, the promoter assuming 100 percent of the risk in Jacksonville, the first challenge was forming a valid business plan before meeting with AEG to get the green light and start lining up the talent, which this year included Bryan, Aldean and, naturally, Florida Georgia Line.

“We have a track record that’s credible, but still … if you don’t master the economics, you’re not going to make it,” Davis said. “There have been concerts there before, but the last one was 10 to 12 years ago.”

Racetracks such as Michigan International Speedway are also jumping into the music festival space to keep their facilities busy between NASCAR races and other motorsports events.

After drawing 60,000 for the inaugural Faster Horses, a country music fest, the Michigan track could draw a total of 75,000 attendees for this year’s three-day event, which was set to conclude Sunday, said Roger Curtis, the speedway’s president. The 5,000 camp sites sold more than doubled last year’s total. Live Nation promoted the event.

The track also books an annual Michigan wine and beer festival that attracts 44 state wineries and 30 to 35 regional craft brewers. It also books Tough Mudder, a messy obstacle course competition.

“We look at ourselves as an entertainment facility, more than just a motorsports facility,” Curtis said. “Why not try new things? Some don’t work out, some do.”

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