Arenas to vie for concert pie – Omaha World

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Taylor Swift’s two-night stand at CenturyLink Center Omaha in May took in $1.7 million in ticket sales.

MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

By Kevin Coffey and Jeffrey Robb
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER


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CENTURYLINK
CENTER OMAHA
Where: 455 N. 10th St., Omaha
Capacity: 18,200
Opened: 2003
Cost: $291 million
(for arena and
convention center)
Tenants: Creighton men’s basketball, UNO hockey

MID-AMERICA CENTER
Where: One Arena Way, Council Bluffs
Capacity: 8,500
Opened: 2002
Cost: $74 million
Tenant: Iowa Blackhawks arena football

PINNACLE BANK ARENA
Where: Haymarket area, Lincoln
Capacity: 16,000
Opens: fall 2013
Cost: $168 million
Tenants: UNL basketball

RALSTON SPORTS
AND EVENTS CENTER
Where: Near 72rd and Q Streets, Ralston
Capacity: 3,500
Opens: fall 2012
Cost: $32 million
Tenants: Omaha Lancers hockey, UNO men’s basketball

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Click here to compare the Omaha and Lincoln arenas

* * *

Only 59.7 miles will separate CenturyLink Center Omaha and Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena. In terms of business, though, the arenas might as well be across the street from each other.

“It’s starting to get crowded,” said one expert who closely monitors the concert industry.

The industry designates an arena’s “service area” — from which it draws most of an event’s patrons — as generally an hour’s drive, so CenturyLink and Pinnacle will be squarely in the same market when Lincoln’s arena opens in 2013.

Along with those two first-class, 16,000-plus-capacity arenas, the 8,500-seat Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs is looking to reassert itself, and Ralston is building a 3,500-seat arena and expects to carve a concert market niche.

Will there be enough concerts to fill these costly, publicly owned buildings? Two years out from Lincoln’s debut, there is great uncertainty surrounding that question.

The financial success of the arenas depends on how the question is answered when event promoters start making booking decisions. Though concert fans might benefit from the competition if it helps lure acts, taxpayers will be on the hook if their home arena suffers.

The metropolitan area’s recent experience, with the Civic Auditorium teetering and the Mid-America Center losing money, shows that not every arena can be a winner all the time.

It’s clear that Omaha and Lincoln will be jockeying for position in the concert market. Local industry officials agree that Lincoln’s arena will benefit from a honeymoon phase. But Omaha’s venue has a track record of well-attended concerts, marking its place as a desirable tour stop.

A new arena attracts people who want to check out the venue, so some concert promoters may choose Pinnacle for the built-in bump in ticket sales. It’s considered the “new arena glow.”

Officials from Omaha’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority acknowledge that, but say they welcome the competition.

“Lincoln’s gonna be a shiny new toy, and they are gonna get some new business,” said Roger Dixon, president of MECA, which runs the CenturyLink Center. “Are they going to be as strong a market as Omaha? I don’t know.”

The CenturyLink Center has longtime relationships with promoters as well as the attraction of nearby hotels and plenty of loading docks and parking. Lincoln has plans for similar amenities in the Haymarket area.

Pinnacle Bank Arena and CenturyLink Center both will have sports anchor tenants to attract fans and help pay bills: University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey and Creighton University men’s basketball at one and University of Nebraska-Lincoln men’s basketball at the other. But they will compete for concerts — the real moneymakers.

“Concerts are the goose that laid the golden egg,” Dixon said.

Taylor Swift’s two-night stand at CenturyLink Center in May, for example, took in $1.7 million in ticket sales. Lady Gaga’s show in March grossed $1.6 million.

“Artists tend to go where they think they’ll make the most money,” said concert expert Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade magazine Pollstar.

Even a slightly larger venue can have an advantage, and CenturyLink has 2,200 more seats than Pinnacle will have. If tickets were $100 each, the Omaha concert could take in an extra $220,000.

Lincoln arena officials don’t seem too concerned.

When Omaha’s Civic Auditorium and Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium (now Pershing Center) opened about the same time in the 1950s, there was a fear they would cannibalize each other’s business, said Dan Marvin, arena project manager for the West Haymarket Joint Public Agency.

“That obviously didn’t happen,” he said. “I think it’s understandable that people would have concerns like that.”

Building an arena is the cool new thing in Midwestern cities.

Omaha opened the CenturyLink Center (then called the Qwest Center Omaha) in 2003 on the heels of the Mid-America Center in 2002. Des Moines built the Wells Fargo Arena in 2005 and Kansas City opened the Sprint Center in 2007.

Smaller cities are in on it, too. Sioux City has the 10,100-seat Gateway Arena, opened in 2003.

“It’s a relatively new phenomenon. All of the midlevel markets all over the Midwest have been building arenas at a rapid pace,” Bongiovanni said. More venues doesn’t mean more concerts. With a limited pool of acts, arena management teams will have to be aggressive.

“You don’t ever rest on your laurels,” Dixon said. “You do that and you get forgotten.”

Artists also typically don’t play consecutive concerts in two nearby arenas. It’s more likely that a band will play in one place two nights in a row or play in one building on the first leg of a tour and swing through the other on the second leg.

Lincoln’s arena feasibility study acknowledged that Lincoln would face “very strong” competition with Omaha and Council Bluffs. Some of the concert promoters quoted anonymously in the study were pro-Omaha and others were pro-Lincoln.

One promoter said: “We would only promote events in one venue” — Lincoln, because that promoter had made money there and lost money in Omaha. Another said the Omaha and Lincoln markets wouldn’t compete on the same level. Omaha’s size would draw concertgoers willing to drive to a bigger market.

“Omaha is likely to get the majority of the shows and the larger shows,” one promoter said.

Pinnacle Bank Arena estimates that it will book eight to 12 concerts a year, including some college-focused shows, such as Dave Matthews or hip-hop acts.

“But the mission of the building is to serve a range of people,” Marvin said. “The college crowd — obviously — family shows and different types of events much like you’d have in Omaha.”

Production and venue management company SMG, which manages Pershing, is set to sign a contract to manage the Pinnacle Arena. The company’s Thomas Lorenz, general manager at Pershing Center, said Omaha can focus on eastern Nebraska and western Iowa crowds while Lincoln can focus on towns near Lincoln and into western Nebraska.

“There’s a nice, natural division at the river,” he said.

Omaha plays host to the Olympic Swim Trials, which wouldn’t come to a city the size of Lincoln, Lorenz said. But, he added, Pinnacle will go after other events and conventions that will fit well in Lincoln, including sports. Lincoln aims to bring high school state tournaments back from Omaha and Grand Island.

It’s not just the big venues facing competition. A new 3,500-seat Ralston arena will mean competition for venues such as the Orpheum Theater and the Civic’s Music Hall, which could disappear if the aging Civic Auditorium is torn down.

When it was pitching its project to Ralston voters, project organizers suggested that the arena could draw acts such as Jason Aldean, Lady Antebellum and Bob Dylan — all concerts that the bigger arenas would be glad to get.

But Ralston Mayor Don Groesser said last week that the arena’s niche might be in attracting middle-tier acts, up-and-comers, family shows or religious concerts. Ralston has projected it will hold 24 concerts a year, and Groesser said he believes that’s attainable.

One promoter said the area could use an arena the size of Ralston’s.

“We do have some bands that have outgrown Sokol Auditorium and we don’t know where to go with them, but the arenas are really, really expensive,” said Marc Leibowitz of 1% Productions.

Though size will prevent Ralston from competing for major concerts, it has become an instant player in the sports event market a year before it opens because of its free-rent provisions.

Omaha Lancers hockey will leave the Civic Auditorium for Ralston next year, and Omaha Beef indoor football is expected to follow. UNO men’s basketball is going to Ralston instead of the Civic.

The Mid-America Center is also looking to boost usage, especially if Caesars Entertainment Corp. gets the Council Bluffs City Council’s approval Monday to manage the Mid-America Center.

“We will be very aggressive,” said Missy Hardersen, marketing entertainment manager for the Caesars-owned Harrah’s and Horseshoe Casinos in Council Bluffs. “We don’t want to see this fail.”

She said she would consider both the larger CenturyLink Center and smaller Ralston arena as competition for MAC.

Charlie Schilling, the Mid-America Center’s general manager and an employee of the current management firm, SMG, said the MAC “fills a nice niche in the marketplace in spite of the very intense competition.” The Mid-America Center, for instance, has drawn Foo Fighters three times, selling out each time.

Even so, Mid-America Center’s losses in the current fiscal year are expected to be about $775,000.

Schilling listed a string of competitors: Stir Concert Cove, the CenturyLink Center, TD Ameritrade Park’s summer music festival, Werner Park, the Holland Performing Arts Center, Sioux City’s Gateway, Des Moines’ Wells Fargo, Kansas City’s Sprint Center and the coming Pinnacle.

In light of that, Pollstar’s Bongiovanni said the competition about to heat up in the Omaha-Lincoln area is rare.

“There aren’t that many markets that are as close as yours are that have two 16,000-seat buildings. It’s gonna be interesting.”

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