In October Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena (formerly the Arena at Harbor Yard; Webster Bank paid $3.5 million earlier this year for ten-year naming rights) celebrated its tenth anniversary. The city-owned, $56 million facility is home to the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Fairfield Stags men’s basketball and Sacred Heart hockey. Sound Tigers President Howard Saffan is also president of Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment, which in March signed an agreement with the city to operate the 10,000-seat facility. Since then it has set in motion changes to both the building’s event mix and its image to the world beyond the Park City.
How many event dates did the building have in 2011 compared to 2010?
One hundred forty compared to 90 [the previous year].
What kinds of events have you added that weren’t here before?
Tonight and tomorrow we have a boy’s high school basketball tournament. We’ve executed a four-year deal with Cirque du Soleil. They’ll be here every June for the next four years. The Feld organization, which is Disney on Ice, [the Disney Channel’s] Phineas and Ferb, they brought FMX [freestyle motocross], which is a motorcycle event, which is coming in January. We’ve opened ourselves to many promoters who maybe in the past didn’t want to do business at this arena.
So what changed?
What is the optimum number of events this venue could host annually?
I used to manage the Nassau Coliseum [in Uniondale, N.Y., home to the NHL’s New York Islanders]. There we had 138 events in the prior year. Our goal is to get to 180 events [annually], which is basically one out of every two nights. If you look at our January through April , we’re busy almost exclusively every Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Which is tremendous. Our goal is to be a family-friendly entertainment facility for the region.
What is ‘the region’?
It’s not just Bridgeport; it’s not just Fairfield County. It’s New Haven County; it’s the Valley — we want to reach out and be for everybody within a 45-mile radius.
Looking at this building as a business entity, where do revenues come from?
There are several areas: The first level is [corporate] sponsorships. And that starts with Webster Bank, which has its name on our building.
They paid $3.5 million for ten years?
That’s what has been reported. So sponsorship starts at that level, and goes down through signage on our marquis, to concourse signs, then gets into the other piece of entertainment, and that’s our suite level. When we closed this deal on March 30, we inherited one sold suite. As of today we have 25 sold suites [out of 33 in the building].
Where else do revenues come from? When you rent the building to an event promoter, do you share in the ticket-sales upside?
We’re basically just a landlord. When American Idol was here — a sold-out event — we rent the building. We get the rent and expenses from them, and the rest of the profit goes to the promoter.
Is that true of every event, or is each deal different?
Some events we’ll do what’s called ‘co-promotion,’ but we tend to shy away from that.
What is your ‘unique selling proposition’?
In Connecticut, we’re the only arena in Fairfield County. Locale-wise, we’re very convenient to our radius that we’re talking about. We have the ability to attract a lot of different shows, and corporations for entertainment dollars.
Give us the thumbnail breakdown of this as a business – what are revenues and expenses and where do they come from?
What is your annual budget?
We’re privately held and don’t discuss numbers.
Is the building profitable?
The building is profitable now.
How long has it been profitable?
We acquired [the operations agreement] on March 30. Before that it was grossly unprofitable. We’ve turned it around, and as of December 30 , we are in the black.
I know the Sound Tigers have 38 home dates. Beyond that, what is the breakdown among different types of events annually?
I don’t know the exact percentages, but [generally] you’ll have your family shows, yours concerts/comedy [events], you have Fairfield [University] basketball and Sacred Heart hockey. We have the NCAA women’s regional basketball [tournament in March], high school hockey. Among other sports we have WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment], FMX, monster trucks — those type of events.
In terms of types of events, what is your greatest developmental area?
The hottest genre out there right now is electronic music — what we would think of a deejay music.
But more generally, do you want to attract more concerts, more family events?
We do a fabulous job with family entertainment. Our goal is to bring 12 to 18 concerts a year to the building, which this building has lacked.
How many concerts were there last year?
Maybe three. We acquired the building because we saw the venue a potential to run it around.
I assume that since New Haven no longer has an arena that New Haven County is a potential audience-development area.
It’s a huge potential for us. This arena has never reached out to New Haven, and it’s missing an opportunity. One of the things we’re trying to do in talking with the [Greater New Haven] Chamber of Commerce is to say, ‘How can we be part of the New Haven business community?’ We see a golden opportunity for the New Haven business community to take advantage of this venue, and vice versa — whether it’s hosting a business expo, or Subway [International] hosting shareholder meetings here.
When you go out to sell corporate suites to companies, what is the pitch?
What we’re selling is value.
What do they cost?
A suite can sell from $29,500 [annually] on up, based on number of seats [from 14 to 35]. You pay one price and get every event. That’s very different from the old management, which used to charge [suiteholders] for concert and other event tickets. We don’t believe in that — that’s nickel-and-diming. That’s why we inherited [only] one suite sold. Now, what happens is major corporations in our region have said, ‘We want you to be successful.’ So they’ve invested in Webster Bank Arena and in us. Their customers are coming to the venue. Last night [December 26] at the Sound Tigers game, the suites were totally full. That’s a wonderful feeling, because in building an arena you’re building from the top down. You’re only as good as your corporate support. When you go to a corporation like Bridgeport Hospital or Yale-New Haven Hospital that has 3,000-plus employees, and you have a Bridgeport Hospital Night and 1,000 employees come out, that’s invaluable to building your brand.
What else has changed since you took over?
We’ve remodeled the venue. We’ve spent millions of dollars, and it’s by far the nicest arena in this state.
What improvements did you make?
New flooring, new walls, new TVs in the suites and through the concourse area, new concession stands, digitized menu boards, new sound system, new marquee on the front of the building.
What is the capacity of the building?
The capacity for hockey is approximately 8,500.
And what are the Sound Tigers averaging?
After last night it’s 4,988.
What’s the trajectory?
We’re up substantially from last year, due in part to more suite sales, our season ticket [sales] and corporate sponsorships are up.
How difficult is it to get people from lower Fairfield County to come into Bridgeport?
It’s how active you are in this community. It’s just a matter of how hard you want to work. Come to the NCAA regionals, whether it be basketball or hockey, and you will see people from down county here. They came to American Idol here. If you came to the circus — we had a Friday night that was completely sold out. It’s a mixture of people — they’re from Fairfield County, from New Haven County, from the Valley. If you provide enough entertainment then you’re going to get people who want to come up here.
I imagine safety is the principal concern.
In my eight years here [with the Sound Tigers] we’ve never had an issue — ever. It’s an extremely safe facility, convenient to get to.
How will you define success in this endeavor?
To be a success means to be a significant community member throughout the region. That means we’re a beacon for entertainment for Fairfield County, for the Valley, for New Haven County. That people know that if they want to go see a sporting event, or a concert, that they can go onto the Webster Bank Arena website and see what’s playing here. Also, we want to become a home for the likes of Fairfield University, Sacred Heart, Yale and UConn [athletics]. We want people to come to this building not once or twice a year, but a half-dozen times a year.
What’s in the future?
We want to add a restaurant to the venue. We’d also like to add a wine bar for our fans. Over the next three to six months we are going to incorporate local eateries [as food vendors] into the venue. We welcome businesses approaching us for that. For example, Liquid Lunch will open up a soup stand here. Wild Rice of Fairfield does Asian food; they’ll be in here. Wilson’s Barbecue [in Fairfield] will have a food stand here. We’re always looking to add uniqueness to our venue. We’re going to be the first arena in the world to have a Subway. [Subway founder] Fred [DeLuca] started in Bridgeport but has not ventured into the arena world. We will be the first. So he’s bringing back business to Bridgeport, which is wonderful.
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