ECONOMIC OVERDRIVE

Fans' disposable income inspires venues to up their offerings in search of broadest possible audience

By Gil Kaufman

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Ed Sheeran, who once opened stadium shows for Taylor Swift, had a record-breaking year, headlining stadiums across the globe. (Getty Images)

Flush times lead to full tills. During a year when tax cuts and near-record lows in unemployment grabbed headlines, venues from coast to coast reaped the rewards, thanks to packed houses and expanded offerings that lured in record crowds.

After years of fretting about the lack of new bankable headlining acts, a fresh generation of stars, including Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars, and touring productions of hit Broadway show “Hamilton” made for a very good year for American venues. Add in the unstoppable momentum of one of rock’s most bankable stars, Bruce Springsteen — whose “Springsteen on Broadway” will conclude a 236-show run at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York in December — and you have definitive proof that audiences voted in droves with their wallets in 2018.

Doubling Down in ATL
Atlanta’s Fox Theatre has long thrived in the crowded urban Southern market, where President and CEO Allan Vella is often competing with a handful of venues to land dates at the 4,665-capacity theater, which landed at No. 1 on VenueNow’s Top Stops ranking for 2018 in the 2,001- to 5,000-capacity category. With a mix of savvy programming, a clever in-house expansion and mini-residencies from beloved acts, though, the Fox had a year even Vella couldn’t have predicted.

The main reason:  the continuing frenzy surrounding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hip-hop history musical “Hamilton,” with 24 performances that helped the Fox sell more than 723,000 total tickets in 2018, with grosses of $57 million over 205 shows.

“We had one of the earlier stops on the [“Hamilton”] tour and they were all sold out, which didn’t surprise me,” he said. What he wasn’t expecting was the incredible boost it gave to the Fox’s subscription base for its Broadway Across America series. Before “Hamilton,” the Fox had 13,000 subscribers to the always-popular series, but that number doubled to 26,000 in a single week thanks to Miranda’s hit, which he called amazing.

Vella hasn’t seen anything like that in his three decades in the business, noting that like a sports team’s crucial season-ticket base, that kind of boost makes every other show more profitable, as those 26,000 subscribers also attended the eight other shows in the series, meaning more concession sales and full seats for every show.

Even more impressive was that after “Hamilton” ended its run, the dropoff in Broadway subscribers was less than 6,000, meaning the Fox retained 20,000 subscribers. “Hamilton” at the Fox had three of the top four spots in its Hot Tickets category, with productions at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, the Civic Center in Des Moines and the Smith Center in Las Vegas filling up eight out of the 15 slots on the list.

Those returning and new patrons also saw some major changes at the venue, which instituted mandatory bag searches, metal detector walk-throughs and a backpack ban in response to a series of deadly incidents at live music events over the past few years. “We took action after the attack at the Bataclan (in Paris in 2015), and we’ve always taken a stronger stance than some other theaters,” said Vella, who noted that the Fox also added more cameras, hired Transportation Security Administration and law enforcement professionals to work events and increased staff training for everything from evacuation to active shooter and fire drills.

Vella took some chances that paid off in 2018, from a Roy Orbison hologram concert that sold more than 2,000 tickets, to multiple nights by a variety of acts including Nine Inch Nails, Anita Baker, Alabama and Joe Bonamassa and the addition of a new in-house club that provided a revenue boost on show nights.

The Marquee Club presented by Lexus — built inside the Fox in a space that formerly housed a jazz club — is a semiprivate lounge that offers patrons private bars and restrooms, a high-end buffet, a rooftop terrace and entrance 90 minutes before showtime for a $65 upcharge on the price of a ticket.

“It’s really happening and [patrons] love being able to come and go as they please,” he said. As for the effect on the Fox’s bottom line, Vella said 2018’s numbers speak for themselves. “Over 205 performances in one year is a really strong number. … Usually in a good year we do around 600,000 (tickets sold) and we did 123,000 more than normal,” he said, likely because of the very low unemployment in Atlanta (3.8 percent as of May 2018) and the city’s economically diverse population, which is increasingly moving into the city core from the suburbs and closer to the Fox in Atlanta’s Midtown.

A Man And His Guitar
While reliably strong draw Taylor Swift was able to sell more than 340,000 tickets for six shows at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., for her show, her former opening act, Ed Sheeran, proved that a man and his guitar can pull in equally impressive numbers for a concert with considerably less razzle-dazzle.

Sheeran grossed nearly $29 million during four shows at Wembley Stadium in London to land at No. 2 on the Hot Tickets tally for venues greater than 30,000; he had four other spots in the top 15 to Swift’s four total. Mars also had a massive run of it with his 24 Karat Gold world tour and came in at No. 2 in the 15,001-30,000 category, thanks to a quartet of shows at Sitama Super Arena in Japan that grossed north of $15 million; Mars filled three other spots on that list.

But when it comes to a man and his guitar, there is simply no competition for The Boss. Springsteen’s beyond-sold-out run at the Walter Kerr in New York City ran the board in the 2,000-or-less category, filling all 15 slots. 

MetLife Living Large
With the increasing number of pop, rock and country acts bringing their shows to stadiums, one of biggest beneficiaries was East Rutherford, N.J.’s MetLife Stadium, the only U.S. stadium to place in the top three among Top Stops venues with capacity of 30,000 or more. Nine reported shows brought in 477,608 attendees and $57.8 million in grosses, thanks to big name doing big numbers, according to stadium President and CEO Ron VanDeVeen.

Those dates includes three shows from Taylor Swift, two by Ed Sheeran and two by Jay-Z and Beyonce, as well as shows by Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan and the Hot 97 Summer Jam, nearly tying the record for the most shows at the stadium (11 in 2016). “When acts can come in and do multiple plays and sell in excess of 100,000 tickets at your venue, that shows the strength of their connection to their fans and their music,” said VanDeVeen, noting that the Sheeran and Bryan dates were on those artists’ first national stadium tours.

This year’s highlights came down to the records set by those artists, including Swift making history as the first female act to play three consecutive shows at MetLife, while setting another record for concert grosses at the venue. Along with Swift and Chesney’s runaway success and the near-record amount of traffic, VanDeVeen said, 2018 saw continuing change in how those tickets get into fans’ hands.

Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program and mobile ticketing had “a big impact on how tickets were sold for many of these shows,” he said.

New Categories for New York Market
Atlanta is a one-horse town compared to New York, which is why the 2018 rankings for Long Island’s NYCB Live: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Brooklyn’s Barclays are even more impressive.

Barclays landed at No. 8 on the list of venues with 15,001-30,000 capacity, thanks to 813,230 visitors and a gross of more than $66 million from 84 shows, while the refurbished NYCB hit No. 5 in the 10,001-15,000 range with 472,256 visitors and more than $26 million in gross for 147 events.

Barclays hosted a sold-out three-night stint from Drake, as well as two shows by Mars, sellouts for Lorde and Sam Smith and capacity gigs for rising electronic dance music and Latin stars Kygo and J Balvin, respectively, according to Keith Sheldon, who oversees programming and content for both buildings. “When you’re in a must-play market, Barclays becomes an aspirational play, so we’ll take all touring content, but we don’t just rely on that,” said Sheldon of his efforts diversifying the 6-year-old building’s offerings and keep registers ringing.

That meant catering to Barclays’ unique Brooklyn cache by hosting the WWE’s SummerSlam event, as well as the ACC men’s basketball tournament for the second year; the first Overwatch League championship, which drew sellout crowds for the esports event over two days; and another esports event, ESL One New York. “We’re at the forefront of event categories that are not typical for other buildings,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to draft off of Brooklyn’s ‘cool’ factor, and we’re making sure to bring in events that reflect that youth culture in the borough. With esports we can find a way to grow outside of the traditional pie. ”

As it was at the Fox, security was on the minds of executives at BSE Global, which runs both Barclays Center and  NYCB Live: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. They hired 38-year New York Police Department veteran Steven Powers as vice president of security to coordinate with local and regional law enforcement on protective measures across the company’s buildings.

This year also brought some other fan-friendly changes that he thinks will expand Barclays’ appeal, including becoming the first sports and entertainment company to eliminate single-use plastic straws and a renewed focus on healthy food offerings, including the opening of the WW Freestyle Cafe: BKLYN, a Mediterranean-focused restaurant from the company formerly known as Weight Watchers and chef Cat Cora that will include healthy menu items. Also new are kids menus at select stands offering healthy options and new stands with vegan, vegetarian and kosher options.

Since the Nassau coliseum reopened in 2017 after an 18-month, $180 million renovation by parent company BSE Global, Sheldon said, it has been on an epic run with shows by hometown hero Billy Joel, as well as Metallica, Jay-Z and Elton John and unique events catering directly to the Long Island community. Those offerings range from a craft beer festival and seasonal Blood Manor haunted house in the building’s 65,000-square-foot exhibition hall, the wildly popular first all-women’s WWE Evolution pay-per-view event, the New York Open tennis tournament  and the first Longines Masters of New York indoor equestrian event. “We didn’t know what to expect with that one, but coming out of year one it will definitely be an annual event,” he said.

The turnout for that event was a sign to Sheldon that the economy is definitely favoring the bold when it comes to expanding programming. “The obvious answer is a vibrant economy (and) more discretionary spending (boosted attendance), and I’m sure it’s also the case on a more national level,” he said. “Brooklyn is at the epicenter of the largest media market in the country and in many respects we’d thrive no matter the climate, but we’re selling fun and doing that day in and day out. Whether it’s an escape from the reality of the world or an opportunity for someone to spend their hard-earned dollars, that’s what we do.”