Baton Rouge used to land big concerts. The River Center wants to bring them back.

The Advocate

When the Riverside Centroplex opened in 1977, one of the first acts to perform in the arena was KISS, then at the height of its popularity.

The legendary hard rock band is in the middle of (another) final world tour, one that has already featured concerts in New Orleans, Lafayette and Bossier City. But a show at the Raising Cane’s River Center isn’t on the schedule.

AMG Global, the giant firm that manages the River Center, along with the Caesars Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, is set to launch a study that could lead to more major concerts being held in Baton Rouge.

Wayne Hodes, general manager of the Raising Cane’s River Center, said a contract should be awarded in the next few weeks for a feasibility study of the facility. The contract calls for the work to be done in six months.

The study will look at three things. One is how the River Center fits in with future LSU improvement plans — such as a potential renovation or replacement of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — in order to maximize the use of all facilities. The other is the feasibility of building a headquarters hotel, possibly connected to the arena.

But the main focus of the study will be what needs to be done to improve the arena and make it more competitive.

“Effectively, they’re going out and looking at our regional competitors in terms of arena and convention center sites and looking at what may need to be done to be competitive,” Hodes said.

Potential items the study could recommend would be changing the concourses to allow for more places to sell concessions, renovating bathrooms and adding club or premium seats.

Hodes said his hope is that the study would recommend adding about 4,000 seats to the River Center, which he said would open the door to getting bigger-named entertainers because there would be more money to be had from putting on a show in Baton Rouge.

Work on the River Center (then known as the Riverside Centroplex) was completed 45 years ago this month. Over the years, the facility has fallen behind that of newer venues.

The River Center has a maximum seating capacity of about 10,300, if an artist has a minimal stage setup. For most acts, there are between 7,500 to 9,000 seats available, Hodes said.

When the arena was built, premium seats and club areas, which could be bought by businesses and used for entertaining employees and clients, weren’t part of the plan.

The Lafayette Cajundome, completed in November 1985, has seating for 13,500 along with VIP seating and club areas. That’s allowed the arena to bring in major country music acts such as Jason Aldean, Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and Luke Bryan over the past year, despite being in a smaller market than Baton Rouge.

A 2018 study of the 100 largest U.S. markets by mobile ticket platform SeatGeek found that Baton Rouge ranked 11th in fewest major concerts per capita, with 1.6 concerts per year. That ranked the city between Burlington, Vermont, and Providence, Rhode Island. SeatGeek defined major concerts as events involving the top 100 artists by sales per year from 2013 to 2018.

That same study found New Orleans ranked as the 16th best concert market, with nine major concerts per year.

While New Orleans has long been known as a great city for live music, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber noted that several peer markets such as Tulsa, Oklahoma; Louisville, Kentucky; and Birmingham, Alabama, also ranked in the SeatGeek top 25.

Andrew Fitzgerald, senior vice president of business intelligence for BRAC, said the lack of major live music events could be a hidden quality-of-life issue. Attracting young professionals and keeping recent LSU and Southern University graduates is one of the organization’s ongoing goals.

There are some problems with the SeatGeek study. Hodes noted that the numbers are several years old and were compiled before the COVID pandemic. And looking at concerts by major acts isn’t the best way to gauge a city’s music scene, since it excludes smaller venues.

But Fitzgerald said the numbers show that a deeper look should be taken to see if the Baton Rouge music scene is lagging behind other cities. That could include comparing ticket sales for small- and medium-sized clubs and theaters against what similar-sized cities are reporting.

“This is the right time to be asking the question,” he said, noting that Hodes took over as head of the River Center in January and Jill Kidder was recently hired as president and CEO of Visit Baton Rouge.  

The economic impact of major music events was shown in April, when Garth Brooks had a sold-out show in Tiger Stadium. Baton Rouge hotels had their best day for revenue, topping even the numbers for high-profile LSU football games.

The River Center and LSU need to work to attract more concerts like this, Fitzgerald said.

“Garth Brooks did incredible, but that’s not a regular thing that happens,” he said.

The success of the Brooks concert indicates that the “sky is the limit” for live music in Baton Rouge, Hodes said. The River Center recently completed an $18 million renovation of its theater and a number of acts are set to perform in the 1,744 seat venue this fall, including The Beach Boys and 38 Special. Comedian John Mulaney is performing in the arena ballroom in October, while Koe Wetzel, Judas Priest and Katt Williams will perform in the arena.

“With what’s happened with the theater, there is more and more interest coming,” Hodes said.

The arena will also host three professional ice hockey games in December and January, with the potential of getting a Federal Prospects Hockey League team full-time in fall 2023. In anticipation of the hockey games, Hodes said, the River Center is looking at getting a new LED scoreboard and digital signage. Those will make the arena more attractive for events. “This helps market the facility,” Hodes said.

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