No Fair

If rivals unite behind a planned amphitheater, other concert sites could feel the pain.

It's awfully hard to beat Clear Channel Communications Inc. at musical entertainment these days. So a rival for local concert business may join the conglomerate.Palace Sports & Entertainment Inc., which operates the St. Pete Times Forum, looks like it may team up with Clear Channel to develop a $25-million amphitheater at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Fair authority Executive Director Rick Vymlatil says he thought Palace Sports would compete against Clear Channel for the right to develop the 20,000-capacity amphitheater. But Palace Sports, which already owns an outdoor amphitheater in Michigan, dropped out early.

Executives at Palace Sports, which also owns the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team, have informed Vymlatil that they expect to come away from "long-standing discussions" at Clear Channel with a deal that would give their company a 50-percent stake in any amphitheater managed or operated by Clear Channel in Tampa.

But Sean Henry, local chief operating officer for Palace Sports, told Weekly Planet Dec. 18 that no final deal has been struck with Clear Channel.

"There's an opportunity for us out there," Henry said of the fairgrounds amphitheater. "We do a lot of shows with Clear Channel. Partnering with them has been very easy for us."

Joseph C. Nieman, Florida operations vice president for Clear Channel's music entertainment division, declined comment on the talks with Palace Sports.

But Vymlatil says he has seen and heard nothing to indicate an amphitheater partnership won't be established between Palace Sports and Clear Channel. The fair authority is set to approve an amphitheater deal in January.

The alliance could grab what little concert business has been left to taxpayer-supported venues like the USF Sun Dome in Tampa. It could take shows away from the St. Pete Times Forum, too.

That has concerned the Tampa Downtown Partnership, a lobby for big downtown property owners who pushed hard to get the former Ice Palace built on the Tampa waterfront.

As for arena concert fans, they would be even more at the mercy of the commercially conflicted whims of irascible Clear Channel honchos.

Clear Channel is a monster that the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 helped create. Congress loosened media ownership restrictions in hopes of creating more competition in broadcasting and other fields. It didn't happen.

In fact, Clear Channel bought up hundreds of commercial radio stations and has come to dominate the American medium. More recently, the Texas conglomerate has moved into billboard advertising, concert promotion, satellite technology and wireless broadband.

In west central Florida, Clear Channel owns 18 radio stations and 2,150 billboards. Clear Channel was the nation's biggest live-music presenter in 2001. Amusement Business magazine pegged Clear Channel's concert gross at more than $1-billion.

In dozens of U.S. markets, concert acts that can start to fill an arena or amphitheater have to deal with Clear Channel to gain access to the buildings and "sheds," as the outdoor amphitheaters popular on summer tours are called. Likewise, their record labels have to deal with Clear Channel to gain radio airplay to lure fans to the shows and to music stores.

That kind of synergy isn't always pretty for consumers or competitors.

Take the situation in Denver. An independent promoter has accused Clear Channel of trying to drive it out of business by monopolizing Colorado concert bookings. In a federal antitrust lawsuit filed last year, Nobody In Particular Presents contends that Clear Channel's Denver radio stations give heavy play-list rotation to acts whose shows are put on by the conglomerate. Nobody In Particular Presents further contends that Clear Channel stations minimize airplay for performers it brings to Denver and refuse to publicize those concerts. Clear Channel has sought to dismiss the Denver lawsuit as baseless.

The record labels feel Clear Channel's might, too.

Last year, Randy Michaels, then-president of Clear Channel's radio division, threatened to blacklist Blink-182 on his stations unless the punk-pop act's label, MCA, dropped a competing Cincinnati station as sponsor of the band's concert in the Queen City, according to the online magazine

An outdoor music theater in Tampa makes sense for Clear Channel, says Jon Stoll, president of Fantasma Productions Inc., a Florida concert promoter.

There's a geographical gap between Clear Channel-controlled amphitheaters in Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh and West Palm Beach. With a fifth one here, Clear Channel could offer touring bands another date in the middle of a cluster of Southeast markets, says Stoll, whose company manages a comparatively small amphitheater in Pompano Beach.

Mega-stars generally make more money indoors than out in the sheds, according to Stoll. But Clear Channel's industry clout could drive many acts to the Tampa fairgrounds anyway, just so performers stay on the good side of the radio division.

Stoll says Clear Channel doesn't make much from ticket sales at its amphitheaters.

"They're mostly free shows. They paper the house with free tickets and turn the place into a gigantic bar," said Stoll. "As long as they get your butt on the grass, they can sell you the $9 beers and the food and the T-shirts."

Stoll says Fantasma was interested in submitting an amphitheater proposal in Tampa but there wasn't enough time before the fair authority's deadline last May.

Clear Channel's offer turned out to be the only one that fair officials could attract. Negotiations with Clear Channel have been arduous, fair records show.

At first, Clear Channel would guarantee only $200,000 in rental income for the first year. Clear Channel threw in another $90,000 from a measly 1.5 percent cut of the estimated $6-million in annual ancillary revenue from concessions, parking, souvenirs and venue naming rights.

Fair negotiators rejected Clear Channel's opener. They suggested a rent guarantee of $450,000, another $500,000 from parking, $100,000 from naming rights, and a $3-million up-front payment to replace facilities that have to be removed to make room for the amphitheater.

The most recent version of a memorandum-of-understanding between the two sides, dated Sept. 17, shows Clear Channel had upped its initial offer.

The memo calls for Clear Channel to pay $1.5-million upon signing the deal next month. Over the first 10 years of the deal, $900,000 of the $1.5-million would come back to Clear Channel in the form of forgiveness by the fair of advance rental payments on the amphitheater.

Within a year of the amphitheater's scheduled February 2004 opening, the fair would also get $275,000 in site rent and $450,000 in parking fees from Clear Channel. Both the site rent and the fair's share of the parking receipts would escalate annually over the 10 years.

The estimated value of the deal to the fair over those first 10 years: $9.3-million.

Residential neighbors of the fair are afraid they're going to get nothing but grief.

Nieman and other Clear Channel executives have tried to reassure them. The amphitheater would be constructed on the northern edge of the fairgrounds, away from nearby houses along Orient Road. The stage would face I-4. That way, automobile traffic noise would muffle the amplified performances and reduce the decibel level for homeowners in the vicinity, say Clear Channel executives.

The shows will be loud. Stoll says most of the larger sheds — 15,000 capacity and up — play host mainly to hard rock tours, like the annual Ozzfest featuring veteran heavy-metal maniac Ozzy Osbourne.

"They're not getting many James Taylor or Buffett shows anymore," said Stoll.

Contact News Editor Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].