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For concert promoters, bigger isn't always better

When U2 plays M&T Bank Stadium next year, it will be a major financial and promotional coup for a city that hasn't had a stadium headliner in two years.

But don't expect an encore any time soon.

With strong regional competition and weak sales for concerts nationwide, the stadium isn't likely to book musical headliners when the Ravens aren't in season for the next few years, stadium officials said.

"No one's beating down our doors, I can tell you that much," said Roy Sommerhof, vice president of stadium operations at M&T. "There's a lot of uneasiness in the concert business."

Pop acts are now more likely to settle for smaller arenas, which cost less and sell faster than the old stadium standby.

"Artists have found they can make stadium-level money by playing indoors for a fraction of the overhead," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry trade magazine Pollstar.

U2's 2011 show indicates the difficulties stadiums nationwide are facing. It took a year to put together.

Sommerhof first approached Live Nation to book the massively successful Irish rock band in March of last year.

But booking a show at the stadium is a complicated dance that involves many players: Live Nation, the nation's biggest tour promoter; regional competition from FedEx Field near Washington D.C. and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia; and the Ravens and the Orioles, with whom M&T shares parking space.

Although the Maryland Stadium Authority runs M&T, the Ravens book the shows; Sommerhof works for the team. Last year the deal fell apart because the fall date promoters Live Nation wanted conflicted with the Ravens schedule. In 2007, the same thing happened with Sting's The Police.

Sommerhof also said the cost of a stadium concert means they can only book artists who can sell all 70,000 seats, or they won't make a profit.

"If you look at the concert industry today, you're not seeing many acts playing stadium shows," he said. "For an act to sell a stadium now, it'd would have to be a mega act," he said.

That's why M&T hasn't had a concert since 2008's Kenny Chesney show, he said.

This is a situation that's not unique to Baltimore, Bongiovanni said. While rock bands used to exclusively play stadiums, in the last decade the increased cost of producing a stage show has shifted the burden of making a profit to the stadiums.

"The economics of producing a stage show today are extremely difficult," he said. "To make it work, you almost have to guarantee a sellout or come close to capacity."

"You might sell 40,000 seats, which is nothing to sneeze at, but you could still lose money. The profit is in those last 10,000 to 20,000 seats."

Because only a few headliners can do that –-- some country stars and classic rock bands like the Rolling Stones -- putting a concert is a tough sale for stadiums, and one they would pursue only when they have a guaranteed sell, Bongiovanni said.

New Jersey's New Meadowlands Stadium, one of the more popular stadium venues, only has two or three shows a year now, he added. "Even in a good year, you're only going to get a couple," he said.

Still, FedEx Field near Washington has been more successful at booking headliners than Baltimore. Sommerhof said that has hurt the stadium's booking abilities.

"We know we've got a lot of competition for concerts and the NCAA lacrosse championships," he said.

When M&T couldn't accommodate U2 last year, the band instead played at Fed

Ex, which also hosted Paul McCartney in the same year

More artists, even major acts like Lady Gaga and Bruce Springsteen, are instead flocking to arenas, which cost a fraction of an outdoor concert, Bongiovanni said. And by scaling prices, they also sell faster.

1st Mariner Arena, which can accommodate up to 14,000 patrons, hosted Springsteen last year, and will be the first stop of Sade's first tour in a decade. Merriweather Post Pavilion, with a capacity of 15,000, hosted Vampire Weekend this year and the Virgin Mobile FreeFest.

Sommerhof said M&T was approached by a promoter eight months ago that canceled at the last minute because it realized it made more financial sense to play two arena shows than a stadium.

Instead of booking concerts, M&T has pursued sporting events, like the soccer showdown between Chelsea and AC Milan last year and lacrosse championships.

City officials said that despite the cost of staging these shows, M&T should still pursue them because of its financial rewards for the city. In 2005, HFStival generated $6.1 million for the city, according to the Maryland Stadium Authority. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said shows like U2 would put the city on the concert circuit.

And Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the concert would give the city a psychic boost as well as an economic one.

"There's the intangible impact," Fowler said. "It may be simplistic, but it says something about the city to attract acts like this. It gave me a feeling that Baltimore is being accepted on the national and international music stage."

Somerhoff said the benefit of the U2 show is that it would telegraph to other international acts Baltimore can handle them and sell tickets.

When asked when the next U2-like event would happen, he hesitated, saying the stadium has a few feelers out, but didn't know if something similar was possible in the next two years.

He hopes the show will lead to others.

"When the mayor says that she'd like more concerts, we'd like to deliver that as well," he said. "We were persistent to get Baltimore on Live Nation's radar, and that persistence paid off."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

Major events at M&T Stadium

September 1998: The stadium hosts first regular-season game.

1999: M&T hosts the first HFStival, headlined by Red Hot Chili Peppers, attracting 75,000.

2005: Coldplay, Billy Idol, headline HFStival

August 2007: Ravens schedule foils performance by The Police

Summer 2009: AC Milan and Chelsea showdown

Fall 2009: Planned U2 performance conflicts with Ravens schedule

June 2011: U2 performs at M&T for the first time

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