Metallica christened Chase Center last September in San Francisco. This year, the pandemic has blown up the typical process for arenas booking sports and live entertainment. (Don Muret / Staff)

Uncertainty over 2020-21 NBA and NHL seasons makes it tough to fill calendars

The pandemic has thrown a wrench into the booking process for big league arenas as they reschedule special events and book new dates without knowing the specifics of the NBA and NHL calendars for 2020-21.

Typically, those venues have pro basketball and hockey schedules in hand by now as they start to fill open dates with concerts and family shows. That’s not the case this year as the COVID-19 crisis rages on across North America. Five months into the pandemic, everything remains up in the air for booking sports and entertainment.

The NBA, NHL and WNBA all resumed their 2019-20 seasons last week in a bubble format, which run into October. As of mid-August, the leagues had not informed arena managers on the parameters for next season. That sense of uncertainty coupled with the fluid nature of state and local restrictions on mass gatherings has facility operators struggling to move forward for booking all events.

Dave Brown, American Airlines Center’s chief operating officer and general manager, said the arena was holding a nine-month chunk from October 2020 through July 2021 for the NBA, compared with typical holds that run from early October through early June, including preseason games and playoffs.

The same situation holds true for the NHL, Brown said.

From a scheduling standpoint, both leagues need to get over “this playoff hump” before they turn their attention to next season, said Kevin Grove, vice president of event programming at BB&T Center, home of the NHL Florida Panthers. Grove works for Oak View Group, where he also serves as director of booking. He works closely with the Arena Alliance, a group of 28 big league venues combining forces to schedule events at those facilities. (OVG owns VenuesNow).

“We’re definitely in a holding pattern,” Grove said. “For alliance members, concert traffic is going to be unbelievable, starting at the midpoint of next year. We’re also fielding more calls with agents and promoters asking to hold dates for the first half of 2022.”

For arenas as a whole, there’s a lot of clutter on their calendars with tentative dates strewn across the board.

In Dallas, for example, American Airlines Center officials are holding dates five to six deep for multiple events, which was unheard of prior to the pandemic, Brown said. On any given day over the next 12 months, the NBA Dallas Mavericks and NHL Dallas Stars top the list of “holds,” followed by up to four special events, whether it’s a concert, WWE or Feld Entertainment production.

“We’re trying to juggle things,” he said. “Agents and promoters are willing to work with whatever they can get. They know dates are going to free up and that our teams have priority and the leagues control that. We’re at their mercy. It’s something we’ll have to figure out. I don’t know if we’ll have two weeks’ notice or two months’ notice. There are so many unknowns.”

Nobody is in a tougher position than AEG’s Lee Zeidman, president of Staples Center. The arena is home to the NBA Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, NHL Kings and WNBA Sparks. It’s the most tenants among the 30-plus big league arenas. Zeidman and other arena managers understand the leagues’ priority is to complete the current seasons before turning their attention to next year. In LA, though, it’s become a Rubik’s cube of sorts for bookings.

“As a building with four tenants, there’s no indication from the NHL, NBA and WNBA when they’re going to start (next season) and how long their seasons are going to go, and if that means their seasons will take up more summer dates,” Zeidman said. “We have no idea what summer looks like now in the venue business indoors.”

For arenas, it won’t get much easier after the NBA and NHL set their seasons. As Grove mentioned, concert tours are shifting dates over the next two years as coronavirus spikes occur across the country, without knowing whether arenas can hold big crowds for those events. In some cases, tours are stacking on top of each other.

“How you balance that is a very tricky situation, Zeidman said. “Nobody knows when live music is coming back. It’s different in each state. In California, the road map for recovery for both the state and the county is (currently) Stage 3, where you can host sports events without spectators, and then Stage 4 with full crowds. It opens up more questions than answers. We’re just spitting in the wind to a certain extent because nobody knows what’s going to be expected yet.”

Complicating the issue is the pandemic’s devastating effect on the big booking agencies representing concert acts. Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor, among others, have had mass layoffs, adding another layer of difficulty to the booking equation.

“Unfortunately, there have been so many layoffs at agencies that you pick up the phone and call and that person is not there anymore,” said Kim Stone, general manager of Chase Center in San Francisco, which opened in September 2019 for the NBA Golden State Warriors.

“My heart goes out to all of those who’ve been affected.”

At Moda Center, home of the NBA Portland Trail Blazers, arena executives know they have to accommodate 40-plus games, regardless of when the season starts and ends. To provide greater flexibility for both NBA games and concerts, officials told the Portland Winterhawks, their minor league hockey tenant, to plan on playing all their 2020-21 home games at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the 60-year-old venue that sits next to Moda Center.

In past seasons, the Winterhawks, a junior hockey team playing in the Western Hockey League, split their home games between the two arenas, said Amanda Mann, senior vice president and general manager of Rose Quarter operations.

“We need to make sure we have enough dates to offer (the Blazers), but none of us are in position to turn away business,” Mann said. “We all need it. We’re doing the best we can and trying to make sure we’re leaving enough breathing room. The hockey team took up valuable real estate when it comes to the NBA schedule.”

The good news is concert tours are preparing to get out on the road at some point over the next 18 months, said David Kells, the Nashville Predators’ senior vice president of entertainment and marketing at Bridgestone Arena. Nobody can predict where sports and entertainment will be at that time, but it’s encouraging to know there are many options available to fill dates, Kells said.

“It might look a little bit different, but it’s not going to completely evaporate,” he said. “It’s not if things will return but when. As we’re dealing with all of this uncertainty, we know some day, we will open the doors, fans will come in, the house lights will go out, stage lights will go on and people will have a good time again.”

For Brown, it’s frustrating to plan for something the arena has little control over. At the same time, there’s comfort in numbers, he said. Everybody is going through the same issues as they prepare to host events in the safest way possible for patrons, staff and tenants. There’s been a constant flow of communication between arenas and the leagues as they discuss reopening scenarios, the number of people they can accommodate for events and the protocols and COVID-era upgrades to their venues.

“Our industry has never been as connected as it is right now,” Brown said.