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Published: Monday, 10/19/2009

Lucas County Arena stage set for success as midsize concert venue

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For area music fans weary of the long commute to Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus for top-draw concerts, the sparkling new Lucas County Arena is supposed to be the venue they've dreamed about.

Then Lynyrd Skynyrd canceled what was supposed to be the first music concert at the $105 million facility, and suddenly local music fans wondered if the new arena would be a savior or a sore spot. The question centers on whether the market - and local music fans - will support the kind of top-notch concerts needed to make the arena a success.

The southern rock band cited scheduling conflicts, but only 1,600 tickets were sold for the Thursday concert, according to arena officials. Despite the no-show, arena officials and national promoters are optimistic the facility will be a consistent draw for rock, pop, and country music acts.

Last weekend's nonmusic lineup, which kicked off Oct. 9, started the venue in the right direction, as three disparate performances - ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, a touring production of the Fox reality-talent show competition, So You Think You Can Dance, and the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) - drew a combined 17,000 ticket buyers to the new facility, though none of the shows sold out.

"We'd always like to sell more tickets, but the community came out to support us," said Steve Miller, general manager of SMG, which manages the Lucas County Arena and the SeaGate Convention Centre. "We're very happy about it."

After the Skynyrd cancellation, the arena's first concert, by Daughtry, is slated for Halloween. Buoyed by a chart-topping album, "Leave This Town," Daughtry tickets are selling well, Mr. Miller said, with about 4,000 of the 6,000 available seats sold.

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which most years played the SeaGate Convention Centre, makes its seasonal appearance Nov. 9 for matinee and evening shows. Thus far, 11,000 tickets have sold.

Barry Gabel, senior vice president of marketing and promotions for Live Nation, which is promoting the concerts, said he expects both Trans-Siberian Orchestra performances to sell out.

"This was hot before the new building opened, but now you have a lot more seats available," he said. "Toledo is certainly signaling they're happy it's returning."

Next year is looking stronger in terms of headline entertainment at the venue.

Mr. Miller said he's in discussions with several big-name performers for 2010, with the goal of securing between 12 and 15 concerts a year.

"I'm close to putting together Alan Jackson, Larry the Cable Guy, and Gaither Homecoming. There's been some interest in Green Day and Michael Buble," he said. "This is just the start of what we're looking at. There's plenty of acts out there touring, so we're working hard to get a diverse group of people so everybody gets a chance to see somebody they like."

The allure of performing in a new building coupled with the industry buzz that comes with sell-out shows should help elevate Toledo's status on the touring schedules of many acts, industry experts say.

It's the mathematics of a concert that matters most to artists and promoters. Which is why, with 8,000 or so available seats, the Lucas County Arena most likely will miss out on many major acts such as U2, the Eagles, and AC/DC, which generally play venues twice the size of Lucas County Arena, if not much more.

"It's all an accounting practice. The numbers have to make sense," said John Nittolo, a New Jersey-based concert promoter who has worked in the Toledo market for nearly 15 years. "And also, the promoter has to feel comfortable going into that market and charging whatever price he thinks the market will bear. The size of the arena will never bring a U2 in there, or any of the other larger acts."

Mr. Nittolo said the midsize arena is the right size for this market.

"For my money, as a promoter, I'd rather be in a smaller arena, only because of the fact I'd rather not have the mega-acts and risk," he said, noting that the Lucas County Arena can be scaled down if necessary.

"The luxury of the 8,000-seater is making it a 4,000 or 4,500-seat [venue], which makes it very doable for a lot of artists out there that may be a little too large for a theater."

The downside to this reality of arena economics, at least for area residents, is continued trips to Detroit, Cleveland, or Columbus to see acts such as U2 and Bruce Springsteen.

But the arena wasn't built with those kinds of megabands and artists in mind, Mr. Miller added.

"Eighty percent of the acts that are out there right now are playing 8,000 seats or less," he said. "I think we're going to miss out on some [concerts], but it's probably going to be two or three. It's not going to be a lot."

Conventional wisdom in the touring industry is that, going forward, the majority of touring acts will be capable of selling out 8,000 to 10,000-seat venues, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry publication Pollstar. That is a far more preferable and profitable venture than playing to half-full larger arenas and amphitheaters.

He also noted that the average number of tickets sold for a variety of touring artists places them well within the range of Lucas County Arena.

Singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, for instance, is averaging 7,400 tickets sold on his ongoing tour, and rock-pop outfit the Fray is averaging 9,200, as is recently reformed '90s rockers Creed. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists Bob Dylan and Steely Dan are selling an average of 7,400 and 6,300 tickets, respectively, which would make them comfortable fits in the new arena.

"The crucial thing is that you have a decent building to play and you have the reputation of being able to fill it," Mr. Bongiovanni said. "It doesn't do any good to have a shiny, brand-new building if everybody knows that nothing sells in Toledo."

So will the cancellation of the Lynyrd Skynyrd show, amid poor ticket sales, damage the gleaming arena's reputation?

"I wouldn't make too much over the cancellation of one show as long as other shows are doing well," Mr. Bongiovanni said. "I don't think that's going to scare [promoter] Live Nation, either. They may not be anxious to bring in the Allman Brothers if Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't do well, but that's just learning your lessons in the market."

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the new arena has nothing to do with size or local support, but with its proximity to larger cities.

Toledo is situated close enough to Detroit that many promoters of artists performing at Joe Louis Arena or The Palace at Auburn Hills sign a radius clause, which keeps touring acts out of nearby markets for up to a year and often relegates Toledo to secondary-tour status.

That's a problem similar-sized markets such as Fort Wayne, Ind., and Grand Rapids, Mich., don't have.

Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, which seats 12,000, benefits from its nearly 150-mile distance to Detroit and is among the top-10 grossing arenas in the nation.

"We call it the magical building. They built it and the people came," Mr. Nittolo said. "That's all there is to it. They get every major touring show that goes out. But also, they're not surrounded by a major city. People will drive two hours to go to a concert there.

"People will go from Toledo to Detroit, but the count is low from Detroit to Toledo."

So for now, area music fans will have to be content to see smaller-scale bands and artists and for the occasional act that wants to hit secondary markets first.

But to the arena detractors, Mr. Bongiovanni has a suggestion: It beats having no new venue at all.

"Without a venue like that, you have no chance to succeed. Now it's up to the market," he said. "If you build a nice building, it's up to the market to support it, and acts will come if you do. But it's really on the people of Toledo at this point."

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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