Indian venues gross billions, transform national touring landscape

Long considered a backwater of bingo halls and oldies acts, top-name entertainers have discovered the Indian tribal casino circuit. Bob Dylan, Cher, Jimmy Buffett and Shania Twain are only a few power players that include Indian casinos on their touring schedules.

Tribal casinos grossed $19 billion in 2004, according to an industry report by Alan Meister, an economist at Analysis Group. That’s two-thirds the commercial casino gross in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.

Gaming tribes don’t disclose financial figures, but Meister pegs their 2004 nongaming revenue at $2.1 billion. The entertainment portion is perhaps 10%-15% of that.

“Indian gaming as a whole has changed since five or 10 years ago,” says Frances Snyder, a PR consultant with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians. “Our facilities are larger, more impressive, and completely dispel the stereotype of a dark, smoky, cavelike bingo palace.”

Although Indian gaming has been around since the 1970s, it was only after the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 and the mega-success of Connecticut’s Foxwoods, which debuted in 1993, that tribes began replacing their simple structures with sophisticated hotel-casinos.

To entice customers, they’ve added theaters with state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and professional crews to showcase the hottest names in entertainment. These sites vie with nearby Indian venues, and with non-Indian venues run by Nederlander or House of Blues. They’re highly competitive in terms of payment.

“Tribal-operated casinos have realized that that’s a very good way to bring in traffic to their casinos,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, which tracks the concert industry. “They’re looking for people to come in and spend money on gambling, not just go to a concert.”

Career Boost

Shows also generate nongaming spend on food, drink and other amenities. Because of this income, Bongiovanni notes, casinos are less bottom line-oriented than a commercial promoter would be.

Traditionally, casinos have attracted people ages 45-55 and up with disposable income. They’ve regaled these folks with classic rock, country and comedy.

Veteran acts are still a mainstay at many properties, especially the less cosmopolitan ones. Bill Medley’s Celebration of the Righteous Brothers was a hit at Agua Caliente in Palm Springs, Calif., last year. Tony Bennett was tops at Spirit Mountain Casino, near Portland, Ore.

Indian casinos are extending careers, says Bongiovanni, and providing a lot more venues and opportunities for artists to play that didn’t exist previously.

But in the last few years, the industry has shifted to contemporary performers. While still courting older guests, progressive casinos are targeting a younger demo, 35-50.

“If you look at our core, it’s probably 40s on up,” says Mike Dixon, talent booker at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif. “But there are lots of people in their 20s and 30s.”

Pechanga woos a range of demos with top comics (Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld), R&B and hip-hop acts (Keith Sweat, Kool & the Gang), and youth-skewing acts (Rascal Flatts, Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20).

Youth recruitment

Near San Diego, Viejas Casino is seeking a similar demo with similar acts. The strategy seems to be working.

“When we do a Counting Crows or a Train or a Billy Idol or a Cranberries,” says Steve Redfearn, president of Viejas Entertainment, “the card rooms — blackjack and poker — tend to spike.”

Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut might be the most forward-thinking Indian venue, aggressively pursuing a 25-35 demo.

“About 75% of the lineup is current artists on the Billboard charts,” says Tom Cantone, VP of marketing and entertainment — acts such as Alicia Keys, Norah Jones and Ludacris.

That’s why Foxwoods signed a yearlong agreement with “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, he adds. “Jon Stewart attracts a younger crowd, and he’s typical of the next generation, so we cultivate a relationship with him.”

Indian casinos can cash in on a built-in audience by mailing participants in their players’ clubs. Foxwoods, for instance, has “a database that is a million strong,” says Cantone. “That’s a plus for every artist, because at our expense, we are really promoting them and their CD or their career.”

With sales slumping for CDs and tours, he observes, “it’s a record company executive’s dream.”

Tribal execs are thinking creatively to stay ahead of the Joneses. For starters, they’re building bigger venues to hold bigger shows. Mohegan Sun’s arena weighs in at 10,000 seats. Viejas programs its biggest draws off-reservation in San Diego’s 5,000-seat Symphony Hall and 14,000-seat Sports Arena.

Tribes also are reaching out to new audiences via sports. Mohegan Sun is the leader in this field with its WNBA team, the Connecticut Suns. It has hosted rodeos, the Harlem Globetrotters and Fox Sports’ “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.”

Other tribes present pay-per-view boxing matches. These events get extensive cable TV coverage that publicizes the casinos in turn.

Several tribes are inking strategic deals with players such as Clear Channel Entertainment. Mohegan Sun, for one, gets first crack at acts in the Clear Channel family. In turn, promoters get another stop to book on the New York-Boston circuit.

The Indian casino boom has opened up a whole new world of touring venues. “Any time you add an inventory of 405 tribal casinos in 30 states,” says Cantone, “you have a newfound entertainment partner.

“The talent and their management clearly recognize the economic impact of an industry that is bigger than the movie industry,” he continues. “The collective firepower of new casino venues in key support markets has increased playdates, ticket revenues and merchandising of artists nationwide.

“Today’s modern casinos probably represent the newest and biggest retail distribution network in American entertainment.”

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