Theaters tackle box office challenge as football takes over Times Square
January and February are always tough months for the Main Stem, hammered by the slump that hits when holiday tourists go home. But this year a lot of producers are betting that Super Bowl XLVIII, set for kickoff Feb. 2 at the MetLife Stadium in nearby East Rutherford, N.J., will cause audiences to give Broadway an even colder shoulder than usual.
The main concern is the sprawling plan for Super Bowl Boulevard, a pigskin street fair that will camp out in midtown Jan. 29-Feb. 1, closing Broadway (the street) to vehicular traffic from Herald Square to Times Square (34th Street to 47th Street) starting Jan. 26. Into an already congested area, the Boulevard will cram everything from sets for live TV broadcasts to a practice range for field-goal kicks to a toboggan run.
All of this is happening right in Broadway’s front yard. As the producer of one hit show grumbles, “It’s going to be catastrophic.”
Actually, nobody knows that for sure. Broadway takes great comfort in its deep bench of historical precedents for B.O. performance. But the Super Bowl is that rarest of annual events: one the Main Stem has never faced before. This is the first time there’s even been a Super Bowl in an open-air stadium in a cold-weather city, much less one so close to New York that it might as well be a suburb.
So how will Broadway box office fare?
Charlotte St. Martin, exec director of the Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters, offers the half-full outlook: “It’s the heart of the city,” St. Martin notes, “and we’ll have a lot of visitors there, with an enormous amount of promotion and activity.”
But longtime box office observers tend to believe the Super Bowl will mirror what happens at the B.O. when a political convention comes to town. Visitors will be too focused on the event to pay the Rialto much mind, and locals will swear off the area to avoid the traffic and crowds.
The last time a political confab hit Gotham was in 2004, when the Republican National Convention brought a notable decline to Broadway B.O. in the weeks before Labor Day — usually the final healthy stretch prior to the annual back-to-school doldrums. In 1992, the Democratic National Convention prompted Broadway cume to fall 3.5% in a late-July frame that usually sees sales rise (by 5%, at the time) week-to-week.
Back then, grosses dipped even without the distraction and potential transit headache of Super Bowl Boulevard, the NFL initiative that staked out its spot in Times Square when it was discovered that Javits Convention Center was booked. Load-in for the various elements of the Boulevard began as early as Jan. 17. Legiters worried about regular production deliveries or set load-ins and load-outs have at least been assured that all side streets (except 41st Street) will remain open during Broadway’s closure.
Titles with prominent signage in Times Square can count on showing up in some of the footage broadcast from the area by Fox, ESPN, CNN and the NFL Network. But whether the tide of football fans, or any of their spouses along for the ride, will want to catch a Broadway show that week remains to be seen.
“There’s no doubt Super Bowl Boulevard is good for the city, but we’ll have to wait until afterwards to know if it’s been a net gain for the neighborhood,” says Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance. “If the people who usually come to Broadway keep coming, and you add in the Super Bowl folks, then it’s a home run — as long as people don’t get scared away.”