Back in February, right around the same time that management announced their plans to re-brand the Tampa Bay Lightning with a new logo and uniforms, they also announced plans to spend $35 million on improving the St. Pete Times Forum. Some of that money will go for basic cosmetic renovations, necessary after 15 years of wear-and-tear. Some will be spent to finally finish areas that have, frankly, never actually been really completed and have been neglected (particularly the Terrace level). At any rate, it’s a massive undertaking that will have a major impact on the entire facility (every single seat is being replaced) and it raises an interesting question: what will happen to all the events?
It’s no secret that a major part of the appeal in owning the Tampa Bay Lightning has been the steady stream of revenue that flows through the turnstiles from the concerts and events held in the arena. After all, they who own the Lightning are they who hold the lease at the St. Pete Times Forum.
That, the arena-over-the-team philosophy, has been at times, a source of grumbling among Lightning fans who felt the team was getting the stepchild treatment in favor of the concert business. And at times, those fans were probably right. There’s simply no denying that the Tampa Bay Lightning are a far more attractive asset with the concerts and events side of the business than they could ever possibly be without it. Often, the revenue earned from one concert can exceed what’s brought in by a team over an entire hockey season…that’s if the team even does well enough to turn a profit at all. It’s less a case of greed than it is simple mathematics and basic business:
FACT: The Tampa Bay Lightning play in the NHL, the league with the least mainstream popularity by far of the four major professional sports leagues in North America, in a region with no ties to winter sports that has demonstrated little interest in supporting sports teams that don’t consistently win (and often, some who do).
FACT: The St. Pete Times Forum is regularly listed as one of the biggest generators of concert revenue in the world.
At this point, Tampa Bay’s performance venues have clearly established roles in what they can provide and accommodate. The 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre can seat about 20,000 people for outdoor concerts. The Straz Center (formerly the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center), Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Mahaffey Theaterin St. Petersburg accommodate smaller scale, intimate shows while Raymond James Stadiumplays host to the handful of larger-than-life spectacles that pass through the area like monster truck exhibitions or the U2 show in 2009. And of course, for the standard indoor arena rock show, drawing anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 people, there’s the St. Pete Times Forum, a venue that is liable to be largely unavailable for a considerable length of time between the end of the current hockey season and opening night of the next one.
So what will happen to the shows that would normally be held at the Forum? With the University of South Florida’s decision to basically take themselves out of the concert business in order to dedicate the 10,000 seat Sun Dome almost exclusively to the school’s basketball programs (an even more massive remodeling project is slated to take place at that facility this summer), there is no venue in the immediate area to fill the Forum’s temporarily vacant niche. Some shows may go to the Amphitheatre but not all of them. That venue simply can’t accommodate certain production requirements, such as in-the-round seating or the inherent limitations of playing outdoors…in the summer…in Florida. Others might go to the Lakeland Center, which has an arena but seats less than 10,000. Tours who don’t find those options appealing will have no choice but to bypass the Tampa Bay area this summer and stick to routing themselves through Orlando, Miami and maybe Jacksonville. Some tours, without the option of booking shows here on the west coast of the state, may skip Florida entirely, coming no further south than Atlanta.
Ultimately, of course, the Forum will be just fine and this summer will be written off as a cost of doing business which will reap bigger dividends down the road. Ideally, they’ll want to start and finish as quickly as possible in order to salvage somebookable dates, but that will depend largely on how well the Lightning do in this year’s playoffs. Whenever it’s all said and done, they’ll jump right back into the concert and event business and promoters will gladly bring their shows back, eager to sample the improved amenities for themselves. Plus, annual returning productions like the Ringling Brothers Circus visit during the winter and aren’t likely to be impacted at all.
For a change, it will be bay area concert fans doing the grumbling, as they’ll just have to suck it up this summer, driving farther (and paying higher gas prices) than they’re used to.