Source: Venue websites
Matthew O'Brien woke up Wednesday, pulled a Nicki Minaj T-shirt over his bright pink hair, and drove from Tampa to Orlando for a concert by rappers Minaj and Lil Wayne.
He had hoped their tour would come to his city, maybe the St. Pete Times Forum, but no such luck. "No matter where it was," O'Brien, 22, said, "if it was in the tri-state area, I was going to be there."
Good thing he did. In the middle of the show, Minaj scanned the crowd of more than 13,000 for a fan to pull onstage — and that fan just happened to be O'Brien. Don't pee yourself from excitement, he remembers thinking.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime concert memory — but it wouldn't have happened if O'Brien hadn't been willing to drive 90 minutes up Interstate 4.
Like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, a number of major artists are bypassing Tampa for Orlando this year, from Britney Spears and Usher to Bon Jovi and Sade. It's enough to make Tampa Bay music fans wonder: Why are so many of this summer's hottest tours skipping our area?
If you drive through downtown Orlando, the answer can't be missed: The sparkling, $480 million Amway Center, sitting just off I-4. Opened in November, it replaced the 21-year-old Amway Arena as the home of the Orlando Magic, as well as the city's home for A-list concerts.
And the Amway Center is nothing if not A-list. Billed as the "most technologically advanced arena ever constructed," the building is a carnival of the senses: sprawling children's play castles; touchscreen chess and checkers tables; two posh nightclubs with panoramic views of the city, including one with dueling pianos; and an interactive Magic "fan experience" (Compare your shoe to Shaq's! Get "dunked on" by Dwight Howard!). In pricier areas, there's a wine bar, touchscreen concession ordering and a Ritz-Carlton VIP lounge next to the Magic locker room. ArenaDigest.com called the Amway "awesomeness on a stick, maybe the best arena in the NBA — or the planet."
It's the type of arena that you have to see to believe. And to city officials, who want to lure in both fans and performers, that's sort of the point.
"Our goal as the city is to bring as much entertainment into our community as possible," said Allen Johnson, executive director of Orlando Venues, a city venture that operates the Amway, the Citrus Bowl, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center and other venues.
It's already working. Despite a rocky start in late 2010 — one of the worst years ever for the concert industry — the Amway has rebounded in 2011, booking some of the highest-profile tours of the year.
Said Johnson: "It's almost like we never had a building before."
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Since opening in 1996, Tampa's Ice Palace/St. Pete Times Forum has been one of the top concert venues in Florida. Last summer, the industry magazine Pollstar named it America's fourth-best arena in terms of ticket sales, and 12th in the world. In 2009, another mag, Venues Today, pegged the Times Forum at No. 1 worldwide.
So when it comes to booking concerts in Central Florida, Tampa has long been the preferred option. For years, Johnson dealt with the "quagmire of agents saying, 'Orlando and Tampa are one market — if I play one or the other, I've played Central Florida.' Well, you haven't. We're 2.1 million people, you're 2.8. That's a large market. There are states in the Midwest that don't have 2.1 million people."
Steve Griggs was the head of sales and marketing for the Magic leading up to the Amway Center's debut. He said Amway officials looked at state-of-the-art arenas around the country to figure out what Orlando lacked — including the St. Pete Times Forum, 90 minutes down the road.
"There were a lot of events going into that building," said Griggs, who is now chief operating officer of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "That's why they had to build a new building in Orlando — to compete and get the same type of events that the Tampa Bay market was getting. And now you're going to see a lot of key acts are going to play in Tampa and Orlando."
Though both sides are loath to admit it, there is a "respectful competition" between the cities, said Elmer Straub, vice president of event booking at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Take, for instance, Katy Perry, who plays the Times Forum on June 10. The Amway wanted her, too, but was committed to hosting a high school graduation ceremony on June 9, the only available date. So Perry will perform at the 10,000-seat UCF Arena instead.
"I only had June 10 open," Johnson said. "Tampa couldn't move, for whatever reason. Maybe they didn't want to."
And then there's Britney Spears, who drew 20,000 fans to the Times Forum in 2009. She recently announced her tour would hit the Amway instead.
"You can't deny that there's going to be a honeymoon period: 'Hey let's go check the new building,' " said Straub, who believes Spears will return to Tampa on her tour's second leg. "But they can't escape the fact that they want to sell tickets. Twenty thousand screaming fans for Britney — they know that, too."
Straub has been through this before, when Live Nation opened the Ford Amphitheatre in 2004, and artists like Dave Matthews Band and Jimmy Buffett moved outside. "You miss having those shows," he said, but you adjust and move on. This year, Tampa has scored several big events that Orlando missed, such as Linkin Park, Iron Maiden and Keith Urban.
That said, every lost event still smarts a little.
"Even internally, people will sometimes say, 'Hey, how did we lose Bon Jovi to Orlando?' " Straub said.
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In February, Lightning owner Jeff Vinik announced plans for $35 million in renovations to the Times Forum, including all-new seats; new indoor and outdoor stages; renovated concourses, suites and locker rooms; and an 11,000-square-foot outdoor party deck (much like the Amway Center's Gentleman Jack Lounge).
"This has to be a building for all fans, whether it's hockey fans, basketball fans or concert fans," said Griggs, the Lightning COO. "Everything we're doing to enhance the building is all about the fan experience."
Griggs said the improvements are not a direct response to the Amway.
"For me, the best thing is to watch that building be really successful and our building be really successful," Griggs said. "The more events that are in the whole super-region, the better off it is for the community, for both Orlando and Tampa."
If that's the case, fans in both cities should be excited about the next phase of Orlando's venues overhaul. By 2014, the city will open a 2,700-seat theater in its new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. After that will come theaters seating 1,700 and 300.
When finished, the three main halls of the Dr. Phillips Center will be larger than those of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts: Carol Morsani Hall (2,610), Ferguson Hall (1,042) and Jaeb Theatre (268).
"I won't say that we completely copied what you all do in Tampa," Johnson said. "But I will say this: You've done it very well over there."