A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN
How Kenny Chesney became a market maker for major league stadiums
By Don Muret
Kenny Chesney plays on a June night during this year’s Trip Around the Sun tour, which grossed nearly $115 million. (Jill Trunnell)
Mark Donovan panicked.
Country superstar Kenny Chesney, as usual, was playing before a packed stadium. On this particular night, about 12 years ago, it was Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. Midway through the show, Chesney ran to the side of the stage to grab Donovan, a senior executive with the club, to help sing “Fly, Eagles Fly,” the team’s fight song.
“I told him, ‘Kenny, there’s no … way I’m going out on stage in front of 50,000 people,’” recalled Donovan, now president of the Kansas City Chiefs. “He gave me a look that I have seen a few other times — always in tough negotiations. He says, ‘You’re going to come out with me to sing the song, or next year I’m playing across the street,’” at Citizens Bank Park.
Donovan accepted the invitation. He walked out to the front of the stage, asked the fans to help sing the ditty, sang the first three words — “Fly, Eagles fly!” — dropped the microphone and walked back to the stage wings while Chesney led the crowd through the rest of the song.
For Donovan, the old adage of “be careful what you wish for” came true. The night before the concert, he had cocktails with Chesney and Louis Messina, Chesney’s longtime tour promoter. While Chesney played some music off his new album, Donovan suggested it would be cool for Kenny to sing the Eagles’ song during the show.
Cool indeed, right, Mark?
“It was a fun experience, but what I always tell people is, that’s the business side of Kenny,” Donovan said. “He gets it.”
The unforgettable moment helped cement Donovan’s relationship with Chesney, one that extended to Kansas City after Donovan took a job with the Chiefs in 2009. It’s just one example of the strong bonds formed between the artist and the teams and the facilities he’s played multiple times over the past 15 years.
This past summer in Pittsburgh, the Steelers marked Chesney’s 10th performance in 14 years at Heinz Field when he arrived on his Trip Around the Sun tour, which in total drew nearly 1.3 million fans and grossed almost $115 million. The same was true at Ford Field in Detroit.
The shows have become one big family reunion for the teams and the production crews that have worked with Chesney for 20 years.
In Greater Pittsburgh alone, the economic impact extends to the hotels, bars, restaurants, airports, rental cars and ride hailing companies in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, said Jimmie Sacco, the Steelers’ executive director of stadium management.
“It’s a big day for boat rentals,” Sacco said, referring to folks who hang on the Allegheny River next to Heinz Field on the days of Chesney concerts.
The Steelers are a family-owned organization dating to the NFL’s early days. Sacco said that when team Chairman Dan Rooney died in April 2017, Chesney was among the first people to call the Steelers and offer his condolences.
“Kenny always looked forward to saying hello to the Rooney family, and especially Dan, every year,” Sacco said. “He held a fondness for Mr. Rooney.”
Along the way, Chesney helped put many stadiums on the map with his daylong celebrations of live music, according to NFL and MLB team officials.
The Minnesota Twins, for example, have played host to Chesney three times at Target Field since it opened in 2010.
“His performances elevated our visibility as a major concert venue,” said Kip Elliot, the Twins’ chief administrative officer. “He really got us off on the right foot in getting into the stadium concert business. Concessions are very strong, and we have made a decent amount of money. We hope to have him back again.”
For more than a dozen NFL teams, it all started in 2005, the year the Gridiron Stadium Network was formed to help book summer concerts at their facilities. At the time, many of those buildings were just a few years old, such as Heinz Field, Ford Field and Lincoln Financial Field. All three venues opened in the early 2000s.
Working closely with The Messina Group, the Steelers, among other teams, used Chesney as a test model for an on-field show at their facility. For some teams and buildings, that included assuming financial risk upfront to secure the date, according to Sacco.
At the time, it was something new for teams that would typically book concerts as a traditional rental in which they generated revenue from parking and concessions. By taking risk, there was a greater upside for the teams to gain a greater share of revenue in the deals they signed with promoters.
Plus, they had a much better chance of securing a Chesney date by having “skin in the game.” The Steelers and Chiefs have successfully adopted the model.
“Kenny showed that our stadiums are doable and there are partnerships to be formed,” Sacco said. “Stadium shows are back and getting bigger and better.”
Fifteen years later, those teams wearing the promoter’s hat have become very good at marketing Kenny Chesney shows, GSN’s consultant Jeff Apregan said.
“One of the great benefits is they have all of the team’s assets [and customer database] to bring to the table, which is really important,” he said. “Chesney’s team understands and appreciates it. The teams want it to be a great event. They want the artist to be happy and (to) want to come back.”
Arrowhead Stadium has played host to Chesney on six occasions, starting in 2011, two years after Donovan arrived in Kansas City. The facility, which opened in 1973, had gone through a $375 million renovation. Arrowhead had booked about 50 concerts over the years but had not had an on-field show in about a decade.
That changed after Donovan approached Chiefs owners the Hunt family and told them the timing was right to get back into the concert business. Donovan knew there was no better person to relaunch live music at Arrowhead than Chesney, and he connected with Messina to get a deal done.
The July 2011 show grossed $4.36 million in tickets sales with attendance of 52,523, which at the time was the fifth-biggest crowd for an Arrowhead concert.
“For Kenny, it was just another show; he does this every time he tours,” Donovan said. “For us, it was really powerful. At the venue, it was a magical night. Fans still talk about it. It put us back on the map with everybody in the touring business, proving that we could put 50,000 in the stadium in Kansas City.”
Since that time, Chesney has set attendance records twice at Arrowhead, in 2015 and 2018. Taylor Swift broke Chesney’s mark during her recent show at Arrowhead, “so we expect that when Kenny comes back he’s going to break Taylor’s record,” Donovan said. “It’s trending in the right direction.”
How does Chesney keep the stadium shows fresh? Overall, it’s his brilliance as a performer, in addition to mixing a variety of support acts on the bill, say those who have booked him multiple times.
“Kenny understands his audience and how to perform to that audience,” Donovan said.
“There’s really very few like that who really light up the stage that way. He’s developed sort of this experience that is as much about the day as it is about anything else, and that’s something we celebrate here in Kansas City, when you think about the traditions of Arrowhead and tailgating. Kenny fits that well.”
Apregan said people know what they’re going to get in a full day of live music, and the tickets are priced at an affordable level to provide great value. Teams add to the experience by upgrading pre-event hospitality outside the venue. The Steelers did it this year with Tailgate Guys, a third-party vendor.
“One of the things that has changed in country music over the last 15 years is that it’s accessible to young people,” he said. “Twenty years ago, country music wasn’t something that a 20-year-old would be thinking about going to see. I’d go to a stadium … and feel like I’m the oldest guy in the place.”
“The genre has done a lot to move itself forward,” Apregan said. “Kenny, in particular, headlining all these stadiums and having the sustained success he’s had … it’s the kind of threshold that a lot of other artists look to and hope to accomplish the same thing.”
What’s the future hold for the Kenny Chesney stadium franchise? At what point does the party end?
“It’s a great question, and I’m not equipped to answer it,” Apregan said. “He can pretty much do what he wants, including sitting on the beach. But he’s certainly worked hard. Look at all the tours. He hasn’t slowed down yet. We love guys that work.”
Said Sacco: “He was energized this year. He’s still got it, and anybody that’s counting him out, shame on them.”
For more on Kenny Chesney’s record-setting Trip Around the Sun tour from an artist’s perspective, pick up the new Pollstar.