Concert forecast clashes with history: RSL faces the music

Team says stadium would hook more fans per gig than other venues; some experts scoff
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Real Salt Lake executives may need to book U2 as the house band if they expect to meet concert-attendance projections they are pitching to help land a soccer stadium in Sandy.

The Irish rockers and country crooner Kenny Chesney are two of the few acts to sell more than 17,000 tickets to their Salt Lake Valley concerts in the past five years. But RSL insists its plan to average 17,500 fans at a proposed 20,000-seat stadium starting next year isn't just ambitious, it's "conservative."

History indicates otherwise.

Since 2001, only 11 concerts have hit the 17,000 plateau at either the 20,000-capacity Usana Amphitheater or the similarly sized EnergySolutions Arena. The team expects to host that many shows, averaging that many fans, in its first year at the new stadium. And, by 2012, RSL says it will draw 18 concerts of that scale.

Politicians in Salt Lake County and Sandy are wrestling over whether to commit $45 million in public funding toward the $110 million stadium - with RSL seeing its concert goals as a "critical component" to the venue's success.

RSL's proposal also foresees concert ticket prices starting at an average of $35.50 the first summer and growing to around $45 over six years. But most stadium and arena shows already cost far more than that.

"Unfortunately, the acts that can sell all those tickets are not going to play for [the] $30 [range]," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a touring-industry trade journal.

Mark Powell, events and booking director for EnergySolutions Arena, says the market's relatively low population is one reason some concerts struggle here, along with the demographics of that population, one he calls "frugal."

"We are a very price-sensitive market," Powell says. "If we go on sale with a show that's a decent price, we can sell it out. But The Who, that legendary rock band . . . we had about 8,500 people here because the ticket prices were too high."

Still, RSL owner Dave Checketts is convinced the concert industry is not tapping the Beehive State's sweet summer potential. Imagine, he muses, a state-of-the-art, open-air, 20,000-seat stadium - with mountain views and sterling acoustics - that would impress top promoters capable of booking acts like the Dave Matthews Band, Bruce Springsteen and Jack Johnson.

Thing is, those bands come already. And only a fraction sold the number of seats Checketts is banking on to keep the team in the black.

Touring titans like The Stones and The Who drew modest crowds in Utah by their standards. The Boss sold out across the nation, but commanded fewer than 9,500 fans here. And since 2002, Powell notes, the then-Delta Center lost money on Aerosmith - twice.

Checketts says RSL's pipeline to mega-promoters such as Live Nation and AEG is key to hooking the type of shows Utahns have never seen before.

But they have. Both companies have worked with area promoters and venues for years. And while the team is confident it will snag more shows than any competing venues in the valley, tour-industry experts like Bongiovanni aren't so sure.

"Dave Checketts is somebody with considerable experience, so it's not like he's some deluded local who's clueless about how the business operates," Bongiovanni says. But Checketts' boast that the stadium will dramatically increase the quality and quantity of concerts in the market "does seem difficult to support."

Industry insiders suggest the Wasatch Front would need to grow by 1 million to 2 million people to become a top-tier touring spot for bands.

"Salt Lake has never, ever been a must-play market," Powell says, "and that's because of our population base."

As it stands, RSL plays in the smallest market in Major League Soccer. But team officials point to Utah's swelling 18-to-35 age demographic as an advantage in the concert game. What's more, Westerners are used to driving long distances, they say, and kids of all ages would come to Sandy for big shows - even from rural Utah and beyond.

"It's a perfectly positioned market to pick up more of that type of business," says Joel Peresman, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, who booked shows for Checketts at New York's Madison Square Garden. "Also, you have a very aggressive management team."

Peresman insists the allure of a new venue - with reserved seats rather than grass - will make all the difference.

But Usana, which was built for music, is just four years old. And the West Valley City amphitheater has eclipsed 17,000 only four times, according to United Concerts.

The venue's promoter, United Concerts President Jim McNeil, snatched an exclusive contract to book shows for RSL. When asked about the move, whether it will hurt his existing business and if the concert predictions were realistic, McNeil declined comment, citing a contract restriction with RSL.

The county's Debt Review Committee could make a recommendation on public funding today to county Mayor Peter Corroon. But some committee members have doubts, especially about the concert numbers since the Wasatch Front has yet to match the "starting point" of RSL's projections. A consultant's report told the county no market in the country has been able to duplicate RSL's double-digit concert projections. A more likely scenario: four, maybe six big shows a year, the report said.

The team argues its aggressive pursuit of concerts and the stadium's location - even in the suburbs of a concert market seen as soft - offer the right formula for a hit.

Sandy will be the "epicenter of the valley," team CEO Dean Howes says. "It is very close now."

The Big 11
The following 11 concerts have reached 17,000-plus in attendance since 2001:

* U2

Two shows, January 2001 and November 2005, EnergySolutions Arena

* Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Two shows, August 2006, ESA

* Kenny Chesney

Two shows, June 2004 and June 2006, Usana Amphitheater

* Dixie Chicks

July 2003, ESA

* Elton John and Billy Joel

January 2001, ESA

* Jack Johnson

August 2005, Usana

* Shania Twain

December 2003, ESA

* Def Leppard/Journey

August 2006, Usana

Sources: EnergySolutions Arena, United Concerts

Salt Lake Valley pop-music venues
* EnergySolutions Arena

Salt Lake City, capacity: 20,000

* Usana Amphitheater

West Valley City, 20,000

* E Center

West Valley City, 12,000

* Huntsman Center

Salt Lake City, 15,000

* McKay Events Center

Orem, 7,500

* Dee Events Center

Ogden, 11,600

* Abravanel Hall

Salt Lake City, 2,768

* Eccles Center

Park City, 1,270

* Kingsbury Hall

Salt Lake City, 1,900

* Red Butte Garden

Salt Lake City, 2,500

* Deer Valley

Park City, 5,000

* The Depot

Salt Lake City, 1,200

* Saltair

Magna, 3,250

Sources: Web sites, venue representatives