Sun Dome no more: After years of struggle, can the new Yuengling Center find a soul?

Published October 12
Updated October 13

TAMPA — Kelli Yeloushan slid the latest issue of VenuesNow magazine across her desk.

"We actually have a full-page ad that just came out today," she said.

There on Page 55 of the concert industry trade mag was Yeloushan, director of events management at the Yuengling Center, smiling alongside two colleagues from sister stadium Amalie Arena. They are, according to the ad, "the team that will help you book your next event" in Tampa, described as a "boomtown" with one of the largest pools of potential ticket buyers in America.

"We don’t have enough venues to accommodate all the shows that are coming," she said. "I think this is now the time for this building to come back to life."

It is, for the Yuengling Center, a long time coming. After nearly 40 years as the USF Sun Dome, the arena underwent its first name change this summer. This came a year after the University of South Florida signed the building’s management over to a group owned by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, enabling it to coordinate and share resources with Amalie Arena. The building’s unofficial rebirth with all these pieces in place began this month with a handful of concerts, family and basketball events.

With a new logo and, soon, a new president and consolidated campuses, USF is at a transitional point in its history. The same can be said for its on-campus arena, a midsize dome with a capacity around 10,000 that once changed Central Florida’s concert landscape. But after decades of inconsistent programming and persistent complaints about sound quality, it could hardly be called beloved.

Those involved believe that can change. They just have to convince people to give it another shot.

"The university has a renewed passion to remake the building and create a vibe around it," said Kevin Preast, Amalie Arena’s senior vice president of event management, who is deeply involved in the Yuengling Center’s rebirth. "I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface on what that building’s capable of."

• • •

Rhett Blewett surveys a team of workers detailing the Yuengling Center’s floor from one of its premium loge areas. An affable former college basketball player, he didn’t attend his first concert here until 2017.

"When I came in, I honestly had no idea the historic assets this building had, and how many great acts had come through," said Blewett, the arena’s assistant general manager. "We’re just trying to learn from what has happened. Why has this place become irrelevant? Why do promoters have this perception? Why does the community have this perception?"

The problems started almost from Day 1.

USF had been open 15 years when it proposed a new basketball arena in 1975. The Golden Brahmans, as they were known, were splitting home games between Lakeland, St. Petersburg and two courts in Tampa. The new dome — part of a statewide campus expansion plan that also included the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville — would compete for concerts with Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Hall, St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center and the Lakeland Civic Center.

But the cost ballooned from $7 million to more than $12 million, in part due to structural cracks that pushed the opening more than 18 months behind schedule. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, which had planned to make the dome its home stadium, backed out when it became clear that, due to a design flaw, many fans wouldn’t have clear views of the field. Acts like Bruce Springsteen and Kenny Rogers declined to play there when they learned its lightweight lighting rig couldn’t handle their productions.

When Alice Cooper finally played the dome’s first concert on July 25, 1981, there was still no box office or concessions area, and sunlight filtered through the fiberglass fabric roof. One newspaper’s review of the show decried the sound quality, saying that in the upper two-thirds of the arena, "the music becomes noise, and the echo and reverberation is bothersome."

The roof partially collapsed under heavy rains in late 1981. Lawsuits swirled over who was at fault for all the design flaws. Reports from the era described the acoustics as "terrible" and the overall fan experience as "chaos."

Eventually, the Sun Dome found its footing. It hosted concerts by Frank Sinatra, Madonna, U2 and Tom Petty. It hastened the downfall of Curtis Hixon, the Bayfront Center and even mighty Lakeland. By 1996, an estimated 40 percent of the Sun Dome’s revenue came from concerts.

But competition came: the Florida Suncoast Dome (now Tropicana Field) in 1990, the Ice Palace (now Amalie Arena) in 1996, the Ford Amphitheatre (now MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre) in 2004.

"It just sucked the life out of this building," Blewett said. "It gave (fans) a new destination to go see their entertainment. And you have promoters going to see brand-new buildings and facilities, and I know that was enticing."

In 2000, the dome replaced its air-supported fabric roof to the tune of $8 million. But that was nothing compared with a $35.6 million overhaul in 2012, which coincided with new outside management for the first time in the dome’s history.

Philadelphia-based Global Spectrum, which ran more than 115 venues around the world, made a splash by booking Elton John for the revamped dome’s first concert. By 2015, based on ticket sales and attendance, it was the fifth most successful college venue its size in the United States, according to the trade publication then called Venues Today.

But something wasn’t sticking. A-list shows trickled off. Global Spectrum’s contract expired in 2017, at which point Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties won a bid to take over.

"It was something that we knew made sense, to bring two great entities into one," said Bill Abercrombie, executive vice president of business development for the Lightning and Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties.

But after so many years as an afterthought, as the old kid on the block, the Sun Dome’s path back to relevance was uncertain.

"People do have great memories of that building, and we hear about those a lot, but that doesn’t help today," Preast said. "We need to do things that help today in the way that people are going to want to spend their dollars."

Put another way, Preast said: "How do we create a soul for that building?"

• • •

Last fall, in an attempt to make an early splash, Preast booked a show at the Sun Dome by Arcade Fire, acclaimed indie rockers who had headlined festivals around the world but never played Tampa.

Fewer than 4,000 fans showed up. That’s a little more than a third of capacity.

"I think there were a lot of people that are Arcade Fire fans that weren’t excited about seeing an act in the Sun Dome," Preast said. "We had to overcome people’s perception of the venue."

This is now the challenge. In recent years, the dome has carved out some successful niches, like Christian rock and urban comedy. But other fans and people in the industry still saw it as an ancient concrete pit.

"We’re in L.A. having conversations with promoters that are saying to us — and this was six months ago — ‘Isn’t that the building with the inflatable roof?’?" Yeloushan said. "People don’t know."

There is renewed interest among promoters in venues the size of the Yuengling Center. Ruth Eckerd Hall has pushed the city of Clearwater to build a midsize amphitheater in Coachman Park, and Live Nation this summer booked similar-sized shows at St. Pete’s Al Lang Stadium.

"You’ve got this niche of 5,000- to 7,000-seat boutique amphitheaters that didn’t exist before, and the dome’s becoming relevant there," Preast said. "(Promoters) are looking at putting more shows in there this year than they probably had in the past seven years combined."

In her desire to turn Yuengling into "Amalie’s edgy little sister," Yeloushan coordinates daily with Preast on shows. Having two venues gives them more options, always handy when working around Lightning and USF basketball schedules.

The dome has brought in production experts from Amalie and elsewhere to help develop sound plans for incoming acts. Overcoming the dome’s dinlike reputation is an ongoing challenge.

"There are adjustments that need to be made," she said. "You have to put a little extra love there and be attentive to it."

• • •

So far, programming at the Yuengling Center has been a mixed bag. The first show under the new name, a symphonic tribute to Prince, drew about 2,000 fans, a number that would have fit inside a performing arts hall. In November, a promoter is renting the Yuengling Center for R&B singer R. Kelly, a concert that could draw protests over his history with girls and women.

And in December, metalcore band Underoath, founded and based locally, will headline the Yuengling Center. It’s a larger venue than they’re used to playing, but it will make a bit of history: the first hometown arena show headlined by a Tampa Bay band.

"I really wanted that one here," Yeloushan said. "I want to bring that crowd back into the facility and show them. That’s the most important thing to me, is Tampa locals, the local music scene. How do we get their buy-in again? How do we show them we’ve changed the experience here?"

Yeloushan was astounded at how little awareness the dome had among USF students. They began setting up tables at campus expos and experimenting with student discounts. They’ve tossed around other ideas: cellphone charging stations, augmented reality experiences, a biergarden, a barbershop. They’d like to replace generic concession stands with local restaurant brands, just like at Amalie. That would better fit the new local regime — Yeloushan and Preast are USF alumni who saw concerts and graduated in the Sun Dome.

"The university has been an important piece for us," Abercrombie said. "We’ve always realized how important the university is to this community."

Tampa Bay Entertainment Properties has a 10-year multimedia-rights deal with USF athletics. A centerpiece of Vinik’s Water Street Tampa development is a new campus for the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. The arena deal is another piece of the puzzle.

And if it proves fruitful, it could propel Vinik’s group to expand its reach in the local concert business even further, potentially through a festival or new venue in Water Street Tampa — something neither Abercrombie nor Preast ruled out.

"Tampa’s big enough now that we can sustain this," Yeloushan said. She describes several 2019 bookings as "game-changers for us, A-level, brand-elevating events" that will put the Yuengling Center back on everyone’s radar.

"Get them back in, show them a great time," she said, "and they’re going to come back again."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336.

         
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