Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Conseco Fieldhouse and Sports Venues and Sports Business

Fieldhouse must fend off Louisville arena rival

August 13, 2007

Although the opening of a 22,000-seat arena in Louisville is still three years away, officials here are already bracing for a raid on Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse events.

Several Indianapolis interests will be watching Aug. 20 as the Louisville Arena Authority unveils designs for the arena along the Ohio River in the heart of the refurbished city just 110 miles to the south.

Already, Louisville officials have announced the $252 million facility set to open in 2010 will have 72 suites, 3,000 club seats, a sports bar and restaurant and a food court open daily to the public. The arena will also sport three tiers of meeting rooms for receptions and corporate gatherings and a five-story attached parking garage.

"Those are eye-opening numbers," said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.

Conseco Fieldhouse, which cost $183 million to build in the late 1990s, has 71 suites and about 2,000 club seats.

The new arena will be less than a block from Louisville's convention center and connected by indoor walkway to 1,300 hotel rooms, with another 2,600 within an easy outdoor walk.

Indianapolis has 5,525 downtown hotel rooms with as many as 2,300 more set to come on line by 2010. Many of those are connected by indoor walkway, but to the convention center and the city's football venue--not Conseco Fieldhouse.

"It's a competitive marketplace for arenas and cities looking to draw the nation's top events," said Milt Thompson, president of local sports marketing consultancy Grand Slam Cos. and an Indiana Sports Corp. board member. "And it's about to get more competitive. We'll have to stay on our toes."

Officials for the Indiana Pacers have already made clear to National Basketball Association brass that they do not want another franchise in Louisville.

Even without competing NBA franchises, Pacers Sports & Entertainment, which manages Conseco Fieldhouse, will have to compete for paying customers for events such as ice shows, concerts and circuses that could land at both locations. The areas around Columbus, Seymour and Bloomington could be especially competitive regions.

"Traditionally, when you look at events like these, you look at drawing from up to a 100-mile radius," said Randy Schwoerer, who formerly ran a sports and entertainment consultancy in Indianapolis and now manages the Sanger Theatre in Mobile, Ala. Because of the overlap in the two markets, filling seats at touring shows will be tougher, he said.

Rivaling Conseco Fieldhouse?

There's also concern that Louisville officials could start going after games and other exclusive events that have filled Conseco Fieldhouse's calendar since it opened in 1999.

Louisville officials have made it no secret that they expect their arena to rival Conseco Fieldhouse in the amenities it offers.

"That won't be easy," DeGaris said. "Conseco Fieldhouse is widely regarded as one of the best arenas in the country."

Louisville's new arena will replace 55-year-old Freedom Hall as the home of the University of Louisville's men's and women's basketball teams. The new arena will be managed by the Kentucky State Fair Board. Freedom Hall will remain, hosting primarily agricultural events, according to Louisville officials.

Rick Fuson, Pacers executive vice president and executive director of Conseco Fieldhouse, said there's little reason to worry about the new arena in Louisville.

"We have a strong schedule of events with the Pacers, [Indiana] Fever, the circus, 'Disney on Ice,' two or three [Indiana] Ice games, the John Wooden Tradition, a five-year commitment to host the Big Ten men's and women's basketball tournaments and other events," Fuson said. "This building continues to get great recognition, and we have a great reputation heading into our ninth year."

Conseco Fieldhouse in the last year has attracted about 200 events that brought nearly 2 million people through the turnstiles, Fuson said.

"Indianapolis is a great success story, and some people have become envious of what we have achieved," Fuson said. "If people are taking aim at us ... we feel competition can always make us stronger."

Fuson promised--in the face of growing competition--his staff will be "even more aggressive" at drawing events.

Louisville brings battle to Indy

Though the arena isn't set to open until the fall of 2010, Louisville officials are already aggressively pursuing events.

An entourage led by former Host Communications Chairman Jim Host, who heads the Louisville Arena Authority, has already made one trip to Indianapolis to lobby the NCAA for championship events, including the Women's Final Four, Frozen Four hockey championships, volleyball, wrestling, and swimming and diving championships. Host's group plans another trip to Indianapolis later this month to discuss the men's basketball tournament.

"Jim Host is pretty prominent in sports and has a lot of connections within the NCAA," Thompson said. "Anytime you have someone like Host and [University of Louisville men's basketball coach] Rick Pitino on your side, that's a strong team of advocates."

Officials for the Greater Louisville Sports Commission said NCAA officials were planning a follow-up visit to Louisville in October for a tour.

Host began his career in sports marketing in 1972 with the formation of his own company, renamed Host Communications in 1982. Host worked extensively in broadcasting, publishing and licensing with the University of Kentucky and the NCAA, among others. Host Communications was named one of the world's top five sports marketing agencies in 2000 by Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal.

Host sold his Lexington-based company to Atlanta-based Bull Run Corp. in December 1999 and left to become commerce secretary for the state of Kentucky in November 2003, a job he held for two years. Since 2005, Host has devoted himself to the Louisville arena project.

"Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed," Thompson said. "Believe me, nobody here is sitting back and idly waiting for events to come to us. We realize we're in an arms race."

Host thinks Louisville is primed to take a bite out of business in multiple markets.

"This is going to be a true multipurpose arena," Host said. "It will be a huge concert arena. We think it will compete with Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse and Nashville [Tenn.] and Gaylord [Opryland Resort & Convention Center]."

Conseco Fieldhouse has 17 concerts on its calendar over the next year. That's down from 28 during the facility's inaugural year.

While some national acts might choose to book shows in both Indianapolis and Louisville, concert promoters said others will choose one or the other.

With a low- to mid-six-figure profit in hosting 17 concerts, Schwoerer said Conseco Fieldhouse officials will want to hang on to the market share it has.

"With a facility like that, they should really have 20 to 24 concerts a year," Schwoerer said. "They'll need to become more aggressive."

Yummy marketing muscle

The Louisville effort could get a big boost from something Indianapolis doesn't have--a corporate naming-rights partner with a consumer brand, DeGaris said.

Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., which counts Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silver's, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut among its properties, is rumored to be interested in the naming rights for the new facility. Louisville Arena Authority officials are shopping a 20-year naming rights deal for $40 million to $50 million.

"Yum! Brands has a tremendous amount of marketing muscle, and if they have a vested interest in the events that come to that arena and the success of that arena, that could make a huge difference," DeGaris said. "Indianapolis simply doesn't have that kind of consumer-brand-oriented company headquartered here to leverage."

But Indianapolis' reputation as the "Crossroads of America" should help it retain events, Schwoerer said.

"The shows that travel by bus and truck will be looking for major stops along the interstate highway system, and Indianapolis has that from the east and west and north and south," Schwoerer said.

Host said Louisville can match Indianapolis' location. "Louisville is within a day's drive of 66 percent of the nation's population and within a two-hour flight of 70 percent of the U.S.," Host said.

Susan Williams, Indiana Sports Corp. executive director, said it will take more than a spiffy new venue and convenient location to wrestle sports and event business away from Indianapolis.

"The thing that continues to enhance Indianapolis and is one of the most difficult things to replicate is our army of 1,500 experienced volunteers ... and the expertise we have in executing events," Williams said. "That's been 26 years in the making."

Louisville is not only solidly behind financing the new facility, but city and corporate officials there have also indicated they will financially support efforts to bid for and host events.

"The landscape has definitely changed," Williams said. "There are a number of cities willing to step up with significant financial packages. The dollars that cities are offering up to attract events are very compelling for [events] rights holders. We can't be complacent and assume events will come here."

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