Campus Conversation: Kevin Ullestad

Campus Conversation: Kevin Ullestad

Booking a big act at State Farm Center is like a jigsaw puzzle, said director KEVIN ULLESTAD, in that it requires balancing the arena's open dates with tour schedules that may or may not include the Midwest.

It took three years — or more — to land Tom Petty, Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney, who is making a "huge" return visit to Champaign in April, Ullestad said.

In this week's "Campus Conversation," Ullestad, who's been the arena's director since 1997, talked with staff writer Julie Wurth about the challenges of luring a major pop or rock tour to a secondary market, especially with consolidation of the music-promotion business.

He also provided backstage details about working with Brooks and his team on four shows last April — "ultimate professionals" — and explained why the admittedly "odd" pairing of Styx and Larry the Cable Guy makes sense.

A sampling:

Did you get to meet Garth Brooks?

Yes. He's the real thing — cordial, nice, works with all the staff. ... A big part of my conversation was that there was a tornado coming at us on Saturday afternoon. That was quite the hair-raising experience, when we had funnel clouds in our parking lots between the first show and the second show on Saturday ...

We went to Garth's manager and Garth himself, and he said, "You guys make the call. What do you want us to do?" We said, "What we want to do is just delay the show until this weather gets over us." But meanwhile we've got to get all of those fans out of the building and out of the parking lot, and then from the parking lot into the facility (for the second show). So we held the show, I think it was about a half-hour, to get everybody into the facility and get everybody comfortable.

The cool thing about that was he said, "I'm not going anywhere. If we need to postpone the show and do it Sunday, I'm here." That was refreshing. Just a great attitude. It was an incredible weekend.

Did he ask for anything unusual in his contract?

He's not a high-maintenance guy. I don't recall anything out of the ordinary, just normal food. He ate in the same dining room that we all ate in. And everybody obviously knew him and Trisha (Yearwood, his wife), just sitting in the corner, and you'd wave or make eye contact, but you don't go crash the party and go sit at his table.

Back when I was in school, it seemed like there were a lot more rock bands performing there — Bruce Springsteen, the Police, Dire Straits. There does seem to be more diversity now, and a lot of your biggest headline acts are country-oriented. Is it harder to get a mega rock band here these days?

Well, we have to follow the trends that are going on nationally. Where are the bands that are selling tickets? Country music is dominating right now, in terms of selling tickets and touring, over other music genres.

Classic rock is out there and selling well, but if you look at who's dominantly selling tickets, it's country, and it's some of the real hot pop — the Drakes, the Jay-Zs, the Beyonces — and they're only major-market players. ... It's all about the 'GP' — the gross potential of the show.

So being a small market is an issue?

It is, without question. We're a small market and we've got to be careful with that, as far as competing with ourselves. It's very easy to do that. I often say it's all about diversification in our programming. We have a wide variety of different shows because we have to be successful. We can't have just a bunch of country shows or a bunch of rock shows or a bunch of family shows. We've got to space those out, and we do a good job of it.

A lot of our issues come down to getting available dates. Our priority first of all is the basketball program, and then university functions like graduations. And then we backfill with the available dates we have to work with. So getting shows into December through March is tough, because we're very much basketball-dominated through that time period.

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