Brett Kissel sold out three parking lot shows at the arena June 27. (Courtesy SaskTel Centre)

Though doors have yet to reopen, Saskatoon arena gets back in action

The SaskTel Centre was days away from hosting the Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys, when word came down that the high-profile event was canceled amid the mid-March shutdown of North America’s sports and entertainment venues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everything was ready to go. The show was set up. The load-in was done,” said SaskTel Centre Executive Director Scott Ford, who has been booking events at the facility for about 30 years. “And the Junos isn’t just the awards show. There’s a gala dinner and there’s a fan fest and there’s Juno Fest. There’s the Juno Cup, which is a hockey event. There’s a whole envelope of events that surround the Junos, called Juno Week, so as the host organizing committee, which I was a part of, basically it’s tough because that’s a big event that’s not only great for your facility but it’s a great economic event for the city and the province and basically we had to pull the pin on it and the week of events a couple of days before the actual awards show.”

An online Junos ceremony was livestreamed on June 29 on CBC Gem, but the awards show and week of ancillary events were expected to kick off another strong year for the 15,000-plus-seat venue in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which did 23 concerts in 2019, including two sold-out Elton John shows, according to SaskTel Centre CEO Will Lofdahl. Those shows grossed $9,259,430 on 148,109 sold tickets, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports (see top shows below).

For 2020, performances by Celine Dion, with upwards of 12,000 tickets sold, as well as Bachman Cummings and ZZ Top were on tap, “and those shows were selling extremely well,” according to Lofdahl.

“So, 2020 was shaping out to be a very good year for us, but … things went in a different direction,” he said. “Like everybody else we’re muddling through and putting our best foot forward and hoping that we can get through to better times.”

A pop-up drive-in movie series over four weekends in June proved to be a popular draw and on June 27 the SaskTel Centre staged three sold-out drive-in performances by Canadian country music star Brett Kissel. The shows were promoted by Invictus Entertainment Group.

“You have to take your hat off to Mr. Kissel for his stamina. He did three shows in one day,” Lofdahl said. “We got good media coverage. There was even a story on CTV national news … talking about it. We’re really happy about that. It kept our staff engaged. Gave us something to work forward to and as far as upcoming shows, yeah, we’re looking to see if we can do some other similar-type shows in the future, just anything to try to stay in the event business, given the fact that we have a lot of parameters placed upon what we can do right now.”

Tickets were priced at $100 per vehicle in a VIP area for about 70 vehicles and $60 in a general area that accommodated around 160 vehicles, Ford said.

“So our total capacity was just over 230 cars per show and we ended up selling out all three shows,” he said. “We put the 7 o’clock show on sale first and it sold out. Then we added a 10 o’clock show and once it sold out, we added a 4 o’clock show, which took a couple days to sell out. It’s only 230 vehicles, but the average was about four people per vehicle, so in total there were approximately 2,500 fans that came to those Brett Kissel shows and sat in the car and listened to the FM repeater on the radio station and we had a big video screen set up (supplied by Prairieland Park, the events center that was forced by the pandemic to cancel its early-August Saskatoon Exhibition fair for the first time in its 135-year history) and people had a blast. It actually went over really, really great. Sort of the Garth Brooks model, you know how Garth used to do multiple shows in a day kind of thing. He’d wait until one sold out then he’d roll into the second one.”

Western Concessions out of Edmonton, which has had the contract at the venue since it opened in 1988, provided food and beverage service for the drive-in events.

The SaskTel Centre also licensed a drive-in screening of UFC 250 on June 6, Ford said.

The licensing deals the venue struck with movie studios stipulated that the drive-ins would cease once cinemas began reopening, which happened at the end of June, Ford explained.

But the movies were popular while they lasted, according to Lofdahl, who said one woman had brought her kids to the Centre every weekend during the run.

“It certainly caught hold with some of the folks,” he said. “It was fun. I think people enjoyed it and had a good time. It was a good thing for us to do.”

The SaskTel Centre has also had to weather the halting of its sports teams’ seasons, which followed on the heels of the Junos cancellation.

“Our Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, they canceled their last two regular-season games and all of their playoff games and then we had the Saskatchewan Rush of the National Lacrosse League, I think they had five regular-season games left and they ended up canceling those, and then we also have a professional basketball team which starts up in May, in the Canadian Elite Basketball League, the Saskatchewan Rattlers (which won the inaugural season title in 2019) and they ended up canceling their entire season, at least their season that was to be played in Saskatoon. They are going to do a playoffs in Ontario. But all of our touring shows, all of our family shows, all of our concerts and specialty events, including we produce a couple festivals, we’ve basically taken everything down and we’re waiting for that time when we can open for business again,” Ford said.<

Once that happens, Ford and Lofdahl expet the SaskTel Centre return to doing robust business in a city of about 300,000 and a province with about 1 million people.

“We route very well,” Lofdahl said. “It’s a two-day drive from Edmonton to Winnipeg and we’re right smack dab in between those two population centers. Now we’re not anywhere near the size of Edmonton and Winnipeg, but nonetheless, we also draw from throughout Saskatchewan. So we do quite well in the touring, concert realm. It’s a tribute to a number of components, one of which being we’re geographically blessed by not having much competition within the province. Yes, there’s another arena in the province, down in Regina, but they see less than half the attendance that we do. We also have Scott (who’s) got a very good reputation within the industry and a lot of good. Plus, at least for the last decade, the economy in Saskatchewan (based chiefly on mining natural resources like oil, potash and uranium as well as agriculture) has been pretty good. People are willing to spend their discretionary dollars on the shows that route through here.”

The downtime is allowing for some deferred maintenance and upgrades to take place. The concourse was repainted, two concession areas are being redone, a new Wi-Fi system is in the process of being installed and bid are being narrowed down for a new point-of-sale system, according to Lofdahl and Ford.

“We’ve brought the race car into the pits,” Lofdahl said.

SaskTel Centre 2019 Hot Tickets

(Ranked by gross. Grosses and ticket prices are in U.S. dollars )

1. Elton John
Oct. 1-2
Gross: $2,630,069
Tickets sold: 26,380
Prices: $50.97-$168.03
Promoter: AEG Presents

2. Shawn Mendes
June 17
Gross: $657,246
Tickets sold: 11,878
Prices: $14.78-$84.97
Promoter: Messina Touring Group/AEG Presents

3. Def Leppard w/Tesla
July 27
Gross: $656,451
Tickets sold: 10,311
Prices: $11.45-$98.89
Promoter: Live Nation

4. Cher w/Chic featuring Nile Rodgers
May 23
Gross: $621,567
Tickets sold: 8,233
Prices: $26.01-$372.11
Promoter: Live Nation

5. Michael Bublé
April 18
Tickets sold: 9,599
Prices: $36.69-$134.05
Promoter: In-house