Events colossus in Lucas’ sights: Sunshine Promotions founder pursues Clear Channel unit

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The Indianapolis executive has alerted the Texas company of his interest and lined up preliminary financing, according to Craig Pinkus, a partner with Bose McKinney & Evans representing Lucas.

“All I’m going to say is, the expression of interest is not a frivolous expression, and there are substantial preliminary arrangements,” Pinkus told IBJ. “This is not an effort of some kind to get attention and waste people’s time.”

The unit’s parent, San Antonio-based radio giant Clear Channel Communications, announced in late April that it planned to spin off the entertainment unit to its shareholders later this year, creating a separate stand-alone public company.

Trade publications say several concert promoters and investment firms likely will dangle proposals in hopes of getting the company to sell instead.

A likely scenario, some analysts and industry insiders believe, is for Clear Channel Communications to sell the unit in parts-dismantling the consolidation that transformed the industry in the 1990s.

SFX Broadcasting Inc. bought Fishersbased Sunshine in 1997 for $50 million. It was the New York company’s second purchase in a coast-to-coast buying spree of regional concert promoters. Three years later, SFX sold them to Clear Channel Communications for $4 billion-more than double what analysts now believe the business is worth.

“My feeling on what is going to happen is, there is going to be a fragmented saleback. There will be a return to the way things were before this consolidation madness began,” said John Valant, a former Sunshine and Clear Channel official who now runs Indianapolis-based Valant Marketing Group. “Dave is going to be right in the middle of it, and will be right back on top, I believe.”

Lucas, 57, said he and investors backing him are interested in acquisitions in the industry, including Clear Channel Entertainment. But he did not want to comment in detail, saying: “For me to show my hand to everyone would not be good business.”

A spinoff of the entertainment unit into a new public company would not necessarily keep suitors at bay, observers say, since they could be free to attempt to strike a deal with that firm’s yet-to-be-formed board.

Lucas had served as president and co-CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment’s live music division for more than two years when he departed late last year following the management restructuring.

He hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for the business. Early this year, he formed Live 360, which recently promoted its first concert, the May 8 Good Charlotte/Simple Plan show at the Pepsi Coliseum.

Pinkus said Live 360 is working on arranging shows for Conseco Fieldhouse and other venues. Live 360 is the concert promotion arm for the recently formed Dave Lucas Entertainment Group, which will encompass several firms that promote and market live events.

For now, the venture is a shadow of Sunshine, which grew to become a top promoter of live entertainment events in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. It also owned Deer Creek Music Center (now Verizon Music Center), held the lease for the Murat Centre, and owned Polaris Amphitheatre in Columbus, Ohio.

“Dave was one of the network of dominant players in the business in the prerollup days. He had his part of the country where he was basically king,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication covering the concert industry.

Valant hasn’t spoken recently to Lucas. But he’s confident Lucas and other promoters who once reigned in their regions would covet the opportunity to buy venues in their area and regain their dominance.

“Right now, a lot of these promoters are faced with starting over,” he said. By striking separate deals with the promoters and others, Clear Channel Communications likely would reap more money than if it sold to a single buyer, Valant said.

The concert industry has been abuzz about possible deals since April 29, when Clear Channel announced the restructuring in a bid to create value for its embattled shareholders, who’ve watched their stock shed 60 percent of its value over the past five years.

Executives have attempted to shoot down sale speculation since. Last month, Chief Financial Officer Randall Mays, whose family founded the company, said: “Clear Channel Entertainment is not for sale. We think it has tremendous upside value. If we sold it, we wouldn’t be able to realize the full value of the company, and as large shareholders that’s not something we’re willing to give up.”

However, Victor Miller, an analyst with Bear Stearns, said in a May 31 report that announcing the spinoff plan had the effect of putting the entertainment unit “in play,” and he thinks selling it would be best for Clear Channel’s shareholders.

Clear Channel Entertainment owns Verizon and 74 other venues in the United States and 29 internationally. In addition to concerts, the unit stages Broadway shows, motorsports events and traveling exhibitions.

It produced 28,500 events last year and generated revenue of $2.8 billion. Operating profit was $95 million, 27 percent below a year earlier.

Clear Channel Communications had jumped into the concert game in hopes of establishing advertising synergies with its other main businesses, radio and billboards. Clear Channel is the nation’s biggest radio company, with 1,200 stations.

But the benefits failed to materialize, and the company found itself a lightning rod for criticism. Artists feared they wouldn’t get airplay on Clear Channel stations unless they played its venues, and rival promoters charged the company used unfair tactics to squeeze them out.

Meanwhile, to gain market share, Clear Channel upped the fees it paid artists, a move that contributed to the doubling of concert ticket prices over the past decade, Pollstar’s Bongiovanni said. He said high ticket prices were a big reason 2004 was dismal for the concert industry.

Factors outside Clear Channel’s control have added to the pressures, Bongiovanni said. Artists used to tour to drive CD sales. But as music downloading put strain on that industry, artists began demanding higher fees for performing.

In an acknowledgment that the SFX acquisition had gone awry, Clear Channel three years ago took a write-down to reflect a 75-percent drop in the value of the business.

Last year, it dropped the Clear Channel Entertainment name in local markets, an apparent acknowledgment that it had little cache with concertgoers. Instead, it reverted to older regional names, including Sunshine Promotions here.

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