DCU Center Evolves After Glory Days Of The Centrum

Worcester Telegram
June 2019

WORCESTER — Earlier this month, Pentatonix played the DCU Center, marking the first and only concert scheduled for the Worcester arena this summer.

Sandy L. Dunn, general manager of the DCU Center, said the arena’s goal is to host eight to 10 concerts each fiscal year. While they were well behind that goal last fiscal year with only three concerts, the DCU Center will finish this year with 10 concerts.

The concert numbers for the DCU Center pale in comparison to the competition.

This summer, Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion in Boston has 33 concerts planned; Mohegan Sun Arena, 29 concerts; Xfinity Center in Mansfield, 28 concerts; the Grand Theater at Foxwoods in Connecticut, 25; TD Garden in Boston, 10 concerts; Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, five concerts, including the Rolling Stones; Fenway Park in Boston, four concerts, not including The Who and Billy Joel on Sept. 13 and 14, respectively; MGM Grand Springfield, working with Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, four Aerosmith concerts; and Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, three concerts.

John Harrity, chairman of the Worcester Civic Center Commission and vice president at Kelleher & Sadowsky (a commercial real estate & business broker), points out that the DCU Center has had several sellouts this year, including Michael Bublé on Feb. 26 and Luke Combs on March 2, and has hosted more concerts this fiscal year than the prior fiscal year. The city owns the arena, and it is managed by the private firm SMG, with oversight by the Civic Center Commission.

The DCU Center, formerly known as the Centrum, once dominated the New England Concert scene. From its opening in 1982 and into the 1990s, the arena flourished. Despite a setback in 1986 with the opening of Great Woods, the Centrum remained successful: Between 1986 and 1990, annual ticket sales at the Centrum topped $12 million for five straight years, reaching a high of $16 million in 1990.

The arena has had some success with hockey teams as tenants, with the IceCats and Sharks in the American Hockey League before the Worcester Railers, who play in the ECHL, arrived in 2017.

The Centrum expanded from 12,000 to 14,800 seats in 1989, and the convention center was added in 1997. But the 1995 opening of the new Boston Garden, formerly called Fleet Center, with nearly 20,000 seats was a blow to the Worcester arena in the competition for big shows.

“The DCU Center has and will continue to have an important impact to the city for all types of events,” Ms. Dunn said. “We are the largest draw to the region for events, with approximately 500,000 people through our doors annually.”

The net operating income at DCU Center for the last five fiscal years is $987,548 for fiscal 2018; $1,045,093 for fiscal 2017; $590,882 for fiscal 2016; $241,707 for fiscal 2015; $488,099 for fiscal 2014, according to Ms. Dunn. Fiscal 2019 ends June 30.

The DCU Center continues to make money by hosting its share of annual meetings, beer fests, business expos, competitions, conferences, conventions, corporate functions, expos, forums, graduations, recitals, seminars, showcases, training events and trade shows, but it appears to no longer be the premier concert destination in New England.

About $30 million in improvements are planned or completed. The arena significantly upgraded its WiFi, a 10-times increase in internet speed, last year. A new sound system, landscaping, seating, roof repairs and new escalators and electrical work have been proposed.

In February, AEG Facilities, owner of the Los Angeles Convention Center, Staples Center and other mega-venues, and SMG, the private facilities management services company that runs the DCU Center, signed a definitive agreement to merge as ASM Global, which will be the world’s biggest facility management company, with more than 310 venues across five continents.

“They have the experience and they have the ability to plug in the different shows or the different acts,” Mr. Harrity said.

So with all this talk of Worcester redevelopment, is it going to bring more concerts to the DCU Center?

“A healthy, vibrant market will bring more entertainment options to Worcester and already has,” Ms. Dunn said. “It is not just about the DCU Center, but all the venues. Artists that play Worcester early in their career and have a positive experience are likely to come back when they have built their career to a point that they can fill 6,000 to 12,000 seats. … Success breeds success.”

The Centrum had success from the start, when Frank Sinatra opened the arena on Sept. 2, 1982, and the glory days continued for years.

Before its first month ended, the Centrum topped $1.25 million in ticket sales and, with 19 events, out-booked any comparable arena in the country during its opening month of September. For the same month, the Boston Garden had only one booking.

On Sept. 22, 1982, Antonio G. Tavares, Centrum general manager, said the Centrum was averaging ticket sales of about $30,000 a day, which was higher than those recorded during the same period at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, reputed to be the most successful arena in the country at that time. In its second month, October 1982, the Centrum hit more than a $1 million in tickets sales and, during November 1982, the Centrum’s third month in operation, the Centrum generated gross ticket sales of more than $2 million.

During its first summer, from June 1 to Labor Day 1983, the Centrum was king of the hill – not just in New England but across the country. In those three months, the Centrum hosted 15 concerts, including two by the Kinks, two concerts by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Alabama, the Animals, Asia, Bette Midler, Jackson Browne, Loverboy, Stevie Nicks, Supertramp, Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, ZZ Top and, in their first arena show, U2 (and it wasn’t even sold out).

In its first complete year, the Centrum was used 197 times. There were 158 events scheduled for the main arena, nearly 70 concerts (compared to the Boston Garden’s three) and 39 events in the exhibition hall. A total of 1,126,304 people passed through the doors, including 60,473 in the exhibition hall.

In the summer of 1986, the Centrum suffered its first major setback when the 15,000-seat, outdoor amphitheater, Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, opened and became the area’s predominant summer concert venue.

“There certainly was a direct impact from Great Woods but, more importantly, was the change nationally on the concert model,” Ms. Dunn said. “Amphitheaters brought a new tour circuit. Artists accommodated new production requirements and designed their shows to this environment. And, the amphitheaters were normally owned by the promoters, fairly low investment (compared to an arena) with a much more modest infrastructure allowed them to utilize various revenue streams, parking, food and beverage, etc., to increase guarantees to artists to play their venue.”

The Centrum bounced back in a big way in the fall of ’86, with shows by David Lee Roth, the Moody Blues, Lionel Richie and Journey, as well as two sold-out shows by Bob Seger and two sold-out shows by Billy Joel, just for the month of October.

In 1986, Pollstar named the Centrum the second most popular entertainment facility in the country, with 11 of the 200 top-grossing concerts in the nation. The top money grossing entertainers at the Centrum were Neil Diamond ($911,983), followed by Van Halen ($762,386).

The period from March 28 and May 10, 1987, was the most profitable six-week period in the history of the building. During the 44-day period, the Centrum presented 43 performers or events, with gross ticket sales of $4,135,194. The bottom line was that net revenues to the Centrum were $1,008,175.

The Centrum earned $2.6 million in net income for the first 11 months of the 1986-87 fiscal year. The previous years, the net income was $1.86 million; 1985 was $1.77 million; 1984 was $1.35 million and 1983 was $1.28 million.

By the fall of 1987, there was a new emphasis on promoting shows at the Boston Garden. In response to the Garden having 15,000 seats, in 1989 the Centrum expanded to 14,800 seats — from roughly 12,000 seats — with the addition of the 300-level balconies.

On June 30, 1990, the Centrum set a fiscal year record for ticket sales, net income and gross revenue. The Centrum generated $15.3 million in ticket sales (up from $13 million in 1989), $16 million in gross revenue (up from $13.9 million the year before) and $2.9 million in net income (up from $1.98 million in ’89).

On Sept. 30, 1995, The Centrum suffered a “major blow” with the opening of the newly constructed, year-round, 19,580-seat FleetCenter, boasting 5,000 seats more than the Worcester arena.

“The TD Garden has a lot more seats,” Mr. Harrity explained. “So a touring band can come in, and they can perform and make a bundle of money in one night, as opposed to a 15,000 seat in Worcester, Massachusetts.”

Ms. Dunn said there is no way the DCU Center can add 5,000 seats to level the playing field with the Garden.

“Based on the footprint, we could only go up, which is removal of the roof, which would be very expensive,” she said. “Now it is as much about amenities as it is about capacity today. The city is working with Populous (a global architectural and design firm hired in 2016 to do a full facility assessment of the DCU Center and develop a master plan) on a future vision for the venue. It is not about adding seats in the arena.”

While there have been many changes in the live entertainment business, Ms. Dunn said the biggest obstacle facing the DCU Center in recent years has been the plethora of new concert venues, especially in the summer, including Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium.

The DCU Center is also competing against casino-run concert arenas, including the Grand Theatre at Foxwoods, MGM Springfield and Mohegan Sun Arena.

Venues Now Magazine ranked the Mohegan Sun Arena as the No. 1 venue for its size in the world and No. 1 its size in the United States, both in 2019, and Pollstar Magazine has named the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena top 10 for all size venues in the United States in 2019, and No. 17 for all size venues in the world.

Tom Cantone, senior vice president of sports and entertainment for Mohegan Sun, rattles off no bad seats in the house, ample free parking, easy traffic access and plenty to do before and after a show as reasons why the Mohegan Sun Arena is so popular.

“Mohegan Sun Arena hosts over 170 sports and entertainment events a year. The top three concert markets in the world today are New York City, Mexico City and Uncasville,” Mr. Cantone said.

Closer to home, the DCU Center will potentially be facing new competition from Polar Park, which is expected to have a capacity of about 10,000 people and is scheduled to open in April 2021, and a planned renovation of Worcester Memorial Auditorium at Lincoln Square.

“I remember going down there to see the Beach Boys,” Mr. Harrity said of Worcester Memorial Auditorium. “Let’s face it. The type of the building they have probably doesn’t have the good acoustics needed to set out a good show as we know it today.”

Mr. Harrity, whose graduation from St. John’s High School was at Worcester Memorial Auditorium, said there is no way that the Auditorium will regain its stranglehold on hosting high school graduations, as it did before the Centrum opened.

This year, the DCU Center hosted an estimated 20 high school graduations as well as seven proms.

“Whether it’s Holy Cross that has 20,000 sitting over in their stadium and it’s pouring out and you paid all that money to see your grandson or your son or daughter graduate, we’ve got them all coming,” Mr. Harrity said. “Look at all the high schools that are coming from outside the Worcester area that are coming and doing their thing. So we’ve adapted to that particular business.”

In addition to concerts, the arena has hosted it share of sports.

The DCU Center set the record for the largest crowd for a NCAA Northeast Hockey regional session, 12,517, on March 27, 1999; and broke the record for the most NCAA Hockey Tournament games by any arena in March 2012. In March 2018, the DCU Center set a new NCCA Northeast Regional hockey record with a two-day total of 13,940.

The DCU Center will be getting the NCCA Northeast Hockey regionals in 2020, and the arena is expecting to bid for both future NCAA hockey and men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

“We’re getting the NCAA hockey once again,” Mr. Harrity said. “We have also put in bids for the NCAA basketball, both men and women. And with the upgrading of hotel rooms, I’m sure we will be back in first round NCAA, both women and men, especially when all these hotel rooms they’re talking about come online.”

The Centrum has also had 20 years of American Hockey League with two teams: the Worcester IceCats, which played for 11 seasons (1994-2005), followed by the Worcester Sharks, which played for nine seasons (2006-2015). Both teams averaged 40 home games a season.

The Worcester Railers started its first season of 34 home games on Oct. 14, 2017. The ECHL team will start its third season on Oct. 12.

The Massachusetts Pirates, a football team in the National Arena League, kicked off its second season on April 13 with its first of seven home games at the DCU Center.

2019-06-26T15:30:18+00:00