tampabay.com

Lightning owners know, there's more than sports at the Forum

The new owners have no plans to pull the plug on high-profile acts.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007


When news broke Tuesday that a new ownership group had purchased the Tampa Bay Lightning and the leasing rights to the St. Pete Times Forum, most questions revolved around plans for the perennially unprofitable hockey team.

But there's another important side to the Lightning's business: the concert industry.

About half of the ticket sales at the Forum come from non-sports entertainment events -- including family fare such as High School Musical: The Ice Tour and popular concerts such as the reunion of '80s pop stars The Police.

Indeed, the Forum is consistently ranked among the busiest concert arenas in the world, placing ninth on trade magazine Venues Today's list of top grossing facilities so far this year, with $15.4-million gross income on 225,145 tickets sold.

And even though the new owners can't commit to much until National Hockey League officials approve their purchase, Absolute Hockey Enterprise co-chairman Doug MacLean said he expects such events to remain a major part of the venue's offerings.

"The concert business is a huge part of the (Lightning's) overall business," said MacLean, who served as president of the Columbus Blue Jackets when they played in the 19,500-seat Nationwide Arena in Ohio. "We want it to be a busy, busy venue."

The numbers tell much of the story. If the Forum presents an average of 150 events in a year, about 30 percent will include Lightning hockey games and the Tampa Bay Storm arena football team, said Sean Henry, the hockey team's chief operating officer.

Last year, according to Venues Today, the Forum grossed $18.7-million on ticket sales of 373,493. And this year, another trade magazine, Pollstar, ranked the Forum 22nd among the world's arenas.

Henry credited the high rankings to aggressive booking by the Palace Sports and Entertainment company, which actively sought out major shows to raise the Tampa Bay area's profile as a home for big-name concerts.

Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni said such events are becoming a more important part of the business plan for arenas, which sometimes must offer money-losing deals to host sports franchises.

"Before, nobody cared about acoustics or seating arrangements, as long as you had good sight lines to the (basketball) hoop," said Bongiovanni. "But now, everyone realizes, if you're going to operate in a financially successful manner, you have to be able to produce these shows."

But Lightning president Ron Campbell noted big ticket grosses don't often add up to big profits. "It is not a lucrative business by any stretch of the imagination," Campbell said Tuesday.

That's because big headliners can take more than 95 percent of the gross from major concerts. "Our biggest one-night show in Columbus was the Ultimate Fighting championship," said MacLean, laughing. "There was ... more (profit) on the bottom line than the Rolling Stones and Elton John combined."

So why do concerts or special events at all?

Because they keep suite owners happy, they keep ground-level employees working and they raise the venue's profile with customers who might consider buying a sports season ticket in the future, Henry said.

"The state of Florida makes more money on concerts than we do, because of sales taxes," he said. "But you've got to keep that wheel of activity spinning so it might grow a little. You have to grow the pie, just so you can take home more of the crumbs."

Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.