When the amphitheater opens at the fairgrounds, the stage will be set for a showdown: Can the bay area support two venues?
By JEFF HARRINGTON
Published May 16, 2004
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Ed Morrell, executive director of the Tampa Bay Amphitheatre, poses in front of the amphitheater, located on the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Every day, 80,000 cars and trucks whiz by the steel-and-concrete monolith.
Some passersby on Interstate 4 have called wondering if the Florida State Fairgrounds is building a new ride.
They may not be far off base. That imposing, emerging edifice, dubbed the Ford Amphitheatre, is about to shake up the area's concert industry like a loop-de-loop on a blistering summer day.
Opening in late July, the amphitheater is heralding acts such as Rush, the Dave Matthews Band, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg and Earth, Wind & Fire. In September, Clear Channel, the entertainment conglomerate that owns the 20,000-seat venue, promises Sting, Annie Lennox and Ozzy Osbourne's 14-hour Ozzfest.
Elsewhere in town, upcoming shows are equally impressive: Eric Clapton, Shania Twain, Carole King, Jessica Simpson, Marc Anthony, Tim McGraw, Van Halen and Phil Collins, among others.
For concertgoers, it adds up to an unprecedented choice of shows this summer. That's the good news.
For concert promoters and operators of competing venues like the St. Pete Times Forum, the arrival of a powerful new player also triggers a haunting question: How much is too much?
John Stoll of independent promoter Fantasma Productions in West Palm Beach reflects on the freshly topped-off, $23-million amphitheater and he sees a monster in the making.
His prediction: Clear Channel will resort to heavy "papering" - the giveaway of tickets - to boost attendance at shows and thereby draw profits from concessions and merchandise sales. People will attend only so many concerts a year, he reasons. Smaller venues and midsize shows will suffer the most as the concert pie is carved into smaller pieces.
"People are going to have to start picking and choosing," Stoll said. "What (Clear Channel) does is suck money out of the marketplace."
Ed Morrell, the Clear Channel executive in charge of the amphitheater, disagrees. Many outdoor touring acts would not consider Tampa if not for the amphitheater, he said. "We're just going to be complementing what's already here."
Morrell also scoffs at the suggestion his company will be giving away scads of tickets. Why, he asks, would Clear Channel start a pattern of free tickets that would train future concertgoers to hold off on buying seats?
So far, the effect on the Times Forum and downtown appears to be far less damaging than Tampa and Hillsborough County officials had feared.
Yet, there is an impact.
Much of the amphitheater's early fare - the Dave Matthews Band, Rush, Britney Spears - are acts that have played in the Times Forum in the past few years. The loss of Dave Matthews, a perennial favorite which sold out within five hours, was particularly painful. Still, the Times Forum has countered this year with acts such as Phil Collins, Van Halen, Prince, Kenny Chesney and Eric Clapton. Many of them were booked by the promoting arm of Clear Channel.
That puts the Forum's concert bookings for 2004 on pace with two years ago, rebounding from an off year in the entire concert industry in 2003.
Many of the concerts will sell out, said Sean Henry, chief operating officer of Palace Sports & Entertainment, the Detroit company that operates the Times Forum and owns its primary tenant, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I'm always concerned, but I give (Clear Channel) a lot of credit for doing what they said they would do," Henry said.
"That's what the industry needs to see . . . We're looking to make this community a two-tour city (with performers) playing outdoors and indoors about six months apart."
Tampa gets a "shed"
Certainly, the amphitheater is hard to ignore.
Four giant concrete columns anchored five feet into the ground frame the seating area. More than 16,000 truckloads of soil have been hauled to the site; grading bulldozers prep for a lawn that will slope 40 feet. Eventually, workers will install about 10,000 fixed seats and two 20- by 30-foot video screens flanking the stage.
Clear Channel execs say they tried to give the complex a "space-age" design.
Many amphitheaters have flat, metal roofs. When the Ford Amphitheatre is done, the interior tarp-like roof will glow from the lights, giving motorists a treat.
"This is unlike anything else we've built. This is special," Morrell said as construction workers perched more than 100 feet above him painstakingly attached a translucent fabric "skin" to the arched steel truss framing the main seating area.
The project's price tag rose about $5-million from early estimates after soil tests indicated more land prepping work was necessary. But Morrell isn't complaining. Asked if the amphitheater will be profitable in its shortened first season, he grinned widely. "It better be," he said.
His goal is to draw 300,000 in a late-start season that begins in July and runs through October. In 2005, when the venue will be open year-round and the concert season can begin in earnest in April, Morrell projects attendance reaching 450,000. If he's right, that would make the Tampa Bay center one of the top five amphitheaters in the country.
It's been a long time coming. The bay area is the last Top 20 market to get an amphitheater. For Clear Channel, an old hand in building and operating such outdoor sites, it's No. 38 in its family.
Amphitheaters, or "sheds" as they're known in the industry, are loved by some touring artists such as Ozzy Osbourne and despised by others such as Bruce Springsteen who prefer a controlled-climate, indoor setting.
They're also despised - or at least feared - by competitors.
Already, Fantasma Productions' Stoll says Clear Channel has thrown off his marketing plans by promoting concerts four months out.
"You think, "I don't want to go on sale now for Van Halen in September. Now I've got to.' They're going to keep putting more shows on sale. It's a vicious cycle."
While the amphitheater was still on the drawing boards, Tampa and Hillsborough County officials tried to dissuade the Fair Authority from committing to Clear Channel. One economic report from the county predicted the outdoor site would take as many as 23 shows a year away from the Times Forum, or up to 65 percent of its business.
Tim Simon of the Hillsborough County's debt management office, which was assigned the task of assessing the amphitheater's impact, said county leaders conceded: "There's really not much we can do at this point."
County Commissioner Jim Norman, a vocal critic of the amphitheater, said last week that he is begrudgingly "facing the reality of the loss" and doesn't plan to seek any more impact studies.
The project strained the long relationship between Times Forum operator Palace Sports and Clear Channel, which accounts for as much as 75 percent of the Forum's bookings. After construction of the shed became a fait accompli, however, tensions died down. Clear Channel and Palace Sports renewed their corporate friendship.
"It's back to where it always should have been," Henry says.
Another reason Palace Sports may be less concerned about the amphitheater lies in the success of its core tenant in the Times Forum, the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the Lightning's continued advancement through the playoffs, each game played in the Forum could be worth $1-million or so to Palace Sports' coffers.
Clear Channel, meanwhile, has been doing its part to rebuild bridges and show its promotional arm still has plenty of business to go around. Shows that Clear Channel booked at the Times Forum this year include Jimmy Buffett, Yes, Phil Collins and Shania Twain.
Making the concert scene
Some tough questions remain unanswered.
Will most big-name artists really want to come to Tampa twice a year - once for a spring or summer outdoor show and another time for an indoor concert? And just how much money is the bay area willing to shell out as ticket prices keep rising?
Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a concert trade magazine, said the amphitheater should be a positive step toward putting Tampa Bay's concert scene on the map.
"My guess is the overall pie will probably grow" Bongiovanni said. "That doesn't mean some people aren't going to lose out, but the real winner is the public; they'll have more choice."
Norman, the county commissioner, said he hopes Clear Channel is right in forecasting Tampa can support major indoor and outdoor concert venues. But he strongly doubts it.
"There's only so much (in) concert dollars," he said. "My responsibility is to do a reality check if all these dreams don't work out . . . three to five years down the road when we have these two facilities."
That's why Norman is pushing for the county and Palace Sports to sit down in August to negotiate a new, long-term contract, one that would keep the Lightning owner in the Times Forum even if a dip in concert revenues tempts it to look for a new home.
"If they picked up and left tomorrow," Norman said, "we would have a white elephant downtown."
Seats: 20,000, including 9,900 fixed and 10,100 seats on a grassy lawn sloping to 40 feet high.
Size: 17 acres
Annual concerts: 30 to 40
Stage: 7,200 square feet
Sod: 90,000 square feet
Employees: 20 full-time and 500 part-time
Projected attendance: 300,000 in 2004
- Source: Clear Channel Entertainment
If the Ford Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds reaches its goal of drawing 450,000 concertgoers a year by 2005, it would rank among the top five amphitheaters in the country and rival the top five concert arenas in the world.
Top amphitheaters /Location/Tickets*
1. DTE Energy Music Theatre** /Clarkston, Mich. / 701,887
2. Tweeter Center at the Waterfront/ Camden, N.J. /598,048
3. Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts / Mansfield, Mass. / 560,167
4. Verizon Wireless Music Center / Noblesville, Ind. / 451,696
5. Wolf Trap Filene Center / Vienna, Va. / 442,486
6. PNC Bank Arts Center / Holmdel, N.J. / 413,832
7. Nissan Pavilion at Stone / Ridge Bristow, Va. / 403,994
8. T. Hilfger at Jones Beach Theatre / Wantagh, N.Y. / 376,910