TAMPA — Nick Van Cleve, an on-air personality for 107.3 the Eagle, has been around the music business for more than 35 years. He remembers when the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida first opened in 1981. The 10,000-plus seat venue was the biggest facility of its kind in the area, and Van Cleve rocked out there many times; Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughan, U2.
It was fun, he said.
But not awesome.
"People used to call it, 'Playing inside the great pumpkin,' " he said. "Some spots inside the old Sun Dome were just awful; there were dead spots. It was designed for sports and athletic activity.
"It wasn't designed for concerts."
But now, one year after the Sun Dome reopened after spending more than $35 million in renovations, Van Cleve says it's good.
"It's truly a marked improvement," he said.
This is a new Sun Dome, in looks, management and goals, and reviews of its first year are favorable. The venue nabbed big acts like Elton John, Florence + the Machine and the King's Men tour, with gospel stars Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin and Israel Houghton.
With the renovations came a new management team, Global Spectrum, which runs more than 115 other facilities in the world. Many people thought of the old Sun Dome as the home for USF basketball and not a concert venue, even though historically it hosted huge names — Frank Sinatra, Alice Cooper, Sting.
The new Sun Dome appears to want to change that; to continue to be known for athletic events but also to be a big player on the concert scene.
"They have really been aggressive about marketing themselves and booking shows," said Dave Brooks, managing editor at Venues Today magazine, which recently listed the Sun Dome as second in Florida's "top stops" in mid-sized entertainment venues.
"They've got a national team that helps them route bands to the building," Brooks said.
He said he's visited the new Sun Dome and was impressed. The old building was basically gutted, with a new concourse, seats, scoreboard, concessions, restrooms and layout. The broadcasting and light systems were updated. To fix the acoustics, the lower section is now a bowl shape, rather than a square, and a soft material hangs from the roof to help the sound.
"The music industry and acts love anything new and shiny," Brooks said. "The fact that they went through this renovation gives them a lot of buzz.
"And it gives acts a reason to give them another look."
Brooks said the industry chatter has been favorable.
"It has that classic rock arena feel," he said. "It's the right size — it's intimate but still big enough . . . A lot of acts like that."
Brooks said the Sun Dome has competition locally, especially with the Tampa Bay Times Forum, which also recently underwent a $40 million renovation. The Forum is a larger facility with more than 20,000 seats, but it can be transformed to become smaller to compete with mid-sized venues like the Sun Dome, Brooks said. Fighting for acts is a tough business.
"There are so few acts that can play anything 10,000 or above," he said.
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Global Spectrum's Trent Merritt, general manager of the Sun Dome, said this first year has been good.
"It's really been everything that we envisioned it being," he said. "Though we certainly have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. We are going to continue to be aggressive."
He said he will have financial figures in July after the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
"We expect to be on a break-even-or-better basis," he said.
He said a goal of the Sun Dome's team is to nab big name music talent — but it's also to offer something for everyone.
"It's important to have balance," Merritt said.
He said the Sun Dome continues to be the home of USF athletics and commencements, and it also hopes to host as many high school graduations as it can. In addition to the high profile events it held this past year, it also hosted Sesame Street Live featuring Elmo, the Harlem Globetrotters, a mixed martial arts competition and the Discovery Channel's MythBusters crew. On May 23, it will be the scene of Impact Wrestling Live, an event featuring Hulk Hogan and televised on Spike TV. Fall Out Boy is coming in September.
Merritt is mum on what else is in the works.
"We have offers in on probably close to a dozen other shows," he said. "At this time, there are none that we are going to confirm publicly."
Brooks, who is based in California, said Florida has a reputation as a strong music market.
"Tampa is known for loving live music," he said.
When the Sun Dome opened more than 30 years ago, the other local indoor venues were Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa and the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, which were both smaller.
"When the Sun Dome finally came on the map, it really kicked the Bayfront Center and Curtis Hixon hard," said Van Cleve.
For big concerts, people traveled to the Lakeland Civic Center, now named the Lakeland Center. The giant Tampa Bay Times Forum, then called the Ice Palace, didn't open until 1996.
Now, Van Cleve said, the area is lucky to have venues of every size. There are small shows at places like the Ritz, New World Brewery and Crowbar in YborCity and Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa.
Intimate performances with big-name acts and great acoustics book at places such as Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Mid-sized shows go to the Sun Dome. Huge acts play at the Times Forum. Tropicana Field is an option. There are outdoor venues, such as the Live Nation Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Raymond James Stadium and Jannus Live in St. Petersburg. Plus all of the parks, music festivals and other venues.
"You have your choice," Van Cleve said. "And that's neat for Tampa Bay."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.