What can tax-paying music fans expect from U.S. Bank Stadium?

Will U.S. Bank Stadium rock for concert-going taxpayers?

Will U.S. Bank Stadium rock for concert-going taxpayers? Brian Peterson

U.S. Bank Stadium will host its first concert Friday night with a nearly sold-out set from country’s golden brah, Luke Bryan. The very next day, Metallica will tear the roof -- and bird-friendly windows -- off for a sold-out crowd.

It's the kind of big weekend you can expect from the $1.1 billion facility. U.S. Bank Stadium is designed for huge shows, stadium officials say, and they’re planning on at least two major concerts a year alongside Vikings home games and other events.

That number dates back to the stadium’s nascent planning, and now it’s backed up by the company managing it. Music fans contribute a chunk of the $498 million in public money that’s gone into the stadium. In fact, taxes from First Avenue concerts and other entertainment downtown will go toward paying down the cost for the next 30 years.

So what bang can music fans expect for their buck? Stadium officials say they’re hosting events just about every day for the next few months, but experts say there’s reason to be skeptical the venue can keep concertgoers coming.

“The U.S. has over 60 football and baseball stadiums that seat more than 70,000 people,” says Roger Noll, a Stanford sports economist. “There’s intense competition for those things, and audience for them is declining. So it’s not a good bet if you’re going to be the 61st stadium.”

Stadium concert economics 101

The main challenge is supply and demand.

U.S. Bank Stadium will seat 52,000 people for its first shows, and it can expand past 70,000 if needed. There just aren’t many touring acts who can fill a room that size.

"You get an oversupply of arenas, each one of them promising to have X number of events, but the number of arenas times X is too large,” says Craig Depkin, a sports economist at University of North Carolina Charlotte. “There's only so many Taylor Swift concerts you can have, so you say, ‘Well I need another Taylor Swift.’ OK, we can find a Rihanna or someone else, but eventually you do run out of acts of that magnitude."

The list of the highest-grossing tours of 2016 so far includes legacy acts like the Rolling Stones and the newly reunited Guns N’ Roses, country heavyweights like Garth Brooks, and only the biggest pop acts, like Coldplay or Justin Bieber. A fragmented audience means fewer acts than ever can sell 20,000 or more seats, Noll says.

Some of those big-time performers might even opt for smaller venues because stadium shows can be risky, says Gary Bongiovanni, president of the industry analyst group Pollstar.

“In order to play a stadium you have to be pretty confident you can sell all the tickets. Because if you go into a 60,000-seat stadium and you sell 40,000 tickets, from the audience perspective it's gonna look great,” he says. “But from the band’s perspective or the promoter’s perspective, they may be losing a million dollars because your profit margin is generally in those last seats.”

That small group of stadium-sized talent is part of why U.S. Bank Stadium is shooting for two major concerts a year, says Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. The MSFA oversees the stadium, and it’s hired SMG -- an events-management company that’s contracted by dozens of stadiums and arenas -- to handle day-to-day operations at U.S. Bank.

SMG guaranteed officials $6.75 million in annual event revenue, with an arrangement to share revenue after that. Kelm-Helgen says SMG set the two-concert goal, and other events will fill the stadium for virtually all of its first few months. She notes the stadium has already passed its goal with the announcement of a Prince Tribute show scheduled for October 13. 

None of the older stadiums and arenas in the Twin Cities are as big as U.S. Bank, but they’ve still been able to accommodate some of the country’s biggest tours. “If I’m a pop artist and I want to hold a concert in the Twin Cities area, I have a lot of venues to choose from, relative to the size of the city,” Noll says.

TCF Bank Stadium hosted Minnesota’s highest-grossing concert last year, according to Pollstar, when the Rolling Stones played to a crowd of 41,500 and grossed $8.3 million. Beyoncé’s Formation Tour landed at the Bank in May. Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean played for nearly 85,000 people over two nights at Target Field last summer, grossing $7.8 million. Adele just played two packed nights at the relatively cozy 15,000-seat Xcel Energy Center last month. Taylor Swift grossed $5.5 million at the X last year with three sold-out shows.

Designed for live music

Of course, all that was post-Metrodome, while U.S. Bank was under construction at its former site. The new stadium is better designed for shows than the Metrodome ever was, according to Kelm-Helgen.

“The Metrodome actually was not a very good concert venue. I think everyone felt like the acoustics there were less than ideal,” she says. “We were very intentional, we did a lot sound studies both for spoken word… and what it would be like as a music venue.”

The largest stadium tours will no doubt be attracted to a shiny, new state-of-the art facility, Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says. New venues tend to sell more tickets in their first few years, he explains, and the Twin Cities area is considered a good concert market. But a mammoth show can come with logistical headaches.

The overhead on these biggest-of-the-big tours can be huge, Bongiovanni says, with sets that can require several days of set-up and teardown.

“Some of the artists that could in fact play stadiums have found that they can make more money by playing two shows in an indoor arena in that market,” he says. “Maybe not sell quite as many tickets, but because there's no set-up cost the second night, their net would be much greater.”

For its part, U.S. Bank Stadium can change over from turf to a concert set-up -- or back -- in as little as a day. It was designed that way, Kelm-Helgen says, because officials are planning to hold concerts and monster truck rallies during football season. The Prince tribute, for example, is during a Vikings bye week.

U.S. Bank Stadium is in competition with the biggest stadiums around the country, rather than anything local, Kelm-Helgen says. The roof and giant, retractable windows give it an advantage there too, she says, because of its seasonal flexibility.

"It definitely is an entirely different market than the arenas, we don't compete with them at all, and I do think we're even in quite a different market than TCF or Target Field because we are substantially larger,” Kelm-Helgen says, adding, “I think we’ll be a good addition, rather than a competition.”

Who benefits?

Competition is supposed to be good for consumers, but publicly funded stadiums disrupt the simple rules of supply and demand.

"In any voluntary exchange, whether you buy a car or a diamond ring, both sides of that transaction are made better off,” Depkin says. “With these publicly funded stadiums, there's now multiple parties involved, some of whom don't have a say in the matter."

Competing stadiums or arenas might offer touring acts a better cut of ticket sales or lower taxes, reducing the benefit taxpayers might get from the facility in the first place. In that way, Depkin says, competition can actually hurt the public. 

"Even if one facility managed to get them all, the only way they'd get them all is giving away the store,” Noll says. “You wouldn't generate any revenue for the facility, what would happen is Taylor Swift would make a lot of money."

U.S. Bank Stadium’s concert quota actually dates back to at least 2009. A pre-construction economic impact report presented to MSFA assumed a new Vikings stadium would host two major concerts per year, attracting 30,000 attendees to each.

These sorts of studies historically over-promise, Depkins says, claiming revenue and spending around expensive new stadiums will multiply the public investment by five or six. In reality, communities are more likely to break even. Expectations have gotten more realistic as stadium budgets have inflated and public sentiment has started to turn against them, he says. To that end, tax-paying concertgoers will have to spend considerably to even see their investment, as tickets to the Bryan and Metallica shows range from $37.50 to $149.50.

Several experts cited Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as a good example for how owners can keep their stadiums full all year. AT&T Stadium’s busy events schedule -- with shows this summer from Beyoncé, Coldplay, Kenny Chesney, and Guns N’ Roses -- is a positive development for stadium skeptics, Depkins says.

Still, while U.S. Bank Stadium has cleared its concert goal for the year easily, Noll says it will take a few years for Twin Cities music fans to know what they’re really paying for.

“Obviously there's a lot of people in the Twin Cities area who would be happy to pay out some amount of money to have any one of their professional sports teams,” he says. So they will certainly benefit from the stadium, but, he added, "unlike the Vikings games, for which there is no real competition, there is real competition for the Taylor Swift concert."