WICHITA — Just three of North America’s top-25 touring acts entertained crowds at Intrust Bank Arena in 2011.
Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra visited Wichita’s downtown arena in its second year. But the rest of the Top 25 acts took a pass on Wichita, though five played at the arena in 2010.
As the arena enters its third year, the community is eager to see a more robust — and diverse — lineup at the 15,000-seat venue.
A.J. Boleski, its general manager, says he wants the same.
After a strong first year, the number of events at the arena dropped from 110 in 2010 to 87 in 2011.
The arena’s bottom line landed in the red several months in 2011, but events in the fourth quarter bolstered its performance. Boleski said he expects to end 2011 in the black, despite fewer events and a month that the arena sat empty.
“We want big acts like all the citizens do,” Boleski told The Eagle. “We want the expectations to be high.”
Boleski has heard the complaints: that the arena books only country concerts and that it hasn’t attracted many rock, pop and urban acts.
That many top acts didn’t stop in Wichita is a disappointment to arena backers. Lady Gaga, for example, played BOK Center in Tulsa and Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, both SMG facilities. She also played Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Boleski said Intrust Bank Arena tried to get her, too, but couldn’t.
Some people are asking why.
Is there a limited pool of people in the Wichita area willing to spend a chunk of their paychecks to see a concert? The average ticket price for Lady Gaga, for example, was about $97.
“We pursue every act that is planning to tour arenas and whether or not we get an act is usually related to timing, routing, and whether or not promoters and agents think a particular show will sell tickets in our market,” Boleski said.
If promoters such as Live Nation and AEG Live don’t think a show will fare well, they won’t take the risk.
Steve Shaad, former general manager of the Wichita Wranglers baseball team, helped lead the community’s charge for a downtown arena.
He pushed voters to support the 30-month, 1 percent sales tax that paid for the $205.5 million arena.
“The first year was a big bonus and they did better than expected,” Shaad said last week. “The second year was a little bit of a disappointment.”
The arena made $2 million and change in its first year. Under the county’s contract with SMG, SMG keeps the first $450,000 of profit.
The county keeps the next $450,000. After that, any profit is split 60/40 – the county keeps 60 percent, and SMG 40 percent. SMG is responsible for any losses — a unique contract in the industry.
SMG gave the county a check for just more than $1.1 million after its first year.
Even as he was sharing great numbers with commissioners throughout 2010, Sedgwick County Assistant Manager Ron Holt always ended with an asterisk: Don’t expect the same thing next year.
Shaad said he and other supporters knew the second year wouldn’t match up, but the financials are still hard to swallow.
Firm numbers for the year likely won’t be available until February.
Shaad said he was pleased to see the arena attract more sporting events, such as Wichita State University and Kansas State University men’s basketball games and NCAA women’s tournament games.
He’s been to almost all the sporting events, he said, including Wichita Thunder hockey games.
“I’m not as big of a concertgoer, and I’m not a big country fan,” Shaad said. “You’ve got to market to what the market is. The country acts seem to market well.”
Gary Bongiovanni at Pollstar, a trade publication and website that covers the concert industry, said touring seems to looking better for this year, with more acts are hitting the road.
The year the arena opened, 2010, was the first time since 1995 that concert ticket sales declined, Pollstar’s end-year report for 2010 said.
Artists took a more conservative approach in 2011, “which in some cases means playing fewer shows,” Bongiovanni said. “This year was better than last year overall for the industry. But acts are doing fewer concerts. Promoters are saying ‘We’re not going to take as many risks.’ ”
The total gross for the top 100 North American tours was $1.12 billion, an increase of 16.2 percent.
Ticket prices went up an average $6.25 to a record $67.02, Pollstar said in its midyear 2011 report.
“There are two things about a new arena,” Bongiovanni said. “It brings in that first-tier of entertainment … that wouldn’t normally play a market like Wichita. It also brings first-tier ticket prices. (Wichitans) may not be used to the kind of ticket prices” such shows demand. “If you want to play in the big leagues, it’s going to cost you.”
Country acts, Bongiovanni said, tend to price tickets more economically than other types of shows.
Taylor Swift, one of 2011’s biggest acts, played Wichita in the arena’s first year. She didn’t come back the second, but she also didn’t make repeat visits at other arenas in the region, typically returning every other year.
Other country acts, such as Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, are making annual visits.
“It wouldn’t make sense unless you’re extremely popular to play Wichita every year,” Bongiovanni said.
The local economy also is a big factor. Wichita’s economy — both ups and downs — tends to lag that of the coasts
“If things were bullish there and all the shows were selling, you’d have a lot more events coming to Wichita,” he said.
Acts also have more choices than ever in the Midwest. There’s CenturyLink (formerly Qwest) Center in Omaha, a new arena going up in Lincoln, Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, BOK in Tulsa and Chesapeake in Oklahoma City.
“Increasingly more and more secondary markets like Wichita in the Midwest now have state-of-the art buildings,” Bongiovanni said. “If you’re only going to play 30 or 40 dates in the country, you have a lot of choices. If you didn’t have that new arena, the shows you do have, would they have even come?”
Bongiovanni was surprised to learn that Intrust sat empty in June. The arena also was dark in September 2010.
“That would seem unusual,” he said.
In July, the arena’s sole public event was the Get Motivated tour, which featured speakers such as Bill Cosby, Colin Powell and Rudy Giuliani.
Summer is traditionally slower for arenas, Boleski said. People want to listen to music outdoors, and amphitheatres, stadiums and music festivals are more popular.
The arena changed its website in 2011, going from a calendar format to a more interactive listing of events. Boleski said he heard people speculate that the arena changed the site “because of all the empty dates” on the calendar. That wasn’t the case, he said, adding that the arena redesigned the website in the summer to keep it fresh and more interactive.
Boleski said he expects to soon announce some big shows, including rock acts. The website for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers says it will play Wichita in April, although the arena hasn’t yet announced the show.
“One thing SMG brings is a sophisticated and very well networked management,” Bongiovanni said. “They’re doing outreach to bring in shows whenever they can. They’re not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
“Any SMG-managed building generally does better than a municipal building ran by someone appointed by the mayor.”
Ancillary benefits missing
County commissioners remain optimistic about the arena — even Karl Peterjohn, who as a resident led a campaign against the sales tax.
“We’re struggling,” he said. “I think the economy has been a continuing factor and is having impact all across the board for everyone. That’s something that we’ve got to keep a good perspective on. That’s a major factor.”
“I just know that the arena hasn’t had as many events in the second year as it did in the first and you’re always hoping for the best results you can get going forward,” Peterjohn said.
He said he is concerned that the arena hasn’t been the jump-start for downtown businesses that he thought it would be.
“It’s certainly put a very prominent and brand new building in downtown Wichita that has packed in people for a number of events. But there have not been a lot of ancillary benefits that were supposed to occur from the success of this arena,” he said.
Like Shaad, Peterjohn mostly has enjoyed sports at the arena.
“I thought that the K-State event was tremendous except for the last two minutes of the overtime,” he joked. “I think it’s been a first-class location for college basketball.”
Peterjohn also went to see Sarah Palin speak and stopped in during the Get Motivated tour for a bit.
“I’m not a big (country and western) fan,” Peterjohn said. “Maybe I’m the only one in town.”
Then Peterjohn said something that could be telling for the community: “What I really don’t like is concert ticket prices.”
Paige Reese, director of sales and marketing for the 19,000-seat SMG-managed BOK Center in Tulsa, said SMG tries to use its regional strength to get shows at all its venues.
“We try to work with promoters on the routing,” she said.
The forecast for this year, she said “is looking really strong.”
Country and classic rock do well at the Tulsa arena, which opened in 2008.
“We have a good mix of that,” she said. “But being where we are, there are not a lot of pop and urban acts.”
The BOK drew 10 of the top 25 touring acts in 2011, including New Kids on the Block, Bob Seger and Katy Perry.
And Lady Gaga, who played to a sold-out crowd in Tulsa in April.
“We had tried to get her on the first leg of the tour but they had already routed,” she said. The first leg included Oklahoma City. “We tried to find a date that would work for their routing schedule and our schedule.”
Most acts, Reese said, announce a tour, plan about six months of dates and then decide whether to add more.
“As long as they’re successful, they’ll keep touring,” Reese said. “That’s why her (Lady Gaga’s) Monster Ball tour was almost three years long.”
The Sprint Center opened in Kansas City in October 2007 and has had more than 500 events since then.
The center drew nine of the top 25 touring acts in 2011, including Sade, Kanye West and Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne.
“We’ve been fortunate that Kansas City has responded very well to this facility,” said Shani Tate, senior director of marketing, communication and ticket sales for AEG, which manages Sprint Center.
Tate said that venue is finding that “during these difficult economic times, people are waiting to purchase tickets later.”
Sprint Center is focused on its guests’ experiences, she said.
“You don’t take anyone for granted because people have many options for entertainment,” she said.
The region, she said, had a “significant amount of pent-up demand five years ago.” Then the economy soured, and several new facilities opened.
“2011 was the first time we felt any pinch from the recession,” Tate said.
“Everyone’s competing” for entertainment dollars, she continued.
“We view competition as anything that you’re doing that’s not at our facility. If you’re going to the movies, that’s competition for us.”
Boleski said Intrust Bank Arena has a good year ahead.
“We’re anticipating more rock shows on the road and more coming to Intrust,” he said. “It’s not ‘if.’ It’s more ‘when.’ ”