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Van Halen sues Orioles over concert that wasn't

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The title of Van Halen's 1988 hit, "Finish What Ya Started," could double as the header for a breach-of-contract lawsuit the rock band has filed against the Baltimore Orioles.

Van Halen contends in a suit recently filed in federal court in Los Angeles that the baseball team sought to have it perform the first-ever concert inside Camden Yards next month and then backed out of the deal.

The band's touring company is suing the team for "at least" $2 million in damages, saying it rearranged its schedule and lost other opportunities to perform in Baltimore. The proposed deal would have paid the group $1.5 million plus 80 percent of ticket and merchandise sales for a September concert.

The ill-fated deal marks a rocky beginning to the Orioles' efforts to bolster stadium revenue by bringing major shows to the 12-year-old ballpark. It won the right to do so three years ago in a hard-fought legal battle with the Maryland Stadium Authority. Industry experts contend the lawsuit could hamper negotiations with other bands.

The Van Halen show was slated for Sept. 2 when the Orioles are scheduled to play at Tampa Bay. It would have been the first major musical act booked at Oriole Park as a separate event. The Orioles have sponsored concerts before and after games as promotions, but they're free and held just outside the ballpark.

The Orioles declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A spokesman for Van Halen declined to comment on the situation, saying the lawsuit, filed Aug. 10, speaks for itself.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District in Los Angeles, Van Halen says Orioles Entertainment faxed its booking agent April 27 with an offer of $1 million to play a concert in early September. The band initially declined, saying it planned to be touring in the South then and most of its concerts were in smaller indoor arenas.

The next day, the Orioles upped the offer to $1.5 million, including the 80 percent share of ticket and merchandise sales. That got the band's attention, according to the suit, and negotiations by fax, e-mail and phone progressed over the next days and weeks. The offer was unusually lucrative for a band of Van Halen's vintage, concert industry experts said.

After much back-and-forth, the band's agents agreed to the deal orally in mid-June, then followed up in writing about June 24, the documents say.

But a few weeks later, the Orioles stopped communicating with the band and formally repudiated the agreement in a letter dated July 26, the complaint says. The court documents shed no light on the reason for the breakdown in negotiations.

"In addition to using its resources to plan the concert, Van Halen had to change the dates of other scheduled concerts and forgo other concert opportunities in order to accommodate the Oriole Park concert," the suit claims.

Industry experts say it's uncommon for venues to back out of a deal after coming so close to finalizing a contract.

"You burn a band of Van Halen's stature and then few people are going to want to deal with you in the future," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a concert industry trade magazine. "I'm not aware of the specifics here, but there are times when people who don't have a good background in the concert business make moves that are not supported by financial reality and then try to get out of them."

The choice of Van Halen as one of the ballpark's first rock concerts seems at odds with the venue, he said. The band has averaged 12,690 people at its most recent 11 shows, most of which were played in arenas or small outdoor stadiums known as "sheds." Oriole Park has a seating capacity of more than 48,000.

Seth Hurwitz, whose Bethesda company, I.M.P. Inc., manages the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, agreed the Orioles were paying an unusually steep price for Van Halen, considering the crowds the band typically draws. The hard-rock band, which broke up in the mid-1990s, was an MTV favorite after unleashing a string of chart-topping hits in the 1980s. It has played to much smaller crowds since launching a reunion tour last year.

But Hurwitz said the Orioles might have been looking for a way to jump start a nascent concert business by taking less profit initially. The ballclub recently created a subsidiary, Orioles Entertainment LLC, to pursue concert business.

"Sometimes you just have to throw money at people to give your venue a try," Hurwitz said.

The Orioles aren't alone in trying to bolster stadium income. The state Stadium Authority launched a separate effort last week to explore alternative uses for Camden Yards, including the possibility of concerts. To lead the initiative, it created the Camden Yards Sports and Entertainment Commission.

"The state has a big investment in those two facilities, and to the extent that we can utilize them is a big benefit to the state, and that's all that's driving it," said Carl A.J. Wright, the stadium authority's chairman. Wright had not heard about the Van Halen lawsuit and declined to comment on the matter.

Soon after Peter Angelos took over the team in the fall of 1993, he and the stadium authority clashed over whether the authority could stage rock concerts at Oriole Park. Angelos balked at the idea of the stadium having the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd at the ballpark in 1994, saying he was concerned the stage could damage the playing field.

"I'm not going to have it become some kind of honky-tonk for various and sundry rock 'n' roll bands," Angelos said in an interview on the topic four years ago.

But the team altered course after it won the right to profits from concerts at the state-owned ballpark in 2001. The team pressed the stadium authority to grant it contract terms similar to those given to the Ravens football franchise when it moved to Baltimore. The football stadium had a rock concert and the Army-Navy football game several years ago, among non-Ravens events.

In addition to the right to have concerts at Oriole Park, an arbitration panel awarded the Orioles stadium-naming rights and required the stadium authority to pay $10 million for improvements to the park, among other concessions.

The arbitration panel set the stage for the Orioles' pursuit of Van Halen and other bands. But industry officials say baseball stadiums aren't typically in the concert business.

They tend to make poor venues, they said, because it costs more to set up a stage and equipment on a playing field and then tear it down in time for the home team's next game. Bands are often reluctant to invest in the extra overhead when they can easily play an arena that is more readily equipped to handle concerts.

However, baseball and big-name musicians can co-exist under the right circumstances. Bruce Springsteen played to a large crowd at Fenway Park in Boston last September and Jimmy Buffett is slated to play the park next month based on that success.

Last week, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson played to about 6,000 fans at the Ripken Stadium minor-league park in Aberdeen.

Hurwitz, the Bethesda concert promoter, says Camden Yards is a well-regarded park that could draw similar crowds with the right band.

"It's appealing because no one has played Camden Yards before," he said. "The bottom line is it would be pretty cool."

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