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Rio Tinto Doesn't Add Up

Stadium concerts fall short of hype


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  • Scott Catron

The crowd was euphoric; the backdrop, majestic. And Sir Paul McCartney was reveling in the warm mountain breeze. “Usually, I keep my jacket on a little longer,” the one-time Beatle said. “But now it’s coming off.” The capacity crowd at Sandy’s Rio Tinto Stadium whooped and hollered as the Englishman stripped off his coat. “That’s all that’s coming off,” McCartney chided.

Among the 24,000-plus fans on hand for the July 14, 2010, show—arguably the musical event of that summer in Utah—was Emmy-award winning composer Kurt Bestor. He’s still thinking about it. “One of the grooviest concerts I’ve been to,” Bestor said. “He was amazing.”

That’s got to be music to Dave Checketts’ ears.

Against a crescendo of criticism that met Checketts’ plan to secure public financing for his $110 million stadium, the Real Salt Lake owner had doggedly maintained that taxpayers wouldn’t just be buying into a niche sports facility. The stadium, he predicted, would become one of the premier concert venues in the Mountain West.

But after an independent auditor found the team’s projections overly optimistic—particularly when it came to hosting concerts—the Salt Lake County’s Debt Review Committee unanimously agreed that the team was not financially viable. With that, in 2007, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon swiftly ended negotiations on Checkett’s play for $30 million in hotel tax revenues. After initially threatening to take his ball team and move to another city, Checketts found another path to the cash: With the support of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. the Legislature passed a bill that allowed the state to collect $35 million of Salt Lake County's hotel-tax revenue for the next 20 years. This enabled Real Salt Lake to spend $20 million on land for the stadium and $15 million for parking infrastructure.

Checketts and his crew set to work proving the naysayers wrong, merrily checking off a list of “to dos” that would make his team financially viable—just as he promised taxpayers it would be. The multi-million-dollar sale of stadium naming rights to the transnational Rio Tinto mining company? No problem. Getting XanGo to cough up millions to sponsor the jerseys? Done. Real’s squeak-into-the-playoffs-then-win-the-championship performance in 2009—and the associated sales that come along with such success? Oh, yeah.

And then there were the concerts. The stadium scored early when Checketts’ SCP Worldwide booked the Eagles as the inaugural musical act. The concert drew 23,000 people to the stadium. Among other sexagenarian superbands that have rocked the Sandy house were Kiss and Styx. But Sir Paul was incontestably the crown jewel. Macca sold out the venue in minutes—then played a spitfire, 36-songs-in-three-hours set that had Utah’s criticazzi gushing.

It was a show that EnergySolutions Arena marketing director Mark Powell coveted—and thought he had on the hook. “We had an on-sale date and they basically came through with an offer to Paul that was more than we could have paid and still broken even,” Powell said.

Powell declined to talk numbers, but insiders familiar with the negotiations say Checketts’ SCP outbid ESA by a million dollars. The longtime Utah concert promoter stressed that he has no way of knowing what SCP’s books looked like at the end of the night, but he thinks it would have been exceedingly difficult to skip away in the black.

Rio Tinto Stadium operations manager Mike Steele said his venue did profit—noting that the facility was able to put 5,000 more butts in seats than ESA could. He called ESA’s criticisms “sour grapes.”

But the McCartney show was a big win in a long season of losses. When it was trying to sell its project to skeptical taxpayers, Real had promised a minimum of 11 near-capacity shows per year to start—and up to 20 per year by 2013. When the auditor’s report suggested the team would be lucky to get six shows—and when the debt-review committee agreed—Checketts bristled at the audacity of their prudence.

“The committee has undervalued our experience in building and running professional franchises and entertainment venues,” he complained.

But Checketts’ stadium hosted just two near-capacity concerts in 2010. And the Journey-Foreigner-Night Ranger concert scheduled for July 21 will be the first and only big music show at Rio Tinto this year.

Real Salt Lake spokesman Trey Fitz-Gerald acknowledged that the stadium hasn’t come anywhere close to its concert-booking projections, but he argued that the organization’s leaders—like many others—hadn’t figured on such a lousy economy. “The music industry has been hit really hard with the recession and all that,” Fitz-Gerald says.

EnergySolution Arena’s Powell disagrees. “For the most part, people are still going to live shows,” he says, “and it’s been a really, really good year for us.” Among EnergySolutions Arena’s recent shows: Lady Gaga—sold out. George Straight—sold out. Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Josh Grobin—those shows are all looking like sell-outs, too.

“The biggest problem I can see with Rio Tinto and their shows is that we have a 20,000-seat outdoor amphitheater just a few miles west of there,” Powell said—referencing the Usana Amphitheatre. “The acts that want to play outside would rather play in a venue that was designed for music.”

For all his admiration of McCartney’s performance at Rio Tinto, Bestor isn’t singing the praises of the stadium itself. “It was fine,” he said. “Usana would have been just as fine. And if he would have done it at Rice-Eccles, it would have been the same exact concert.” And all things being equal, Bestor said, the stage-focused, stepped seating at Usana would probably make things “a little more enjoyable for everyone.”

Perhaps the best witnesses in that case are Kenny Chesney and Styx. Both played the stadium in 2009; both have chosen Usana in their return trips to Utah this year.

Fitz-Gerald says the stadium has seen success “in other ancillary events. … We’ve done a lot of high school sports and rugby and other kinds of sports, like Snocross,” he said, arguring that SCP had always believed its projections were for “events” not “concerts.”

Steele acknowledged, though, that the stadium hasn’t strung together enough ticket-selling shows of any sort to meet its projections. “We budgeted for four or five shows this year, and they didn’t come through,” he said. “That hurts that stadium’s bottom line, and obviously you don’t have food and beverage sales, you don’t have parking. It hurts the neighborhoods and the nearby restaurants. It hurts everybody.”

Team officials say they are paying their bills and haven't had to lay anyone off.

Post-championship ticket and jersey sales no doubt helped the bottom line, but it's unlikely they could offset the absent concert revenue.

Steele said the stadium will continue to fight to book big names like McCartney. “We have the ability to do them,” he said. “We’re here to stay.”