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Volume 21 No. 2

In Depth

A year ago, Mike Tollin sat in the Manhattan office of his friend, HBO Sports President Ken Hershman, and pitched the idea for a documentary on NBA hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

An accomplished producer and director, Tollin has been part of hundreds of these types of meetings over his career. What made this meeting noteworthy, however, was that the pitch took place at HBO, a network known for sports documentary excellence that rarely looked out-of-house for ideas or production.

For 20-plus years, HBO was the media industry’s most prolific producer of high-quality sports documentaries. It employed the best filmmakers — award-winning talents like Ezra Edelman, Margaret Grossi and Joe Levine — and won the most awards.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be the focus of an upcoming HBO documentary that will use Mike Tollin as the executive producer.
Photo by: Nikara Johns
But that standing, alone atop the sports documentary business, has changed.

TV networks aren’t getting rich with sports documentaries — even the genre’s staunchest advocates say they do more for a channel’s brand than for the bottom line — but networks are spending more money and time to put them on their schedule.

ESPN, long irked at having ceded the space to HBO, has quickly become the go-to destination for filmmakers since it launched its “30 for 30” series in 2009. Sports documentaries are a big part of the schedules for premium channels Showtime and Epix. Basic cable sports channels, league-owned networks and regional sports networks all are dabbling in sports documentaries more frequently.

HBO is no longer the network of choice that viewers turn to first to watch high-quality documentaries.

“HBO was essentially the only place to work on sports documentaries,” said Aaron Cohen, a writer and producer who’s worked on Emmy-award winning documentaries at several networks, including HBO, ESPN and NBC.

“Then ‘30 for 30’ came, and these other sports networks popped up. Sports TV is flying high right now. To me, the documentaries are catching part of that. The networks need programming.”

Still, the image of Tollin doing a documentary for HBO was surprising to many in the business. Here was a consulting producer on the original 30 documentaries for ESPN’s series pitching a subject that was the type of documentary on which HBO built its reputation under former President Ross Greenburg.

The quality of work from HBO Sports’ division is undeniable. From 2007 to 2012, HBO Sports produced films that won the Outstanding Documentary Sports Emmy award five times with classics such as “Lombardi,” “The Ghosts of Flatbush,” and “Assault in the Ring.” The films were critically acclaimed and were viewer favorites, filled with classic production and the steady, trademark narration of Liev Schreiber.

When Greenburg resigned from HBO in 2011, his staff of in-house documentarians eventually followed him out the door.

Since then, the way HBO has approached documentaries has changed. It is still committed to the genre, said Hershman, who pledged to keep the channel’s sports documentary business up and running. But HBO Sports is more likely to use outside talent. The Abdul-Jabbar documentary was the first sign of this change.

“It was a personal choice to open ourselves up to the community of filmmakers and ideas that are out there,” Hershman said. “It doesn’t make sense to foreclose yourself off from the community out there of amazing filmmakers.”

The Tollin meeting was not the first time Hershman opened HBO’s schedule to outside sports producers. He’s worked with Pete Berg on the “State of Play,” a contemporary documentary series that highlights a specific sports topic. It debuted to good reviews in December with an episode called “Trophy Kids.” More episodes are planned for this fall.

Hershman acknowledges a change in the marketplace, citing the explosion in sports channels as creating a growing demand for sports documentaries. He said he is taking more meetings from outside producers, but is still relying on internal ideas like last year’s “Legendary Nights: The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” which was produced internally by HBO’s sports boxing group.

“For us, sports documentaries still remain an important component of what we do,” Hershman said. “We are held to a high standard, and we strive in everything we do to fulfill that promise. Given our legacy in sports documentaries, it’s something that needs to be cherished and protected and guarded carefully.”

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Under Greenburg, HBO generally produced three or four sports documentaries per year, and they all had a similar look and feel. The documentaries focused on older subjects ­— 2010’s “Magic & Bird” was among the most contemporary topics for a portfolio that included award-winning documentaries on the Brooklyn Dodgers and Vince Lombardi.

HBO documentaries relied on heavy use of archival footage, understated musical scores and Schreiber’s distinctive narration.

In working with outside producers, Hershman has changed that approach, as well. For the Gatti-Ward documentary, the channel hired Mark Wahlberg as the narrator, giving the production a completely different sound than previous HBO documentaries. Similarly, Tollin said his Abdul-Jabbar documentary, scheduled for release early next year, would not follow a specific mold.

For some producers, the change to using outside talent and giving producers and directors more latitude in how they create their films puts HBO’s sports documentaries closer in line to ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.

ESPN’s rapid rise in the space was by design. Company executives were irked by HBO’s dominance as far back as

This week ESPN will debut “Slaying the Badger,” which examines the rivalry between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the Tour de France.
Photo by: ESPN Films
1999, when the network launched its “SportsCentury” series under former programming head Mark Shapiro, according to several executives who worked at ESPN at the time.

Soon after taking over all areas of content decisions in 2005, John Skipper made it a point to bring the cachet of high-quality documentaries to ESPN.

“It was when Skipper took over that ESPN really made the commitment to documentaries,” said NFL executive Ron Semiao, who worked at ESPN for nearly 30 years before leaving in 2012. “He didn’t want HBO by default to be the leader in this space. He thought ESPN should be a leader in the sports documentary category. He was the one who gave the authorization to invest in that genre. It’s paid off handsomely.”

Under the direction of Bill Simmons and Connor Schell, ESPN came up with the idea for “30 for 30,” a series of 30 documentaries to celebrate ESPN’s 30 years of existence.

Rather than rely on in-house documentarians, like HBO Sports, Schell and Simmons reached out to Hollywood producers. The result was a series of high-quality, unique stories that weren’t being told, like Barry Levinson’s “The Band that Wouldn’t Die” about the Baltimore Colts marching band or Ice Cube’s “Straight Outta L.A.” about the Raiders’ minority fans. The series immediately became a pop culture hit.

“Sports fans exist in all different corners of the creative community, whether that’s feature filmmakers, documentarians, authors, actors, writers,” said Schell, a vice president and executive producer for ESPN. “One of the things that ‘30 for 30’ was able to do was open up the tent and go out to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a sports documentarian, but may consider themselves more generally a storyteller, and give them a forum to tell that story.”

The effort was so successful that a series that originally was supposed to produce 30 documentaries now has more than 60 in its library. Plus, ESPN has expanded the brand into other areas, like digital shorts and a “Nine for IX” series on female-focused documentaries that celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. “30 for 30” proved to be so popular that it’s become ESPN’s documentary brand, and it is a commercial, critical and ratings success.

Greenburg, who has since started his own production company and works with several networks, looks at it wistfully.

“The ESPN ‘30 for 30’ brand has become omnipresent as it pertains to sports documentaries,” Greenburg said. “They’ve built a brand. We had that brand at HBO. But it’s slipped away and ‘30 for 30’ has taken hold of it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many in the business.

“Once ESPN entered the marketplace in as emphatic a manner as it did, and it was proven to be accepted, other partners started to see the reaction to the marketplace,” said Ron Wechsler, NBC vice president of original programming and production, who worked at ESPN for eight years through 2011 and was part of the group that helped launch “30 for 30.”

For his part, Hershman acknowledged growing competition in the sports documentary space from more outlets than just ESPN. That’s a reason why he said HBO needs to focus on high-quality documentaries that fit within its brand.

“It’s really healthy. It’s not so much about what other people are doing that drives us, as much as staying true to our mission — create the best storytelling possible,” Hershman said.

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It’s clear that the market for documentaries is stronger than ever. CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network are each looking to sports documentaries to support their live rights deals. The reasons are simple: documentaries keep viewers engaged once live events end. NBC Sports, for example, schedules hockey documentaries after an NHL game, Formula One documentaries after an F1 race and horse racing documentaries after a Triple Crown race.

“All of those things really help round out our schedule,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN. “It’s about being sticky, too. You want people to come and continue to engage with NBC Sports Network or NBC after the event is over with.”

Golf Channel set up Golf Channel Films to produce documentaries for Golf Channel and NBC. So far, it has come out with two, “Arnie” and “Payne” on Arnold Palmer and Payne Stewart, and plans to produce several each year.

Other premium channels increasingly are looking at sports documentaries as popular evergreen programming that can be scheduled years after they’re first made.

Showtime, which is working on a feature-length documentary called “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” that will run this fall, plans to make about two or three sports documentaries per year under its Showtime Sports division that’s run by Stephen Espinoza.

“There’s a lot of sports coverage in general. But there’s not that much room for depth. What we have to bring is depth and unique access,” said Showtime Networks President David Nevins. “The fact that HBO is doing less is good for us.”

At Epix, CEO Mark Greenberg has identified sports documentaries as a main building block of programming for the network. It has found success with its “In the Moment” documentary series, with features on Lindsey Vonn and Amar’e Stoudemire. It is planning a new one with Dwight Howard.

Epix said its decision wasn’t the result of the current competitive landscape, but just more for storytelling.

“We didn’t do a competitive analysis because HBO may be pulling back on sports docs,” he said. “Good TV is good TV. The more that is there, there’s plenty for people to watch. We’re finding that this content really has legs, unlike live content that’s one and done.”

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At HBO, Hershman dismisses talk of the demise of the network’s standing. He maps out plans for the Abdul-Jabbar documentary and the “State of Play” and “Sport in America” series this year. He brings up the “Hard Knocks” and “24/7” series that have been staples on HBO’s schedule for years.

And he plans to take more meetings with producers, like the one he took in June 2013 with Tollin in Manhattan. During that meeting, Tollin could sense that Hershman was interested in the Abdul-Jabbar documentary. He sensed that Hershman still needed to be convinced that the NBA hall of famer was enthusiastic about making the film.

“I invited him to come to Los Angeles to meet with us together,” Tollin said.

That meeting occurred about a month later. The trio met at HBO’s Los Angeles office where Hershman could see firsthand Abdul-Jabbar’s eagerness to make the film.

“Mike Tollin was able to deliver Kareem and get him comfortable,” Hershman said. “We didn’t have the relationship there to accomplish that. Combine that with Mike’s filmmaking skills, and it’s an exciting project for us.”

For filmmakers, the opportunities make for a vibrant market, with more outlets to pitch ideas and showcase their work.

“I don’t know if it’s about defining the HBO Sports doc versus the ESPN sports doc versus the Showtime sports doc versus the Netflix sports doc. But they’re all buying them,” Tollin said. “They have big appetites for them. That’s what’s exciting. It’s about finding a great story and telling it as the story dictates.”

The sports documentary market is as frothy as it’s ever been, thanks largely to the sports channels that are increasingly finding room on their schedules for the genre.

“The networks are definitely eyeing sports documentaries, and they’re definitely taking advantage of it,” said former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, who has deals to produce documentaries for several channels.

NBC followed race coverage with a Kurt Busch documentary.
But the sports networks are using different strategies when it comes to commissioning sports documentaries. Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network use sports documentaries to supplement their live rights, while ESPN uses its “30 for 30” brand as a storytelling vehicle that is not dependent on whether its subject is on ESPN’s schedule.

“It probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense for us to do a baseball doc. Nobody’s coming to NBC Sports or NBC Sports Network for baseball or the NBA,” said NBC and NBCSN Programming President Jon Miller. “We’re going to focus on the sports that people are coming to us for so that they know when they come that they’re going to be well-entertained and treated well.”

For NBC, that means more documentaries like “Kurt Busch: 36,” which followed the race car driver as he competed in the Coca-Cola 600 and Indianapolis 500 on the same day this year. NBC, the broadcast channel, carried the half-hour show after the Formula One race in Montreal June 8. NBCSN carried a one-hour “director’s cut” later in the month.

“We were able to take advantage of the lead-in and expose people to it,” Miller said. “Plus, we had the benefit of getting multiple uses out of a documentary that really helps benefit both NBC and NBCSN and also serves to promote IndyCar racing and NASCAR racing.”

Fox Sports executives outline a similar strategy for its channel, Fox Sports 1, that launched last August. Fox Sports 1 has commissioned documentaries that support the company’s live rights deals. As an example, Michael Bloom, Fox Sports senior vice president of original programming, brought up an upcoming documentary he is doing with MLB Productions called “Closer Kingdom.” The documentary will focus on baseball’s late-inning pitchers. Fox Sports holds rights to live MLB games including the World Series.

“We’re a young network. We’re growing. It has to make sense to support our live event programming,” Bloom said.

ESPN takes the opposite approach in its “30 for 30” series, focusing more on storytelling than supporting live rights. In fact, the next documentary to come out of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series will be a story from the Tour de France, even though NBC holds the rights to that event. “Slaying the Badger” is scheduled to debut Tuesday.

“You may not like cycling, but this is an incredible story,” said Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer at ESPN Films. “It could be easy to fall into the trap of doing all films about college football or the NBA because we’ll attract more viewers. What we’re trying to accomplish in this series is to continue to be interesting.”

ESPN’s strategy is more in line with premium channels, like HBO, Showtime and Epix, than other basic cable channels. Premium channels are more interested in finding good stories rather than supporting other programming.

“We’re looking for the really important stories — ones that fit our idea of what can cut through the clutter, be important and elevate the HBO brand,” said HBO Sports President Ken Hershman. “Those are not easy to find.”

Added Showtime Networks President David Nevins: “It’s not the most valuable content to own. It plays really well on our network and our subscribers seem to like it. We get a lot of viewers. And they can be evergreen. They can live on the Showtime Anytime platform for a long time. Sports documentaries have an afterlife in a way that topical sports content doesn’t.”

The NFL is reaching into the worlds of Hollywood and popular music for two documentary series that the league hopes will broaden its appeal beyond football fans.

One documentary carries the working title “The Making of a Super Bowl Halftime Show” and aims to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the entire process around the halftime event — from picking talent, through rehearsals, to the actual performance.

The NFL’s other project carries the working title “Collaborators” and is patterned after the Sundance Channel’s acclaimed series “Iconoclasts.” The league has been talking with notable Hollywood filmmakers interested in co-producing their projects with NFL Films.

One documentary will explore the making of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Photo by: Getty Images
“These projects give us the ability to reach a broader base,” said Ron Semiao, vice president of programming and media events for the NFL Network.

Both projects will debut in 2015, but the league now is looking for partners in the projects — ranging from musical artists to top Hollywood talent. NFL officials would not disclose the status of the talks or detail the business model they are offering outside producers.

League executives also have not decided where the documentaries will be shown. Semiao said the NFL is looking into different distribution options, including theatrical releases or online through Amazon or Netflix. The documentaries likely will appear on several outlets, much like “Hard Knocks,” which debuts on HBO and re-airs on NFL Network.

“We’re trying to service the increasing on-demand consumption habits of when I want it, where I want it, how I want it,” he said. “We’ve certainly seen how the multiplexing of content grows audiences. The more opportunity that you give people to consume it, the better you’re serving them.”

The NFL will co-produce the Super Bowl halftime documentary with the artist that it picks to perform during February’s game in Glendale, Ariz. Production discussions already have been part of the overall negotiations to book an act, and Semiao said the idea has been well-received so far.

Semiao would not divulge which musical acts the league has contacted. At February’s game in New Jersey, Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the halftime act; 115.3 million viewers tuned in to the halftime show on Fox.

The NFL hopes to reach an agreement on talent early in the upcoming season, probably by September. The resulting documentary will be released next April around the NFL draft. While the NFL will co-produce the documentary with the selected act, Semiao said it would not look like a traditional NFL Films production.

“This would be something where we would go to a documentary filmmaker that has a certain expertise and experience in the music business because that’s obviously an important part of it,” he said. “We think that is the type of thing fans would really like — not just fans of the NFL, but music fans as well.”

The NFL plans to produce a couple of episodes of “Collaborations” per year starting next year, though the league is not close to announcing the filmmakers they plan to work with.

Some potential ideas would be to have people such as New England natives Ben Affleck and Matt Damon produce a documentary involving the Patriots or have noted Cowboys fan Jamie Foxx do something on Dallas.

“You take really accomplished artists from different genres, but their common thread is their love of professional football,” Semiao said. “As we’ve talked to some of these artists, they love the work of NFL Films and they love the idea of the opportunity to work with them. Artists love working with other quality artists.”

Filming football scenes can be dangerous, as the first day of shooting a series of plays for the new movie “When the Game Stands Tall” proved — and even when the director in charge is Allan Graf, an offensive lineman for the 1972 national champion USC Trojans.

Both of the stand-in football players for actor Alexander Ludwig, who plays Chris Ryan in the docudrama, were injured when the football footage was shot in Louisiana in the spring of 2013.

The movie features Jim Caviezel (right) portraying coach Bob Ladouceur.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
“The first pulled a hamstring, the other rolled an ankle,” said David Zelon, an executive vice president of Mandalay Pictures and producer of the movie. “By the end of the first day, we had two more stand-ins on flights to New Orleans. I can smile about it now, because the rest of the shoot went pretty smoothly. It helps when you have Allan Graf. He’s the best in the business of directing sports scenes.”

Graf, 63, was hired by Zelon as a second unit director to film the football scenes. For the last quarter-century, Graf has been a go-to man for directing football action for movies. After Graf graduated from USC, he was a stand-in for Dick Butkus for the Bears legend’s movie and television performances and acted in 1970s football movies like “The Longest Yard” and “North Dallas Forty.” He went on to become a stunt man before getting the assignment to direct the football action in the comedy “Necessary Roughness” in 1991.

Graf has been directing football plays for motion pictures steadily ever since, with “When the Game Stands Tall” becoming the 16th movie featuring gridiron action he shot. His other work includes the football featured in “Any Given Sunday,” “Jerry Maguire,” “The Program,” “The Waterboy” and “Friday Night Lights.”

“It can be grueling for everyone, but I love what I do,” Graf said. “When we were doing ‘Any Given Sunday’ with

Oliver Stone, Lawrence Taylor said to me, ‘Allan, I never got hit this hard when I was playing in the NFL.’ But my feeling is, it’s got to look real, or you don’t have a movie. I’m not going to shoot one of those dumb scenes where players are yelling at each other across the line of scrimmage. It’s not real because, well, in football, it’s illegal.”

“When the Game Stands Tall,” which is expected to be released in more than 2,000 theaters on Aug. 22, is based on the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes. It is the true story of head coach Bob Ladouceur, who led the De La Salle High School team in California to a 151-game winning streak.

Ladouceur is played by Jim Caviezel (Bobby Jones in “Stroke of Genius” and star of the TV show “Person of Interest”). Caviezel played basketball at Bellevue College, and his father, James, played at UCLA under John Wooden. The actor’s connection to Wooden shaped his performance in the movie.

“My dad stayed in touch with Coach Wooden throughout his life,” Caviezel said. “Those types of coaches who were great teachers helped me develop my portrayal of Coach Ladouceur, who’s a living legend.”

The movie, directed by Thomas Carter, cost an estimated $15 million. The budget was around $20 million, but the producers received close to $5 million in state tax credits by filming in Louisiana.

Graf helped keep the movie on budget. He usually is able to complete the filming of a maximum of three football plays each day to his satisfaction. But Zelon told him that, to meet budget, Graf needed to get six done daily. The second unit director was assisted by a new piece of technology: a motorcycle in which cameras can be attached in the front and back. A stunt man drives the motorcycle while a cameraperson rides along and operates the cameras.

Allan Graf directed the football action scenes.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
“It’s a great new apparatus,” Graf said. “Usually, you just have a camera on a dolly to follow action down the sidelines. But with the bike, we were able to get some awesome shots of receivers catching long passes and players breaking free for touchdowns. I hope to get another football movie soon so I can use it again.”

Football movies are far from sure things at the box office. “Remember the Titans” grossed $115 million in 2000, making it the most successful football movie of all time. (“The Blind Side,” which grossed $300 million globally, is considered more of a family drama than a pure football movie.) This past April, “Draft Day,” a drama directed by Ivan Reitman with complete cooperation from the NFL, grossed $29 million — slightly over its production budget.

Zelon is optimistic about the bottom line for “When the Game Stands Tall.” The film has faith-based elements, with Ladouceur and the team’s spirituality featured throughout scenes of the team’s winning streak, along with the struggles of the team and the coach after the streak ends. Caviezel has reached the Christian audience before, playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” which grossed more than $600 million worldwide.

Zelon was successful in 2011 with “Soul Surfer,” a true story with faith-based elements about a young woman who returns to professional surfing after losing her left arm from a shark bite. “Soul Surfer” cost $15 million to make and grossed more than $43 million. Zelon would love to see “When the Game Stands Tall” match the success of “Soul Surfer.”

While volunteering for his son’s football team at Santa Monica High School in 2009, Zelon discovered a hardcover

Real-life coach Bob Ladouceur (left), producer David Zelon and actor Jim Caviezel on the set.
Photo by: Sony Pictures
copy of the book “When the Game Stands Tall” buried beneath a pile of dirty pads.

“I sat there, reading the book on the floor of that smelly locker room, and I was transfixed,” Zelon said. “It had the potential to be a good movie.”

Zelon contacted Hayes, the author, but had some concerns. “I asked Neil, ‘Where’s the narrative?’” Zelon said, “because you can’t have a movie about a team that never loses. There’s no drama, no conflict.”

Hayes told him about the paperback version of the book that was published in 2005. It contains a 30-page epilogue that details what happened with the De La Salle team after the 151-game winning streak ended in 2004. It includes a death, a serious health setback for Ladouceur, and a return to winning for the team. After the meeting, Zelon optioned the rights to the book and got the funding from Mandalay Pictures and Affirm Films.

Five years after Zelon first read the book, the movie version of “When the Game Stands Tall” will arrive in theaters.

“It’s an inspiring film because it’s not about the wins or losses but the life lessons that apply way beyond a high school football team,” Caviezel said. “It’s about overcoming challenges in life.”

Zelon added, “I’m hoping we catch lightning in a bottle with the movie. We’re opening the week before high school football starts. It’s a family film with a message that resonates. The movie has tested well with mothers, and moms are the best word-of-mouth out there.”

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.”