From its headquarters 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the global venue-management company SMG operates over 230 facilities in eight countries, including a half-dozen U.S. stadiums that are home to teams of the NFL. Between the final buzzer of the Super Bowl and the first kickoff of the following football season, SMG stadium managers face the challenge of filling seats in their immense buildings and bringing in extra revenue.
This past summer, for the second consecutive year, SMG has reported a million-ticket season at its NFL stadiums, hosting multiple concerts by some of music’s hottest touring acts, including Coldplay, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and U2. The total ticket tally, in fact, was 1.3 million seats sold per year, according to SMG. (The company does not report dollar grosses.)
Concerts at Soldier Field (home of the Chicago Bears), U.S. Bank Stadium (the Minnesota Vikings), NRG Stadium (the Houston Texans), the University of Phoenix Stadium (the Arizona Cardinals) in Glendale, Ariz., and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (the New Orleans Saints) contributed to SMG’s turnstile-spinning success. (The company’s sixth NFL stadium, Everbank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, hosted smaller-scale shows by such acts as Chicago and The Doobie Brothers at its adjacent Daily’s Place amphitheater.)
As autumn began, SMG-operated Scott Stadium at the University of Virginia, home to the Virginia Cavaliers, also hosted one of the year’s most important stadium shows. A Concert for Charlottesville: An Evening of Music and Unity was staged on Sept. 24 in response to marches in the city by white nationalists. The Dave Matthews Band, which formed in Charlottesville in 1991, led a lineup that included Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande and surprise guests Chris Martin of Coldplay and Stevie Wonder.
For SMG, which marks its 40th anniversary, the task of coordinating stadium-concert action falls to Doug Thornton, SMG executive vp stadiums and arenas, a former college quarterback who earned a football scholarship to McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. The married Shreveport, La., native moved to New Orleans in 1984 and bought and sold oil and gas leases before moving into the sports-management field. Thornton, 59, celebrated his 20th anniversary with SMG earlier this year.
SMG manages buildings for their owners, which often are state or local governments or sports authorities. Do they expect you to land these key tours to bring in off-season income?
We’ll budget for two, maybe three concerts depending on the market -- Chicago is capable of doing four to six -- so there’s a certain expectation. We’ll budget a certain number of shows and level of attendance, and that all flows through our economic projections. We work hard to try to [meet projections]. One of the things that we’re very lucky to have is a good relationship with Live Nation.
SMG stadiums hosted over a dozen concerts in 2017. How far in advance does planning start?
Probably two years. [SMG senior vp entertainment] Jim McCue and [vp] John Bolton are constantly talking to agents and promoters about who’s going out and when. So we’re looking ahead 18 to 24 months. It requires us to manage our schedule accordingly, particularly the buildings where we’ve got a lot of activity, like New Orleans or Houston. There are very few weekends where you have an open date, so we have to be mindful of that. So routing these tours when we’re available is always like threading a needle.
You had five stadium shows this summer for both Guns N’ Roses and U2. Does the promoter get a discount for playing multiple buildings?
For the most part, our stadium GMs are allowed to negotiate, because every building's a little bit different in terms of their rent structure and cost structure. It’s about making sure that SMG is getting the play. I wouldn't say there is a block-booking discount. But we’re the one call, if you will, that agents or promoters can make to route into these markets. It is Jim’s role to be able to consolidate it for the promoters and make it easier for them than if they were trying to book as a one-off.
Why was the summer so strong?
The economy is very strong, people are buying tickets, there’s money in the markets. We all know that there’s only a handful of artists that can sell out stadiums. But I can also say that there has been some creativity. I remember watching Ed Sheeran back up Taylor Swift in Chicago several years ago and [promoter] Louis Messina telling me that someday Ed Sheeran would be selling out stadiums. And sure enough, he’s playing stadiums next year. So I think it’s artist development and the creativity that promoters are showing.
What has also changed, in both the sports world and the live entertainment world, is the technology and the ability to project a video. So people that go to a stadium show now, [they] have a better opportunity to see the artist because of the size and quality of the screens -- certainly [for] a legendary act like U2 or Metallica, and Coldplay’s show is the best I’ve ever seen. The production of it was amazing. That adds to it.
What was the most challenging moment this summer?
We were getting ready to host Coldplay in Houston, but Hurricane Harvey hit. The show was scheduled on a Friday night. They had all of their equipment set up, and they made the call to cancel at eleven on Friday morning. The band had to leave their equipment; all of their staging was stuck in Houston. And they [couldn't] get back because of floods on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. I think it was a week before they could get the gear out.
Speaking of canceled shows, U.S. Bank Stadium was set to host one of the tour dates that Justin Bieber canceled in August.
There’s not much we can do about it, but it hurts because it’s a hard thing to replace. We budget for a certain number of shows, and we try to hit that.
How do you deal with conflicts between a venue’s sponsor and an artist’s sponsorships?
All of our contracts are leases with the professional sports teams. We negotiate very carefully, and we carve out the opportunity to have a conflicting sponsor as long as it’s not permanent. Normally, it would have to be something associated with the tour, like Britney Spears presented by Pepsi or American Express and U2. It also depends on the market. Sometimes [the venue] will allow us to do the ring-board signage during the preshow period with people walking in. Sometimes [they] will allow us to do an activation of displays if it’s an auto sponsor, or, if it’s a bank sponsor, they’ll be passing out information about credit cards. So it’s a case-by-case situation. But the sports tenants want to be able to host these big events because it’s good for their season-ticket holders, their suite holders and their other sponsors as well. So they work with us.
The first rule with athletic stadiums is “Don’t hurt the field.” How do you take care of that for concerts?
Technology has gotten much better with the turf covers. In a lot of our stadiums now, we have artificial In-Fill turf. It is very resilient. In a place like the Superdome or U.S. Bank Stadium or NRG Stadium, you put down the turf cover, you pull it up and groom the turf, and in just a few hours you can play football. It’s different at Soldier Field depending on the time of year. Sometimes we will have to replace the field, which is more time-consuming. But often, if we can get the show loaded in and get it out pretty quickly, we can salvage the turf, if the heat and humidity are not too bad.
For next year, Kenny Chesney and Ed Sheeran already have planned stadium tours, and Justin Timberlake is playing the Super Bowl. Do you expect another million-ticket summer?
Given what we have heard from our promoter partners thus far, we’re certainly optimistic.
THE TOP SMG STADIUMS THAT ROCKED
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Owner: State of Louisiana
Year opened: 1975
Concert capacity: 50,000-plus
SMG GM: Alan Freeman
NRG Stadium, Houston
Owner: Harris County, Texas
Year opened: 2002
Concert capacity: 55,000
SMG GM: Mark Miller
Soldier Field, Chicago
Owner: Chicago Park District
Year opened: 1924 (remodeled in 2003)
Concert capacity: 50,000-70,000
SMG GM: Tim LeFevour
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Owner: Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority
Year opened: 2006
Concert capacity: 73,400
SMG GM: Andy Gorchov
U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Owner: Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority
Year opened: 2016
Concert capacity: 55,000
SMG GM: Patrick Talty
Editor’s Note: Following the publication of this interview, Taylor Swift on Nov. 13 announced 2018 tour dates including performances at SMG stadiums in Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Houston and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. where the tour will open May 8.