Chicago gets a new player


August 30, 2001



A third major promoter is about to enter the already fiercely competitive Chicago concert market, and it will debut in a big way with a Britney Spears concert here in November.

A longtime player in the industry, the Los Angeles-based Concerts West was invigorated last year by an infusion of cash from its new owners, the Anschutz Investment Co. of Denver, Colo.

Anschutz's varied holdings include several sports franchises, among them the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Fire soccer team, which is negotiating to play its home games at the Arlington International Racecourse. Part of Concerts West's plan for moving into Chicago involves using the Arlington Heights facility to present summer concerts.

The Anschutz file

Since the late 1960s, the Denver-based Anschutz Investment Co. has become one of the nation's largest privately owned corporations. In addition to Concerts West of Los Angeles, it owns controlling interests in:

*Qwest Communications, an Internet communications firm.

*Union Pacific, the largest railroad in North America.

*Union Pacific Resources, the country's largest independent energy company.

*Anschutz Exploration, a firm that hunts for oil and gas reserves in the States, Canada and Europe.

*Anschutz Real Estate, whose holdings include Los Angeles' Staples Center.

*The Anschutz Sports Group, whose U.S. interests include the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy, WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, MLS' Colorado Rapids and the Chicago Fire. In Europe, the company has interests in the hockey teams London Knights, Munich Barons, Berlin Eisbarens, Sparta Praha and Geneva Eagles.

This development would put Concerts West/Anschutz in competition with longtime local promoters Jam Productions and powerful newcomers Clear Channel Entertainment.

In the last three years, Clear Channel (formerly SFX) has become the 800-pound gorilla of the concert business, spending billions to purchase venues across the country. Its theaters in the northern Illinois-southern Wisconsin area include the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park, Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wis., and the Marcus Amphitheatre in Milwaukee.

Clear Channel has been widely criticized for driving up ticket prices, bringing corporate sponsorship of tours to a new level, and attempting to create a monopoly via its control of dozens of venues and ownership of some 1,200 radio stations. Earlier this month, another Denver-based concert promoter filed a federal lawsuit accusing the company of "predatory" business practices.

Concerts West hopes to offer a national alternative. "We're sort of the anti-Clear Channel," said Michael Roth, director of communications for the Anschutz Entertainment Group. "There are a lot of things that are clearly part of their business plan and what they stand for, and we are 180 degrees from that."

Clear Channel was dealt its first major blow when Concerts West won the exclusive rights to promote the national tour tied to Spears' third album, which will be released Nov. 6.

The singer's last tour (which included a stop at the Tweeter Center) was promoted by Clear Channel, but industry sources report that the dance-pop diva's management team was unhappy with the firm.

"Clear Channel Entertainment has a great relationship with Britney and her entire team, and we look forward to working together in the future," said company president Rodney Eckerman. "We have been a major supporter of her career and wish her well on her upcoming tour."

Spears is expected to perform here in early November, most likely at the United Center. Specifics such as ticket prices and on-sale dates have not yet been announced.

At the Arlington Heights facility, the Chicago Fire hopes to build a soccer stadium with some 20,000 seats on the western edge of the racetrack. The proposal the team that presented to Arlington owner Dick Duchossois and village officials also notes that the stadium could host up to 10 concerts a year.

"I think we have to go one step at a time," said Arlington Heights village manager Bill Dixon. "The first question is whether Arlington Park will actually let a stadium be built for soccer. If you get past that hurdle, then you have to get approval from the village for a soccer stadium."

The third step would be to seek approval for concerts. Dixon said the village has had mixed experiences with live music at Arlington. In 1998, the Guinness Fleadh rock festival turned into a debacle of poor planning and overcrowding, but several smaller concerts the following season at Arlington were trouble-free.

"I think the village is very supportive of the Fire," Dixon said. "But the concert question is one where the village would have a healthy skepticism."

The northwest suburbs have been without a major outdoor rock venue since Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates shut down in 1994. Roth has said that the Arlington racetrack would provide the Chicago area with another sorely needed facility.

Countered Clear Channel's Eckerman: "In Chicago, as in many of the other markets around the country, there are multiple venues for consumers to see live entertainment. Between the Tweeter Center, Alpine Valley and Marcus Amphitheatre, we are very confident in our ability to continuously attract the top artists and provide the highest quality of entertainment for our consumers."

Chicago is one of the few concert markets in the country that still has two competing promoters. Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of Jam Productions, did not seem to be alarmed by the prospect of a third competitor entering the ring.

"They see an opportunity," Mickelson said of Concerts West. "I don't know how this shakes out for the consumer or for us, but we believe Concerts West is more consumer-friendly than Clear Channel, and we hope they really are 180 degrees different than Clear Channel."

Last year, Mickelson formed a coalition with the nation's few remaining independent promoters to compete with Clear Channel for tours such as Spears', but it has had little success. Two of the coalition's member companies have since been purchased by Clear Channel; the national House of Blues chain has been experiencing financial woes, and New York-based promoter John Scher was recently forced to resign from his own firm.

In the local market, Jam remains active on the theater and club level, but Clear Channel has dominated major tours such as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and U2.

"We're not doing very many arena tours, and that's where the money is," Mickelson said. "Clear Channel is skimming all of the cream off the top."