The Non-Sporting Life
By Richard Harrington
The answer used to be easy: concerts. When the Capital Centre, the MCI Center's predecessor, opened in 1973, it gave the Washington area a year-round, arena-size venue at a time when more and more rock and pop acts suddenly seemed capable of filling it.
Unfortunately for the MCI Center, its opening comes just as there seems to be a dearth of arena-size pop acts, which has left those in charge of booking the arena with what an optimist would call a challenge.
"We'd love to have our share of concerts, but it's tough and you have to hustle and be aggressive," says Barry Silberman, president of Centre Management, which runs the MCI Center. "This building was built for multipurpose entertainment, primarily anchored around our teams -- the Wizards, Caps and Georgetown, which is 100 events a year right there. We project about 200 events."
So here comes Barry Manilow in two weeks, wrestling in late December, country star Alan Jackson in January, Disney on Ice in February, the circus in March, assorted figure skating events here and there -- and beyond that, so far, nothing specific.
Ironically, with the Washington sports teams moving to the MCI Center, US Airways Arena (the current name of the former Cap Centre) suddenly becomes a more attractive concert venue because choice weekend dates -- preferred by promoters and concert-goers alike -- will now open up. In the past, some major shows skipped Washington because they couldn't get a desirable date.
"It moves this market up to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where there are at least two major buildings," says Mike Evans, who heads the in-house Music Centre Productions. "From here on, there should never be a day when an act has to bypass Washington because there wasn't an available date."
As for the MCI Center as a concert facility, it's "the smallest 20,000-seat venue I've ever seen," says Dave Williams of Alexandria-based Cellar Door Productions, one of the nation's biggest promoters. He says this with great approval.
Indeed, though it has roughly the same capacity as US Airways Arena, the MCI Center feels far more intimate than its predecessor. That's mostly because US Airways Arena's interior seating goes straight up, its steep ascent broken by a single concourse. "In reality, it was an outdoor stadium that they put a roof on," says Williams.
The seating at the MCI Center is closer to the floor, and the sight lines have been greatly improved. The breaks and verticality created by four levels and concourses make the whole package more compact.
The lower seating bowl will hold 8,000 people, as will the third level. The 27 luxury suites closest to floor level are beautifully positioned at the equivalent of the 19th row. The club seats hold 3,000 more, with up to 1,000 seats on the floor. The MCI Center's total concert capacity will generally be 13,000 to 19,000, depending on whether the seating plan is for the full house or without seating behind the stage.
Although they will be lost on concert-goers, some of the most significant improvements are going to be felt by concert-givers, from the headliners to the production crews. The MCI Center's backstage and storage spaces are about five times bigger than US Airways Arena's; they also go all the way under and around the building. The huge production trucks that ferry the tons of stage, sound and lighting equipment from city to city will be able to pull into the MCI Center from Sixth Street and unload inside.
Unlike most arenas, the MCI Center has production offices and dressing rooms separate from the sports teams' dressing areas (no more locker room madness). Before the first shovel ever broke ground downtown, Mike Evans, Barry Silberman and others were out visiting the new generation of arenas cropping up around the country, such as America West Arena in Phoenix, United Center in Chicago, Gund Arena in Cleveland, GM Place in Vancouver and the Rose Garden in Portland, Ore. They also spent a lot of time soliciting advice from various tour producers such as Patrick Stansfield, who has done Neil Diamond's tours since 1984, as well as those of Barbra Streisand.
"We pronounced it a solid A, a terrific building," says Stansfield, noting that the MCI Center clearly went to school on the newer arenas. "They all represent a conscious effort to have both a usable and user-friendly environment."
There will even be a special superstar dressing room -- tentatively called the Presidential Suite, because it will be available to the president when he attends arena functions. It will include a sauna, exercise equipment and a sofa bed. "A star travels with a lot of baggage; they all got 20 trunks," says Stansfield, who is also pleased with the added space next to the star dressing room.
The MCI Center's debut concert will feature Barry Manilow on December 10. There had been plans for a Neil Diamond concert in December, but that was postponed indefinitely after Diamond slipped a disk helping a friend pick up a fallen motorcycle. The only other concert date on the books as of mid-November was Alan Jackson, who will perform January 18.
The Jackson date raises this question: Will country fans come downtown?
"Some Virginians won't come to US Airways," says Evans, even if they will come downtown for Redskins games and Mall activities. If the talent is worthy of making the effort to do what it takes to come, they'll come."
One problem is that there are only three or four country acts right now capable of filling arenas.
"I don't think it's country music versus other types of audience as much as suburban audience versus urban audience," says Evans. "It's people who are used to spending their recreational time in a city versus those used to spending it in the suburbs. And the fear of the unknown. What we hope when we open up is that we'll prove this is a safe environment, that people can come here on the Metro, get here and leave here very easily, enjoy what's in our surrounding area."
Cellar Door's Williams believes that country fans "will probably not go into the city. That's why not every show's going to MCI Center -- there's going to be shows we prefer to do at US Airways Arena, which is easy to get to on the Beltway and has on-site parking."
Bill Washington, president of Dimensions Unlimited, Washington's largest producer of shows aimed at African American audiences, also acknowledges the suddenly improved status of the Landover facility.
"We're creatures of habit, and we've been accustomed to going to Landover since 1973," says Washington. "Once we're accustomed to doing it, it's no longer inconvenient to us. And 80 percent of my audience lives in Washington or Prince George's County, which makes US Airways Arena work. Which building's going to become the most attractive building for selling tickets, I'm not sure."
The major stumbling block for Washington? "There aren't that many big arena shows anymore in the urban black market. There's Michael Jackson, who tours once every 10 years, or whenever he chooses; Prince; Luther Vandross [who recently performed at US Airways with Vanessa Williams] and Janet Jackson." Look for Jackson -- Janet, that is -- sometime early next year.
The sports teams at the MCI Center have made much of the fact that they're moving face-offs and tip-offs up to 7 p.m. Don't expect such a major shift on the concert front, particularly when the building hosts afternoon sports events preceding evening concerts. The general assumption, according to Mike Evans, is that concert fans are usually coming from home or school, not from work (as sports fans are believed to be). What may influence show times is Metro. The MCI Center will continually stress that Metro is the best way to come to events, but Metro stops running at midnight.
That reality could put a damper on prospects for renewed night life downtown. If the majority of fans come via Metro, they're not going to have time for a post-concert dinner, or simply to boogie, before the midnight hour.
On the other hand, maybe it will improve business for downtown hotels.
Richard Harrington is a Post Style reporter.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company