Sleep Train Arena fights to keep entertainment on calendar

07/22/2013 12:00 AM

07/22/2013 8:51 AM

With three concerts in six days, Sleep Train Arena is offering Sacramentans a musical feast this week.

It's a dramatic change of tempo.

For much of the past year, Sleep Train has gone dark. After several seasons of strong bookings, the number of concerts, ice shows and other non-Kings events fell off in the past 12 months.

Executives with the Sacramento Kings, who own the arena, say the decline was a fluke, caused by a scarcity of available touring shows. The coming year looks more promising; Kings spokesman Chris Clark noted that top-selling acts such as Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars are on the calendar.

But industry experts say Sleep Train might continue to struggle. Second-tier markets such as Sacramento increasingly are getting bypassed by big tours. The physical shortcomings of the 25-year-old arena don't help, the experts say.

Change is coming, of course: The Kings' new owners plan to build a new downtown arena, to open in fall 2016. That should boost Sacramento's visibility as a tour stop, at least temporarily.

"Once you get a new building, you'll find the quality and the frequency of the shows will be improving," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the trade publication Pollstar. "Everybody likes to play shiny new things."

Long-term, though, experts say the evolving economics of the music industry likely will continue to work against Sacramento, even with a new arena.

Many popular bands are opting for big outdoor music festivals, such as the annual Coachella Valley event in April, or smaller indoor venues. Big sports arenas increasingly are reserved for "legacy" acts such as Paul McCartney, and those artists are becoming choosier about the cities they play. McCartney's last Sleep Train stop was in 2005.

"There aren't as many acts who play arenas anymore," said Dave Brooks, managing editor of the trade publication Venues Today. "There are more arenas than there are bands to play in them."

If a tour limits itself to the top 20 or so markets, Sacramento is often left out. The Rolling Stones played San Jose and Oakland earlier this year, but not Sacramento. Bruce Springsteen has played San Jose and Oakland in recent years, but hasn't been to Sleep Train since falling well short of a sellout in 2008.

"If you have an act that can sell $100 a ticket in the Bay Area and $80 a ticket in Sacramento because of the difference in the economy, they'll tend to go to the Bay Area," said Ed Rubenstein, chief executive of the Arena Network, a nationwide coalition that helps book shows for Sleep Train and other venues.

Events other than basketball have always played a big role at Sleep Train. When it opened as Arco Arena in September 1988, its first show was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

The Kings play only 41 home games a season, not counting exhibition or playoff games – and the team hasn't made the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. After buying the team and Sleep Train Arena in a deal that valued the franchise at an NBA-record $535 million, the new owners need all the concerts, rodeos and other events they can book.

Because of the proposed public subsidy for the new arena, the city stands to collect a share of the profits and has an interest in the building's success.

"You need that kind of business to keep the building operating and the staff employed," Bongiovanni said. Concerts provide "that many more days when you can sell parking and beer and popcorn – never mind the ticket sales."

Kings officials say the calendar events held up pretty well until about a year ago.

Sleep Train hosted 76 non-Kings events during the fiscal year that ended June 30. That compared with 103 shows the year before.

Team spokesman Clark said the decline had nothing to do with the uncertainty over the Kings' possible move to Seattle, which ended when the Maloofs sold the team and arena in May to a group led by Vivek Ranadive.

Instead, Clark said, Sleep Train fell victim to the vagaries of the touring business.

"It hasn't been a tremendously busy season for tours – quite simply, fewer shows went to market," Clark said in an email.

Under the circumstances, the arena "enjoyed a healthy year on the entertainment side," he said. "We were one of the only venues in California to book Taylor Swift, George Strait, Fleetwood Mac and Bruno Mars."

On tap this week: Mars, the "American Idol" tour and the "Freestyle Explosion" R&B extravaganza. The August schedule includes Swift, Lil Wayne and pro wrestling, while the circus and Disney on Ice are coming for multiple dates this fall.

Experts agree that Sleep Train has been holding its own.

"It looks like you've got some good stuff coming up," Bongiovanni said. "It's not like the building's being neglected."

Still, experts say Sleep Train's physical limitations make it harder to attract shows.

Larry Richter of Richter Entertainment Group, a Florida firm that promotes concerts in multiple California venues, said Sleep Train suffers from having a relatively small arena floor. That translates into fewer high-priced seats near the stage.

In addition, the building has fewer loading docks than most modern arenas, he said, making it inconvenient for some of the bigger tours to bring in equipment.

"It's considered a necessary evil," he said of Sleep Train. "A lot of people don't like playing there."

Rubenstein, of the Arena Network, was among the experts who said the new downtown arena should help lure additional acts. But with fewer musicians playing indoor sports arenas, the increase in bookings might prove temporary.

"It will be markedly better for a couple of years (in the new arena)," said Rubenstein. "The question is whether they can sustain it."

JANUARY

3-6: DreamWorks' "How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular"

18-20: Monster Jam

21: Harlem Globetrotters

22: "WWE Smackdown"

29: Muse

31: George Strait

FEBRUARY

1-2: Professional Bull Riders

13-18: Disney on Ice: "Dare to Dream"

MARCH

1-2: CIF Sac Joaquin Section Finals (basketball)

9: "Rock and Worship Roadshow"

15: André Rieu

16: CIF Norcal Regional Finals (basketball)

22-23: CIF State Championships (basketball)

APRIL

12-13: "Acquire the Fire: Relentless Pursuit"

MAY

5: "Latin Stars of Comedy and Music Celebration"

24-25: Sacramento State commencement

28-30: Elk Grove Unified School District graduations

JUNE

8: Geico Endurocross

13: Pitbull

22-23: "Sesame Street Live"

JULY

6: Fleetwood Mac

22: "American Idol Live! 2013 Tour"

24: Bruno Mars

27: "V101.1 Presents Super Freestyle Explosion"

AUGUST

4: Sacramento Swap Meet

12: "WWE Monday Night Raw"

27: Taylor Swift

28: Lil Wayne

SEPTEMBER

13-16: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus

20: Marco Antonio Solis

OCTOBER

5: "Color in Motion"

6: Josh Groban

9-13: Disney on Ice: "Passport to Adventure"

25-26: "Women of Faith: Believe God Can Do Anything"

NOVEMBER

18: Drake

DECEMBER

No events on calendar

Call The Bee's Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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