After the swarms of fist-pumping Bon Jovi fans have taken their seats Tuesday night, Time Warner Cable Arena expects to mark a milestone: its 10 millionth visitor.
It comes as executives for the Charlotte Bobcats, which operates the uptown arena on behalf of the city, say they have increasingly gone after national-level concerts and events to complement the NBA and minor league hockey games the arena is home to.
From the team’s perspective, the new focus has been a financial benefit both to the Bobcats and its hometown – and the milestone a justification of the $265 million that Charlotte invested in building the arena.
“The property has really proven itself, particularly over the past couple of years,” said Pete Guelli, executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer. Team executives particularly noted the Democratic National Convention in September 2012 and the just-ended CIAA basketball tournament as key successes.
The arena’s construction came with a host of controversies. In 2001, voters rejected a city bond referendum that would have spent $205 million on a new arena for the Charlotte Hornets, plus millions more for arts projects. The NBA team said it was losing money on the Charlotte Coliseum, which opened in 1988 on Tyvola Road.
In 2002, the Hornets announced they would move to New Orleans. That November, the Charlotte City Council voted to put $265 million toward a new arena uptown to bring in a new NBA franchise.
Opponents at the time said the city was spending too much for a professional sports league in a lull in popularity, and bristled at the council’s decision to go forward with an arena when the city’s residents had voted against it.
The arena – which seats 19,000 for NBA games and as many as 20,200 for college basketball – was finished in 2005, and inaugurated by the Rolling Stones on Oct. 21. The Bobcats played their first game at what was then known as Charlotte Bobcats Arena in November 2005.
Time Warner Cable bought the naming rights in 2008, just after the arena hosted the ACC men’s basketball tournament. It’s since been home to the CIAA basketball tournament, Taylor Swift, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and, most notably, the DNC.
“I think, on reflection, the city has made a very good investment in the arena,” said Harold Cogdell, who served on City Council when it decided to build the arena and was critical of the vote at the time. “I still think that the way the council moved forward – in light of the referendum that was put to the public for consideration – was not a very prudent way to handle the decision.”
But some arena opponents still feel the investment was an error. Former city councilman Don Reid said he feels the coliseum on Tyvola Road would still have been a draw for most of the events that Time Warner Cable Arena now hosts. He also criticizes the decision to let the Bobcats benefit from profits made from other events there.
“For all intents and purposes we gave the arena to the Bobcats,” he said. “It’s the biggest single financial mistake I feel the city has ever made.”
Since 2009, the Bobcats said the team has grown more aggressive in booking big-name events that appeal to a wide range of demographics, and the city’s investment is one of the reasons why the team has done so.
Team President Fred Whitfield touted the upcoming Beyonce concert as an example. The singer is hitting only 22 cities in the country, and none closer than Atlanta or Washington D.C.
“We’ve really focused more on the property as a whole as opposed to just Bobcats games. We’ve tried to put ourselves in the position such that we can be in the running for every major concert and family show on the road,” said Fred Whitfield, Bobcats president and chief operating officer. “It’s really about trying to book this building and having it busy as many nights a year as we can.”
He pointed to how the arena contributes to uptown and the economic impact of events like the DNC as indications that the city’s investment has paid off.
Tuesday night, the team will celebrate its 10 millionth visitor with considerable “pomp and circumstance,” Guelli said. Whoever’s determined to be the 10 millionth will be greeted by executives, whisked to premium seats and given free tickets to later events.
The arena will have reached the milestone in less than eight years. It’s unclear how that pace stacks up against its peers. In November, the KeyArena in Seattle announced that it had reached 17 million visitors in the 17 years since it was built in 1995. The Bobcats say the arena has between 1.5 million and 2 million visitors each year. Raleigh’s PNC Arena reports about 1.5 million per year.
The team won’t say whether it is profitable or not; Guelli said its performance has been stronger year over year with its event bookings.
“You can’t dictate how the team is going to perform, but we can have an impact on how the property is going to perform,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we focused and got everything out of this building that we possibly could for the business and for the city.”