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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 5, 2019 5 months ago

Smaller stadiums aim to host more non-sporting events

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The hyper-competitive race to win entertainment customers in Florida has a few new players: small-scale stadiums.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

A pair of sports stadiums in the region known mostly for single use — spring training in one, soccer in the other — have begun to lean on an old business axiom to find new revenue streams: diversification.  A glance at each stadium's business model reveals some other best practices, from listening to customers to maintaining multiple avenues for potential innovation. 

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota

During the 2019 season, the Baltimore Orioles celebrated the one-millionth fan to attend spring training baseball in Sarasota at Ed Smith Stadium.

But in addition to the swing of the bat, fans headed to Ed Smith for other kinds of events in recent years, too. “There’s certainly plenty of baseball,” says David Rovine, vice president of Orioles-Sarasota. “Everything is coordinated between other baseball activities going on here.”

Using the stadium for non-sporting events is a good fit because staff is experienced in all aspects of producing events, from customer service to food and beverages, he says. “We’re in the business of entertainment, whether it’s baseball, music, festivals or other events.”

Courtesy. David Rovine, vice president of Orioles-Sarasota, says using Ed Smith Stadium for other events is a good fit because the staff is experienced in all aspects of producing events.

What’s behind the Orioles’ efforts to host other non-spring training events at the stadium, which seats about 8,500, includes the team’s commitment to making Ed Smith Stadium a year-round facility. “We’re here to produce fun, affordable family-friendly entertainment while also giving back to the community whenever possible,” Rovine says.

The first real entertainment offering other than spring training baseball at the stadium was in 2013 — a Christmas ice show. “From then on, we’re been off and running,” Rovine says.

The Sarasota Orchestra, a big player at Ed Smith, is going into its fifth year of hosting a concert at the stadium. It started with one Saturday night performance that sold out the first year, Rovine says. A second performance was added and also sold out. That success, he says, has helped convince other area arts organizations to host events at the stadium, too, such as Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

More high notes: the Orioles host Athletes & Artists Play for Kids, a weekend that this year included Nashville’s Music Row Comes to the Ballpark as well as Cole Swindell Party in the Outfield. 

Beyond music, the team has used Ed Smith for business expos, job expos and corporate team-building events that include softball games on the field. Also, an insurance company recently did a two-day mini convention at the stadium, says Rovine. The firm used meeting and breakout rooms at the venue and played a softball game on the field. The company’s trip to Sarasota meant additional spending in the area, including nights in hotels. “The Orioles are very much committed to driving economic impact,” Rovine says.

“We’re in the business of entertainment, whether it’s baseball, music, festivals or other events.” — David Rovine, vice president, Orioles-Sarasota

When outside organizations host an event at Ed Smith Stadium, the arrangements vary, Rovine says. The orchestra, for example, rents the facility as it would rent another venue such as Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

“I like to go after all of the arts group,” Rovine says. “Sarasota is certainly a prolific community in terms of arts organizations that exist here.” By arts groups bringing their products to a baseball stadium, the organizations expand their audience, he adds. “Our audience is used to coming here, and all of a sudden they want to sample: ‘what’s it like to see this pops concert?’ We can bring this audience to them and conversely they can bring their audience to us.”

The biggest obstacle to hosting other events at the stadium is a common one in the Sunshine State: weather. “Anytime you do an outdoor event," Rovine says, "that’s always a challenge."

There’s also the challenge of educating the market and getting people to understand they’ll see a quality performance at the ballpark. “Entertainment dollars are very competitive,” he says. “You have to make sure you’re giving people a first-class experience and value for their dollar.”

Rovine says the Orioles aim to grow the number and variety of events they offer at Ed Smith Stadium. “We want to expand everything we’re doing right now,” he says. “It’s proven to be successful.”

Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg

The main priority for Al Lang Stadium is Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer, says Lee Cohen, Rowdies VP and COO.

But the soccer season leaves lots of opportunities to host other events at the stadium. Aside from 22 to 24 soccer dates for the Rowdies, part of the United Soccer League, Cohen says there’s quite a bit of stadium availability. 

Courtesy. Tampa Bay Rowdies VP and COO Lee Cohen says he and his colleagues are always thinking about opportunities for other kinds of events at Al Lang Stadium.

In the past, for example, Al Lang has hosted a variety of activities, including skateboarding and rugby events along with commercial shoots and photo shoots.

Once the Rowdies figured out the basics in terms of hosting soccer events at the stadium, Cohen says the team felt comfortable hosting programming outside of matches. “There are necessary costs that go into keeping the building afloat,” he says, and many days when it’s empty. 

One of the main non-soccer events it’s hosted is the Al Lang Live concert series, produced by Bill Edwards’ Big 3 Entertainment. A prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist, Edwards sold the Rowdies to the Tampa Bay Rays in the fall, after helping grow the soccer team's brand and presence in the region. 

This year, there are three concerts scheduled so far in April, May and June, including Santana and Bryan Adams, with more likely to be booked. Last year's lineup included the Counting Crows and Poison. Cohen says they’d like to go from three or four concerts a year to eight or 10 concerts. “The concert business was another way to put on another major event inside the facility,” he says.

Courtesy, Big 3 Entertainment. The Al Lang Live concert series, one of the non-Tampa Bay Rowdies events hosted at Al Lang Stadium, included a Poison rock band concert in 2018.

Concerts have also been held at the stadium in conjunction with Rowdies games. “We saw there was good mix of people coming to Rowdies games based on the people we were bringing in,” Cohen says, leading them to give a concert series a go.

The concerts also expose people to downtown St. Petersburg and Al Lang Stadium who might not have thought of coming to the venue. “We try and take advantage of being good stewards of the market,” Cohen says. “The more we can program the facility, the better it will be.”

On Saturdays, visitors to a farmers market outside the stadium are invited to come inside Al Lang Stadium to use bathrooms and get out of the sun. Cohen says they also open up the stadium on first Saturdays of the month for people to enjoy, with soccer matches shown for fans to watch and the field available for kids to run around on, essentially turning the stadium into a big park. 

Cohen says he and his colleagues are always thinking about other opportunities, in addition to music and sports. 

In April, a group called Synapse will present them with ideas about different things they could do with the stadium, from sporting events to entertainment to corporate outings. Cohen says, “Now that we’ve got the soccer and got the concerts, what’s the next wave of events?”

Along with connecting the community to Al Lang Stadium, non-soccer events provide another revenue stream. “I think that the way we try to look at it," Cohen says, "anything outside of the Rowdies business is just extra business."

Al Lang officials have also looked to other soccer organizations to see what they bring in to their facilities. and being in the Tampa Bay area means they have a host of other sports facilities to look to for inspiration and ideas, from Raymond James Stadium to Amalie Arena to Tropicana Field.

As a 7,000-seat outdoor stadium, Al Lang does face some basic challenges. Weather is a major one, especially Florida’s rainy season. “It’s always going to be something we’re going to face, but it’s not something we’re going to run away from,” Cohen says. “We’re just going to prepare for it.”

Also, other events can’t damage the field or any other aspects of the stadium that are crucial for soccer. Cohen says, “You’ve got to make sure it doesn’t affect the primary business.”

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