Last week, for the second time in a month, Bridgestone Arena changed from ice to hardwood.
The second and third rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament sent the Predators packing for the West Coast, just as the SEC women’s championship sent the team on the road in late February.
In the meantime, squeezed between Predators’ games and hoops championships, were live performances by Nickelodeon heartthrobs Big Time Rush, country superstar Jason Aldean and Canadian rap sensation Drake.
It’s been a busy building at Fifth and Broadway and looks to be busier still in upcoming weeks, with the NHL playoffs and summer concert season looming.
After the local ownership group bought the Predators in 2007, Metro and the group’s arena management arm — Powers Management — inked an incentive-laden deal, tying subsidies from the city to certain attendance benchmarks for both hockey games and other events.
Under the current lease and incentive structure, Powers is paid $7.8 million from the city’s general fund. Since the local owners bought the team, and thus took over arena management duties, Metro has paid more than $38 million to Powers.
That subsidy was designed to be paid through tourism taxes and fees — originally put in place to pay for the original convention center before going to the arena coffers — but now that money goes to pay for the Music City Center, and the arena dollars come out of the general fund.
The agreement was set to automatically renew June 30 if the Metropolitan Sports Authority did not take action before the end of 2011.
The authority — with the Predators’ blessing — extended the deadline to the end of April. The board is scheduled to meet in its regular March session Thursday, and nothing on the agenda hints a new deal is ready for approval. It’s the last scheduled meeting before the deadline — and without action by then, the existing $7.8 million deal simply renews. Special meetings are fairly common for the authority, and should a new deal be ready for a vote, calling such a meeting is simple enough.
The Predators have used the extra 120 days to put on a strong forecheck, selling the city and its citizens on the benefits of a vibrant downtown arena.
At least once a week, a glowing tribute to the economic, cultural or emotional impact of the team and building hits reporters’ inboxes. During the recent road trip, Predators TV team Pete Weber and Terry Crisp waxed about the benefits the basketball tournaments yield downtown — their banter about economic impact a bit jarring in its departure from their usual shtick.
Thus far, little public has been said about the state of those negotiations, though Mayor Karl Dean has said repeatedly the city’s goal is to reduce that subsidy.
In a December interview, Dean said city leaders made a choice in 2007 and 2008 that having professional sports was significant enough for the city to subsidize, and in the meantime, the Preds and Powers have “more than lived up to their end” of the agreement. Dean also asserted the incentive package has been positive for the city.
Few, if any, other cities directly pay a tenant team out of the general fund to operate a facility, as is done here.
For example, in Tampa, the Tampa Bay Times Forum — home of the NHL’s Lightning — benefits from a $2 million capital fund — a combined city and county effort — with money coming from arena-generated sources.
The Predators have indicated a willingness toward a similar deal here. At December’s Sports Authority meeting, Predators COO Sean Henry — who formerly worked for the Lightning — said raising the seat-user fee at Bridgestone Arena could be used as a new revenue source.
“We have to come up with a revenue stream,” he said. “We are open to talking about that fee. I think we need to address it.”
That would mirror the deal between Titans and the authority, in which the seat-user fee at LP Field pays for the $26 million upgrade project on the East Bank.
Some members of the Sports Authority were reticent to tap into the user-fee dollars to pay for renovations for the football field, and may bristle at a similar plan at the arena.
Powers has commissioned an economic-impact study to demonstrate the worth of an active arena to the city, the results of which should be published soon. It will be the first such study since before construction began.
What’s clear already is that more people are clicking through the turnstiles at Bridgestone than ever before: Announced attendance for Predators games is at levels unseen since the honeymoon period of the team’s first seasons in Nashville. Through 33 home games, paid attendance averages 15,992, a best-ever figure. Ticket revenues are up nearly 6 percent. The team will break the record of 20 sellouts set in the 1999-2000 season.
Meanwhile, non-hockey events are up, as well. The arena benefits through a 2009 state law that shifts the non-school, state portion of sales taxes generated at non-hockey events to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for use by Powers and the Predators. The team also collects funds from the so-called “jock tax,” a flat fee paid by visiting players. Those state tax deals are unlikely to disappear, no matter what happens with the lease negotiations.
In the meantime, the structure of any new deal remains a mystery.