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At Coliseum, fewer big shows but fewer expenses
By Matt Williams Staff Writer
News & Record

GREENSBORO — After losing its main tenant and suffering through a drought in the concert industry, officials at the Greensboro Coliseum were expecting to have a bad year.

The Greensboro Generals hockey team folded, erasing 36 home dates from the schedule. Fewer concert promoters were knocking at the door to book profitable acts.

But even with those strikes against it, the coliseum is on track halfway through its fiscal year to have a smaller operating deficit than last year’s $2.6 million.

The city-run complex operated at a loss of $1.3 million through the first six months of the city’s budget year, ending in December. Managing Director Matt Brown said that by the end of the fiscal year in June, he expects to meet the budgeted $1.8 million loss.

Historically, the coliseum has operated at a loss of $1 million to $3 million annually, deficits typically paid for by property and sales taxes.

Revenue once generated by the coliseum’s hockey fans has not been replaced.

“We thought this was going to be the worst year ever,” Brown said of the falloff in revenue. “I think our fears have come true.”

With fewer big events, Brown cut costs to keep pace with the drop in revenue.

Even without their anchor tenant, more people went to the city-run complex in the last six months of 2004 than in the same period the year before. But what has Brown concerned is what those people are not doing much of: paying for parking and buying hot dogs.

Most of the 297 events in that period were conventions and small meetings, Brown said, not big-name concerts that draw thousands willing to pay $8 to park plus an additional $7 or more to eat.

“What we’re missing are the mega events that generate the big dollars,” he said.

The chairman of the coliseum’s advisory board, Dick Grubar, said he is “not pleased anytime there’s a deficit,” but he said expressed confidence in Brown’s ability to keep it to a minimum.

Fewer big draws dampen income

Not having hockey means the coliseum starts without about $400,000 in revenue the team generated from concessions, parking and sponsorships for the season.

Big concerts haven’t saved the day, either. The coliseum generally hosts four or five big-name acts in the arena by this point in the budget year. Thus far there have been two: the duo of Jay Z and R. Kelly and country artist Tim McGraw.

It’s a trend being felt around the country as the concert industry’s few superstar acts gray into middle age.

According to the industry magazine Pollstar, none of the top five touring acts of 2004 got their start in the past decade.

Younger acts — Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera — all canceled or cut short their tours.

Last year, the coliseum caught a break in hosting Linkin Park, a group on its way up that did well in Greensboro. There aren’t any new Linkin Parks on the marquee this year, coliseum officials said.

For Brown, the lack of young talent means that promoters are having to guarantee large payments to veteran performers. That drives up ticket prices, driving down attendance, cutting into the coliseum’s moneymaking extras like parking and concessions.

Those big-artist guarantees prompted Brown to pass on two acts because he didn’t think the coliseum could make money on the shows.

Promoters for Bette Midler wanted to ask $125 for tickets.

A show featuring Dolly Parton would have sold for $75 per person.

Brown didn’t feel comfortable taking the risk that the shows would flop, so the artists went elsewhere.

Filling the gap are smaller acts like bluegrass singer Alison Krauss that can draw a few thousand to the smaller War Memorial Auditorium.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls on auditorium-level shows, but the major coliseum shows are few and far between,” said Scott Johnson, the coliseum’s booking and event director.

Another arena that lost its minor-league hockey team, the Roanoke Civic Center in Virginia, is facing the same problems as Greensboro.

With the loss of the Roanoke Express, Director Mina Boyd said she’s looking hard to fill the 36 empty dates with profitable concerts.

But Boyd is finding that many of the popular acts are happily touring in Europe, though she said country-western groups are doing well at Roanoke’s arena.

“We’ve been trying to close that gap,” she said. “If I could get maybe five or six sell-out concerts, I could be happy.”

Smaller crowds, smaller payroll

With revenue down by a third and with fewer shows requiring ushers, ticket takers and security, Brown has cut $634,628 from his payroll from last year.

Only one employee has been laid off, but other positions haven’t been filled when vacancies occur. Instead of hiring contractors to set up or clean after events, more of that work is being done in-house.

“We’ve had to ask everyone to do more,” Brown said.

With those cost savings, the coliseum is doing slightly better than it was originally forecast going into the busiest quarter of the year.

Like in Greensboro, fewer events in Roanoke means they’re also spending less, too. Boyd said the civic center will probably lose a little bit more than the approximately $200,000 it did last year.

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