In the weeks after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the protests that followed, three Black professionals in venue management spoke to VenuesNow’s James Zoltak about their career paths and experiences, their thoughts on whether America has reached a tipping point regarding race, and what the industry must do to create positive change.
Director of Events and Operations
UMBC Event Center
Frantzer LeBlanc serves as the director of events and operations at the Oak View Group Facilities-operated University of Maryland Baltimore County Event Center. Prior to UMBC, he was the assistant athletic director in charge of operations and events at Bob Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware. Before that, LeBlanc was assistant director of athletics facilities at Hofstra University and has also held positions at Wagner College and American University. For the last three years, he has served on the university committee for the International Association of Venue Managers. He also serves on IAVM’s board of directors and as the trade association’s Region 1 director. In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, he wrote an essay titled “Why I’m So Angry” that appeared on IAVM’s Front Row News blog and in the IAVM newsletter, detailing, among other things, some of his encounters with law enforcement officers and calling for allies to join him in the fight for justice in America.
What drew you to the events industry, to the venues industry?
I love live music. I love the event side of it. Initially my goal was to be an athletic director, but I am not good at asking people for money and that’s probably like 90 percent of what all athletic directors do. I love the joy of planning an event, going through all the logistics, the stress of it, to be honest, and then when you see the reaction on people’s faces when the headliner is on and you know that everything worked out — that safety was there, that the event ran well, that the artist was taken care of — that feeling was joy to me and I thought that this would be better suited to a lot of my characteristics and who I am.
Why was it important to you to write your essay on your experiences as a Black person in America?
I was going through a lot of emotions over the last two weeks when I watched the initial video of George Floyd being murdered, and it just brought me back to the other incident that was in Minneapolis (the killing of Philando Castile in 2016) and then everything else kept ringing through. I kept wondering, like, man, I don’t think that people really understand. We can see the video and it happens … once every six months or something like that, or every three months, and we can cry murder or we can get upset, but I don’t think that (most) people understand the depth of it. For me to talk to some of my African American friends, especially males, like I said in the article, we all have these stories and I thought it was important, especially now that people were kind of more aware or awake to this, that people understood that this is something we have to deal with every day. We may not have been killed, thank God, but my encounters with some officers, not all of them … are just not right and that story needed to be told. I’ve encouraged my other friends to tell their stories too because I think that people can see the issue there. And the goal basically is, I don’t think we’ll ever change the racists. We’re never going to change the people who are entrenched in that, but if we can get the middle people, you know, the good people, the people who just don’t know, really angry, sad and then willing to help change, then that’s all we need and I just thought that me sharing my experiences will hopefully help people understand better, especially in our industry.
Why, in your view, and I know it might seem like an obvious question, should there be more diversity among the professionals in the venues industry?
I’ll just speak on the psychology of it. Just having more diversity, more people of different ethnicities, people of different social backgrounds and races and sexes, it just makes your product better, because if you are listening to all these people, then you are making decisions that (reflect) what America really is. When you don’t have these kinds of different inputs, you can make decisions based on what everybody else who looks like you or may have the same socio-economic standards as you have dealt with and then you don’t have an outside opinion and that can harm some of the decisions that you make. In the music world, the venue management world, there (are) a lot of us here. If you go to an IAVM conference or a VenuesNow conference you see a lot of women, you see a lot of minorities and I think the bigger issue right now, for us, is that we need to get minorities and women into higher roles within our organizations. We need more representation at the corporate level, we need more representation at the GM level, at the assistant GM level. If you look at the rolls of all the GMs around, there are not a lot of African American general managers and if they are, they are kind of always put in predominantly Black cities. So I feel like it’s deeply important for us to become more diverse. A lot of people have talked about it. Brad Mayne has talked about it at IAVM. From our company, OVG, (CEO) Tim (Leiweke) has made a commitment to it. I think the bigger issue is we have to create some sort of action to get better representation in the power areas, and then at that point I think diversity will come. If we open up for everyone else, if we open up for us to be at the table to make different decisions to increase diversity, then that will help. It will trickle down. But I feel like we just have to be at the table.
How can white people, and your white professional colleagues, counter what Endeavor’s Kevin Shivers referred to in an essay for Pollstar as years of silence on the part of his white music industry colleagues? He said it should be embarrassing that there’s more diversity on the floors of investment banks than in entertainment industry companies and that there are exponentially more Black bodies on agencies’ artist rosters than in their offices.
I thought that was a really good article that he put out. I think it takes a commitment and we need to be very intentional. The case study I always tell people about is ESPN. Ten years ago, they fired about, let’s say, 50% or 60% of their on-air talent. Initially they said, and it could have been, for finances, but what they did was replace that on-air talent with minorities and women and now you can look at any show on ESPN, and I’ve done this before, and you won’t see a single show where there’s not a woman or a minority in the lead roles; not as an analyst, but as a lead role. That kind of intentionality is what I am talking about. I’m not referring to giving jobs to people but, like Kevin said in his essay, can you go through the depth of your corporation to find people who are ready. There are a lot of minorities and women who are ready for higher roles. Can you go find them? Can you train them? Can you be intentional about making sure that there’s room for them to move up? One of the things that I think we need to do is have people become mentors. That way, when your friends are saying, hey, I’ve got this job but I don’t know anybody, now you’ve got the perfect person for (them). Now you are in that circle of influence where you can say, I’ve got a guy that’s great for this job.
I see that you mentor a number of people. How do you get paired with them and what does mentoring them involve?
It’s been very organic. One of things I always tell my people is that if you work for me, you get me for life. Some of the people I still mentor: David Salomon, who’s assistant athletic director at St. John’s, he worked with me at Hofstra; Donny Cox, who’s (events/facilities manager) at University of Delaware; (Events/facilities manager) Austin Van Treuren, who’s still at University of Delaware; William Wilson, who interned for me at UMBC Event Center and still works for me (as event manager) here; and Andrea (Davis, assistant director of facilities and events at UNC Charlotte). I try to make sure I have an intern every semester and I try to invest in them, give them opportunities to fail … to trust them, and when they make mistakes, don’t crush them but really talk them through how to fix their mistakes and guide them throughout their career, help them with their resumes. We talk through what they should be doing next. After they get their first job, I try to talk to these guys at least once a month.
Who are some of the people who have mentored you formally or informally in life and in your educational pursuits and professional career?
I have been lucky enough to have a lot of people that I’ve considered mentors. One of the first (was) Jay Artinian, who was at Hofstra University (and is now deputy director of athletics and chief revenue officer). He was my boss there. Me and him actually spoke recently because he read my article. I had to … thank him because as a young person coming into power in Long Island we had many instances where I would tell someone something and they would look at him and say, should we do this? And he was like, “He just told you to do it.” He took the time to make sure that people understood, “No, listen to him. Stop trying to come to me for everything.” That meant a lot to a young man, especially to a young Black man — and at the time I was the only minority on the staff — that he had my back. He always has. He’s someone I can go to (for) input on a lot of different things, and one of the things I learned from him is, and this is why I treat (people) the same way, when I made mistakes, he didn’t yell, he didn’t scream, he maybe would have walked away if he was frustrated and then he came back and we talked it through. He didn’t take anything away from me.
Sylvester Johnson is another great mentor. He is the single reason why I got involved in IAVM. He used to run the Bob Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware. He was there for 30 years, maybe 40 years. He suggested to me that I go to Venue Management School, that I get involved in IAVM. He helped me through a lot of struggles.
Sporty Jeralds (former manager at Charlotte Coliseum, now a special adviser with the Charlotte Hornets and an instructor in sport and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management), who is kind of a big-time name for us not only in IAVM but in the industry, has been a good mentor for me. Every time I see him at conferences, I can talk to him about my career, where I’m going, what he thinks I should do next, mistakes that I made.
What should companies like Oak View Group, ASM Global, Live Nation, major talent agencies and others in the industry be doing, or doing more of, at this moment in time as far as countering systemic racism is concerned? You’ve talked about being very intentional in fostering diversity.
One of the things I like to tell people, yeah, let’s get angry together, let’s get sad together, now let’s change together. It’s going to take us, them, taking a real critical look at their organizations, and what I mean by that is look at your roster and see the depth or lack of diversity. And if and when you see that issue, look to see where your diversity is. Is it all on the lower levels? Is it event managers? Have they been event managers for seven, 10 years? Are they assistant GMs? Where are you moving your GMs to? And I’m not saying fire people. What I’m saying is, we all know that most people get their jobs because they know somebody. “I know a guy. I know the perfect guy for this.” In this case, be intentional about creating an environment around yourself and for those who make decisions … where they are surrounded by diversity. Then, when those roles come up, they have people to pick from to put there.
Do you think expanded efforts are in order as far as professional industry organizations like IAVM are concerned?
Yes. I think that we need to be advocates. Just like IAVM has done a great job being an advocate for venues for COVID-19, I think that we need to not be scared to approach businesses and say we need you to be more serious about diversity, and then be that advocate, be that push to try to force this through our industry. They have, I think, it’s 7,000 members. We need to be advocates for those 7,000 members. We need to make sure that all of these organizations, like you mentioned — ASM; our company, Oak View Group; Spectra; Venues Coalition — that they make that same commitment about diversity and then be serious about it. There are internships that you can start for help at the lower levels. There’s training. I’ve had great conversations with people I work with at OVG Facilities about who do we have right now that’s ready to move on, that we can invest in, that we should invest in? That’s the kind of conversation that needs to happen everywhere.
Do you agree that things feel different at this point in time in terms of U.S. race relations? Are we at a tipping point, and if so, why?
Yes. Both bad and good. I won’t get political … but there is a sense that hate groups feel easier about being open about their hate. First Charlottesville, with all of the pro-statues — with air quotes — protests that went along. There has been increased awareness of police brutality. Especially with the death of George Floyd, I feel like the world saw this and was like, how could that be? How could a man put his knee on someone’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds without a sense of remorse? How can three officers watch that? He wasn’t even moving and still, no distress, no care or worry in the world, and that kind of disdain for another man’s humanity, I think, woke the world up to say, man, we have a big issue here. I also think that’s encouraging, that people are responding the way they are. One of the things that I’ve gotten upset with is that a month ago, when people were protesting to open up the states and they were … with their AR-15s, screaming in the faces of police, they were met with civility. Not talking about what people were met with (during) rioting, but during the peaceful protests we’ve seen pictures of cops punching people, pushing people, throwing tear gas at people, and it’s very obvious that there’s an issue. If you can respond with civility to grown men screaming in your face, with loaded guns, and you respond with silence and stand with no riot gear, why, when people are unarmed protesting do you respond with riot gear, tear gas, punches, you know? That makes me feel like we are at a tipping point. I just think we’re, like you said, teetering, and I feel like we can take the opportunity to change.
How can the current mood in the country be sustained and translated into meaningful, long-term change?
That’s a great question. A lot of people are asking, what can I do? What’s next? And what I say is take that anger and become committed. I have a text group with a bunch of my friends, and I told them, “Share your stories. Share (them) with your industry. We have to go back (and) tell how it feels to be us and then when people ask, what can we do, then we talk to them about how we need increased diversity and we need action.” We don’t need you to say this is bad. We need you to do something about it, and I think it’s going to take all of us to encourage each other, that in this time, when we’re feeling this way, to not give up, to not let this feeling go away without any action. But we need to make sure there is sustainable action behind those feelings that we have. Again, I think that’s where IAVM can come in and be an advocate for that. I think that we are lucky because we have Tim Leiweke, who is leading the way in our company with action already with some of the things that he’s put into place, but we need to share our voices and we need those who say how can I help to be (active) about making change; to fight, to vote. If we can’t pass an anti-lynching bill in 2020, there is something very wrong … then we need to vote (out) the people who don’t want to pass that.
Are you hopeful that young people will carry our society into a more enlightened era of race relations?
I’m very hopeful. One of the things that makes me hopeful is that this generation is way more connected than my generation. I’ll be turning 40 this year and I was around (for the advent of smartphones), but that’s all they know is the phone. So even if you live in the middle of nowhere and have never seen a Black person before, you have Instagram, you have Facebook, you have TikTok, you have Snapchat. So you’ve been around different cultures. You’ve been around different people, so you think differently. There’s been a lot of Instagram videos, TikTok videos of teenagers crying because their parents said, like, Black lives don’t matter or don’t put this on my driveway when they are trying to do a small protest writing Black Lives Matter in their driveway or are angry that their parents just said the N-word or they’re angry because they don’t understand what police brutality is and they are posting this in response. Now these are people who were raised by these same individuals, but their response is much different, and I think that has a lot to do with the connectivity in the world right now and I think that’s very hopeful. But again, we’ve got to make sure that energy is put into practice, of voting and making sure that this is very sustainable.