Bye Bye, Billie

Downsized arenas run the risk of missing out on young popular touring acts, like Billie Eilish

From the freeway, the Tacoma Dome doesn’t look like much. Heading up the 5 from McChord Air Force Base towards Seattle a few years back, the Worldwide Reader couldn’t help but notice the difference between the former temporary home of the Sonics and modern arenas. Tacoma’s pride & joy is an actual dome — round and everything — with an American flag on top. No soaring glass atriums, no team signage, and no ancillary bars or restaurants taking advantage of the economic fallout from sports fans.

What the Tacoma Dome has that many NBA arenas don’t — aside from the aforementioned patriotic accoutrement — is hot, young touring acts. Billie Eilish graces the spartan mass of telescopic seating that is the T-Dome on April 10, 2020, and Harry Styles follows on August 18.

The touring habits of the young, rich & famous are notable because they belie much of what NBA teams have said about arenas. Fans want intimate settings, diverse seating options, high end local food & beverage, and curated luxury experiences, or so we’re told. The Tacoma dome is not intimate — it was designed to support soccer, along with typical arena sports like hoops and hockey — there are no luxury suites, clubs or even premium seats, and the concession offerings are basic. Yet, over 20,000 screaming teeny-boppers will have no problem tolerating the decidedly non-luxurious experience of the Dome to watch Billie or Harry.

One show at a basic barn like the Tacoma Dome may not mean much if it weren’t for the fact that the two hottest young acts on tour are skipping so many NBA arenas. Billie Eilish hits only thirteen of the twenty-nine hoop havens on her 2020 tour, while Harry Styles booked fifteen.

The rosy side of the otherwise shady business of government-subsidized arenas is supposed to be that the locals have a chance to witness popular musicians. The Bucks, Jazz, Grizzlies, Hornets and Pelicans all play in arenas that were partially or wholly built using government funds. None of their cities get Harry or Billie. Even bigger cities — Atlanta, Phoenix, Minneapolis — are only getting one of the two.

Contracts and arrangements for arena tours are complex, and there are surely a few factors that went into those musicians’ decisions to skip so many fancy NBA arenas in favor of places like the Tacoma Dome and The Forum (a no-frills arena near LA that snagged multiple dates with both Billie and Harry). The Reader suspects that the downsizing of NBA arenas is one of those factors, and that these situations will become more prevalent.

In the Reader’s home town of Milwaukee, for example, the Bucks controlled the design of their new arena. While the building has a purported basketball capacity of 17,500, the number of in-bowl seats (including luxury suites) is 16,000. (Modern NBA attendances include users, concession workers, etc.; essentially any warm body in or around the facility on game night.) Touring acts typically get no scratch from concessions or luxury suites & lofts. Basic seats are what matter, and the Bucks don’t have many of those any more.

The Hawks, Jazz, Warriors, Cavs, T-Wolves, Pistons, Kings, Pacers, Pelicans, Nets and Blazers — along with the Reader’s beloved Bucks — have all reduced seating capacity substantially in recent years, either by getting a new arena or with a substantial renovation, and the Suns, Clippers and Lakers are in line to follow. Their idea is to drive up ticket prices and avoid the optics of empty seats. Fair enough, but those cities may lose a few hot young concert acts as a consequence.

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