Music News & Reviews

After 5 years, Intrust Bank Arena still battles image problem

Intrust Bank Arena, photographed on Dec. 16, 2011.
Intrust Bank Arena, photographed on Dec. 16, 2011. File photo

Pop music fans want to know why Intrust Bank Arena puts on mostly country shows.

Hip-hop and R&B fans want to know why it hasn’t put on a concert headlined by an artist of color since it opened in January 2010.

And many music fans want to know why Wichita was bypassed this year by Katy Perry, Usher, Paul McCartney, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars.

As the building approaches its five-year anniversary in January, arena and county officials say they’re acutely aware that it isn’t meeting the expectations of some music fans, many of whom have taken to social media and The Wichita Eagle’s editorial pages to voice their dissatisfaction.

The arena has been on a good streak lately. Just since November, it has scored the first and second rounds of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament and a concert by popular rock band Foo Fighters. And last week, Garth Brooks confirmed he’ll be in Wichita next year, mostly likely to perform at the arena.

Still, those who manage the building say they are hounded by the perception that the arena hasn’t lived up to its promise – a perception they say is incorrect and can be changed only with an understanding of the inner workings of the concert marketplace and with a good old-fashioned reality check.

And the realities are these, they say: Wichita is near Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Kansas City but it is not Tulsa, Oklahoma City or Kansas City. It’s significantly smaller with different demographics, a different economy and different median household incomes. Wichita doesn’t get the same retail stores, restaurants, amusement parks and cultural events those cities do, and it isn’t going to get the same concerts, either.

Wichita also has a spotty ticket-buying past, they say, and that past often affects whether gambling-averse concert promoters with lots of money at stake are willing to take a risk on the city. Often, they aren’t.

The arena has had a successful first five years, its managers say. Now, they’re wondering what they can realistically do during the next five years to convince the public that all is well at the arena.

“We know from a financial standpoint, the building has been successful. Every year, it’s always been in the black, and there are a lot of buildings that don’t have that, so it’s a great achievement,” said A.J. Boleski, the arena’s general manager. “We’ve also heard at the same time and the county has heard as well that there’s a lack of variety of events. I think it’s just about educating the public and having that conversation.”

The voters say yes

In November 2004, Sedgwick County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax that would finance a county-owned downtown arena, a 15,000-seat replacement for the aging Kansas Coliseum in Park City.

The measure passed by about 5,000 votes – 84,045 to 79,015. The pro-arena side was bolstered by a marketing campaign that promised that a downtown arena would lead the way to more commercial development around it. A marketing flier distributed by a pro-arena group promised that its construction would ensure that “more top-flight entertainment, first-class cultural events and world-class sporting events” would come to Wichita.

The tax, which was in effect from July 1, 2005, to Dec. 31, 2007, raised $206.5 million. In August 2007, the county hired Philadelphia-based SMG to manage the facility, agreeing that SMG would cover any losses and would get the first $450,000 of annual profit after recovering money for any prior losses.

Construction started in September 2007, and the new arena opened on Jan. 9, 2010, with a sold-out concert by country star Brad Paisley that drew 10,000 fans.

The first year was a big one. The venue put on 110 events, including more than 20 from the top tours of the year: Paisley, Bon Jovi, the Eagles, Dave Matthews Band, Michael Buble, Taylor Swift, George Strait, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Nickelback, Billy Joel and Elton John, Rush and Tim McGraw.

It sold enough tickets at concerts and other events to make the list of top 50 arenas worldwide, according to Pollstar, beating out venues in larger cities such as Minneapolis, Denver and St. Louis.

Explosive first years are common at new arenas, as fans and artists flock to the building to see what it has to offer. It happened in Wichita, and it also happened in Lincoln, Neb., where the new, 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena opened in August 2013 and drew acts including Jay Z, Paul McCartney and Pink, despite its size and proximity to Omaha.

“It’s because you’re so new and everybody wants to see everything, and they’re going to spend more money because your building is brand spanking new,” said Christine Pileckas, sales and marketing manager for Intrust Bank Arena. “And promoters know that.”

But by 2011, Intrust Bank Arena’s honeymoon was over.

Year two brings questions

The second year was not like the first.

In 2011, the arena put on 87 events, 23 fewer than in 2010, and the building sat empty the entire month of June. The arena’s bottom line landed in the red several months that year, but events in the fourth quarter, including country concerts by Reba McEntire and Sugarland, helped it finish in the black. The profit from the arena was $389,659, down from $2,010,736 the year before. (In 2012 and 2013, profits were back up to just over $700,000.)

The image problem had begun.

Justin Londagin, a local music fan, was one of the first disgruntled customers to make his thoughts public. He posted several comments on Twitter in 2011 questioning how the arena was being operated. In June, he posted, “So @INTRUSTArena says summertime is slow for arenas. And this winter they will say wintertime is slow for arenas. #oldstory.” In November, he wrote, “Sorry, but when the vote was going on for the arena, we were told, vote yes and the big acts will come. Prove it.”

Arena managers invited him via Twitter to come speak to them personally and get a better understanding of how the venue books shows, and he took them up on it, he said. The conversation was productive and gave him insights he didn’t have before, he said. He quieted down his online criticism.

But three years later, he said, he’s not much more satisfied with the performance of the arena, which he voted for.

“I was a huge supporter for this arena back when we voted for it, and I was before it was built and even during the first year,” Londagin said. “Then it was country, country, country. When the county signed the original contract with SMG, SMG said, ‘Go with us. We can bring you the power of managing the best arenas to bring you the best acts.’ And it has failed.”

Londagin said he attends a couple of shows a year at the arena and loves the building. But he can’t understand why it doesn’t get the shows that comparable arenas get. He points to the top acts that Tulsa’s BOK Center is attracting.

Why was Tulsa able to secure two consecutive nights of McCartney in May 2013 when Wichita couldn’t get even one?

“It’s frustrating when you talk to people at the arena, and it’s always a different excuse: ‘It’s wintertime, so we can’t get them. It’s summertime and no one’s touring,’” he said. “But they’re going to Tulsa, and that’s an SMG arena. Why can’t we share their results?”

Comparing Intrust Bank Arena to Tulsa’s BOK center is a mistake, although a common one, said Vera Bothner, whom SMG hired as a local consultant. Comparing it to Kansas City’s Sprint Center or Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena are even bigger mistakes. But many fans do that, she found.

Tulsa’s population base, for one, is Wichita’s and a half. Wichita has about 637,000 people in its metro area. Tulsa has 960,000. Tulsa’s arena is bigger, too, with 4,000 more seats.

Oklahoma City and Kansas City are even further out of Wichita’s league. Kansas City’s population is 2.05 million, and its Sprint Center seats 19,500. Oklahoma City has 1.32 million people, and its arena holds 18,200.

In reality, Bothner said, Wichita is more comparable to Little Rock, Ark., which has a population of 725,000 and an 18,000-seat arena; Des Moines, with 600,000 people and a 17,000-seat arena; and Bossier City, La., and its 14,000-seat CenturyLink Center.

“The economics of this particular marketplace have just been hard for people to understand, I think, because geographically we compare ourselves to these other cities, and we do that a lot,” Bothner said. “But just because arenas are in our geographic region does not mean that the demographics and the size of the city are similar enough to make a good comparison.”

That argument makes sense to Ashley Altendorf, a local country music fan who said she loves everything about the arena except the parking and the fact that her cellphone doesn’t get reception inside.

She’s been to so many country shows since the arena opened, she can’t count them all: Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Tim McGraw, Brantley Gilbert. News this week that Brooks is coming to town signaled another arena victory, in her mind.

Altendorf said she’s familiar with complaints that the arena’s lineup isn’t diverse, but she never expected it to be.

“We’re in Kansas. People can’t expect too much variety,” she said. “We are known as a country, hard-working state. It’s not a surprise to me at all. That’s the way it is. If we were California, I would expect more pop and hip-hop. But this is Kansas.”

Promoters do the picking

Wichita makes an even bigger mistake, though, in concluding that Intrust Bank Arena’s managers are picking and choosing what musical acts play here – recruiting country shows and turning away pop, hip-hop and R&B.

It doesn’t work like that, arena managers say, and industry experts concur.

“It’s not the show of the arena,” said Jessica Boudevin, managing editor of the California-based Venues Today magazine, which tracks the performance of arenas around the world. “It’s the show of the people who route the tours, and those are the promoters. Even if Intrust Bank Arena wants to bring in a different genre, sometimes it’s not up to them.”

Concert promoters are the people who put up the money for concerts. They pay to rent the arena, pay the staff it takes to run the event, pay for the insurance, and pay the price the artist demands. Top artists like Jay Z and Beyonce demand huge, multimillion-dollar guarantees.

Before deciding where to put their shows, promoters do extensive data research, Boleski said. They look at how shows in similar genres have performed there before. They look at what radio stations the market has and what songs people are requesting. They check what music people in the market are downloading – even what they’re choosing as their ring tones. They look at the city’s economic and racial demographics. If any of their research indicates they might lose money, that city doesn’t get their show.

In Wichita, the No. 1 radio station, according to Arbitron ratings, is country station KFDI. No. 2 is classic rock station KEYN. Those genres have historically sold out or sold well in Wichita, Boleski said, and they have filled the arena’s schedule during its first five years. George Strait has come three times. The Eagles have come twice.

The last pure pop arena show Wichita had was Hilary Duff, who drew 7,000 squealing fans to the Kansas Coliseum in 2004. Wichita’s last hip-hop show also was at the Kansas Coliseum. When Grammy winner T.I. performed there in 2008, he had a CD out with two No. 1 hits. He sold fewer than 3,500 tickets.

“That’s our industry as a whole,” Boleski said. “It doesn’t matter what building we are in. If you don’t sell the tickets, it’s going to hurt the chances you’ll get those types of shows again.”

Wichita also, realistically, will likely not get shows like Madonna or Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, who played fewer than 20 dates on their recent tours. Those acts hit the biggest cities with the biggest arenas and sell them out.

The arena is not in the business of turning away acts that Wichita wants to see, Boleski said.

“I always hear, ‘Hey, why can’t you guys get Paul McCartney. It will sell out here,’” Boleski said. “Well, Paul McCartney will sell out anywhere, so if they only have 10 days to play, they more than likely are going to pick out the places where they can maximize the dollars and minimize the risk.”

Those answers don’t satisfy Londagin, who in a blog post earlier this year questioned why the 15,000-seat United Supermarkets Arena in Lubbock, Texas, got McCartney. And they don’t satisfy fans who want to know why Taylor Swift is launching her newest tour in Wichita-comparable Bossier City but skipping Wichita this time around.

The answer, arena officials say, is that every arena gets lucky sometimes, booking a “one-off” that would normally be out of its reach. Arenas, including Wichita’s, can sometimes get a show because it fits neatly into a route or because the artist or promoter has a whim.

Intrust Bank Arena has had several of those, including, some argue, Taylor Swift’s sold-out 2013 show supporting her “Red” album.

Two of the arena’s bigger scores have come during the past couple of months. Fleetwood Mac is performing in Wichita in March, but it isn’t performing in Tulsa. And the Foo Fighters, who are coming next September, are stopping in only 12 arenas on their 29-city tour next year, and Wichita’s is one of them.

Back to reality

Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan said that until recently, he was dissatisfied with the direction the arena was heading.

The numbers were good, but Buchanan was hearing regular complaints about the arena’s schedule. He also noticed that Tulsa was getting more and bigger shows than Wichita. He wanted to know what was going on.

“I wrote SMG a letter saying, ‘Here are my concerns,’” he said. “They responded, and I hated it because they responded with facts. And the facts were that those communities are way bigger than yours, and if you compare concerts in Tulsa, Tulsa fills 97 percent of its seats every time. We’re selling in the 70s. I don’t know for what reason, but people in Wichita aren’t buying as many tickets as other people.”

Buchanan said he thinks that if the people of Wichita had a better understanding, they’d have fewer complaints.

The idea isn’t to lower Wichita’s expectations, he said. The goal is to pull them back into reality.

“The more people that understand what the reality is, the better off we’ll be,” he said. “And I’m not sure people understand it. Other communities would die to have this arrangement where the building is paid for and we’re not on the hook for any losses. There’s no debt. We own the house.”

Pileckas said she understands Wichita fans’ desire to be like Tulsa and Kansas City. Most cities have similar aspirations: Salina wants to be Wichita, and Dodge City wants to be Salina, she said.

But at some point, people in Wichita forgot what they were promised when they voted for the building, which was a world-class venue that would bring top acts to Wichita, she said.

“Of all the items on that list, none of them related to, ‘Hey, you’ll never have to leave Wichita again for live entertainment,’” she said. “That’s just unrealistic.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @deniseneil.

By the numbers

Comparing the arenas

Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena

Year opened: 2010

Seats: 15,004

Population base: 637,000

Kansas City’s Sprint Center

Year opened: 2007

Seats: 19,252

Population base: 2.05 million

They got it, we didn’t: Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Pink, Drake, Mary J. Blige, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake

Tulsa’s BOK Center

Year opened: 2008

Seats: 19,199

Population base: 960,000

They got it, we didn’t: Justin Bieber, Maroon 5, Paul McCartney, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars

Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena

Year opened: 2002

Seats: 18,200

Population base: 1.32 million

They got it, we didn’t: Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande

Intrust Bank Arena’s concert history

Concerts that were among the Top 25 North American concert tours of the year, according to Pollstar, are in bold. Information on the number of tickets sold wasn’t available on Friday, but we will update on Kansas.com when it’s available.

2014

(Top tours not yet calculated)

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Eric Church

Five Finger Death Punch / Volbeat

Motley Crue

James Taylor

Brantley Gilbert

Styx / Foreigner

George Strait

Winter Jam Tour Spectacular

Lady Antebellum

Rock & Worship Roadshow

2013

Luke Bryan

Taylor Swift

Jason Aldean

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

John Mayer

Eagles

Blake Shelton

Rascal Flatts

Zac Brown Band

Gaither concert tour

Shinedown and Three Days Grace

Kid Rock

2012

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Nickelback

Jason Aldean

Brad Paisley

Eric Church

Aerosmith

Carrie Underwood

Barry Manilow

Hank Williams Jr.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Miranda Lambert

Winter Jam Tour Spectacular

George Strait / Martina McBride

2011

Reba McEntire

Sugarland

Keith Urban

Josh Groban

Tim McGraw

Avenged Sevenfold

Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top

James Taylor

Kenny Chesney

Winter Jam 2011

Kid Rock

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

2010

Carrie Underwood

Dave Matthews Band

Rascal Flatts

Eagles

Michael Buble

Tim McGraw

Nickelback

Taylor Swift

Bon Jovi

George Strait and Reba McEntire

Brad Paisley

Rush

Zac Brown Band

Celtic Woman

REO Speedwagon and Pat Benatar

Brooks and Dunn

Daughtry

Gaither Homecoming Tour 2010

Elton John and Billy Joel

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

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