Sports and entertainment events have arrived in a big way in Fort Worth. Most people don’t realize Fort Worth on its own is the 13th largest city in the United States and currently growing at a faster rate than any other top-20 city, an independent market within the larger media monolith that is the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. And now it has a brand-new, state-of-the-art arena to service its proud citizenry establishing themselves on a national stage.
Dickies Arena is a civic treasure, built through a unique public-private partnership, owned by the city of Fort Worth, and operated by the newly formed nonprofit Trail Drive Management Corp. At the end of each year, any net profits generated by the arena will be placed in reserve and capital maintenance accounts or reinvested back into other city assets on its Will Rogers campus.
The venue programs a full 12-month events calendar, but its anchor tenant is the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, which moved its annual three weeks of rodeo performances from the iconic Will Rogers Memorial Center across the street to Dickies Arena for the first time in January.
“We hosted 25 performances in 23 days and did over 200,000 people inside the arena for those 25 rodeo performances,” says Matt Homan, President and General Manager of Dickies Arena. “It was a great way to kick off this fantastic building.”
The First Rodeo
The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo is a 501(c)(3) company that’s had rodeo performances for over 100 years. It holds dearly to a proud tradition, and tradition is not easily altered.
“We had people say they missed the nostalgia of Will Rogers,” Homan says. “I’d say, ‘But you don’t miss the bathrooms.’ And they’d say, ‘Absolutely not. We do not miss the bathrooms.’ The amenities at Dickies Arena far surpassed the old Will Rogers, so people really enjoyed that aspect of it.”
The venue was not the only new feature of this year’s rodeo. 2020 also provided a new format with a bracket system leading to semifinals, finals, and wild-card nights.
“This by far was the best stock, the best athletes in the rodeo, and the best rodeo I think Fort Worth has ever seen,” says Homan.
Where the Will Rogers Memorial Center sat 5,800 fans for rodeo performances, Dickies Arena has capacity for 9,300, starting in rodeo boxes down on the dirt.
Rodeo boxes historically are a highly coveted part of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. Patrons are the closest they can be to the dirt and chance having some of it kicked up into their laps due to the proximity.
The former experience in the 152 rodeo boxes at Will Rogers was premium in location only. Fans had to literally climb over a railing to enter a box furnished only by folding chairs. There wasn’t much in the way of food and beverage, not even a cupholder. In contrast, Dickies Arena includes 214 rodeo boxes, all with first-class amenities.
“It was great to see the old guard of rodeo fans come in and see these new rodeo boxes and the amenities that they had,” says Homan. “They were received very well. Our rodeo box holders had a great experience, and I think they still got some of that dirt kicked into their beer, which was very important.”
Rodeo boxes are priced at $20,000, which includes tickets to all rodeo performances, parking passes, and first rights of refusal to buy club seats for events throughout the rest of the year. When Dickies Arena is not in rodeo configuration, the rodeo boxes disappear, replaced by retractable seating.
The entry level premium products in Dickies Arena are 2,400 club seats, starting at $3,000 per seat, which includes season tickets to the rodeo performances and first rights of refusal into the arena for other events. Club seat holders do not have the same seat for every event but are guaranteed seating in the best 25% of seats in the house.
Loge Boxes and Suites
On the venue’s club level, 32 loge boxes sit in the four corners of the arena, and 40 suites stretch end line to end line. Loge boxes come in different sizes, four, five, or six seats, and start at $33,000 a year, inclusive of all tickets and parking. All 40 suites accommodate 16 guests in 12 seats and four bar stools and are sold for $107,000 a year. Suite contracts include all tickets and parking passes for all performances and events at Dickies Arena.
“The usage of the suite holders was incredible,” says Homan. “They’re using their suites, and customers were using them on an every-night basis. In the open areas of the suite level – that’s where people were interacting with other suite holders, and I think that’s where a lot of business was getting done.”
Dickies Arena features two well-appointed clubs. The upscale Avión Club on the north end supports the arena’s most exclusive premium space and fine-dining experience. Homan and his culinary team learned early on that great food, done quickly, is key to success during rodeo performances.
“People like to come and be in their seats for the national anthem and the grand entry, and that is at 7:30 on the dot,” says Homan. “So while we were taking a lot of reservations for 6:30 and our team was trying to create a great dining experience, we learned that it was not only about a great dining experience, but it’s about speed of that as well, getting the food out quickly.”
One of Homan’s biggest surprises was the performance of the Reliant Club, located on the south end above the rodeo chutes. In contrast to the elegance of the Avión Club, the Reliant Club is a more casual environment. But with two stories and sweeping views of the event floor, it was the place everyone wanted to be.
“You’d see in the bars herds of hats there, gentlemen wearing their cowboy hats,” Homan says. “It was packed. We were doing upwards of $30,000 to $35,000 a night in this south club.”
Dickies Arena achieved an aggregate F&B per cap over $20 for all guests in the arena during the 25 rodeo performances. This figure is more than double the F&B per cap seen in previous years when the rodeo performances were held at Will Rogers.
“I think we can get better with that,” says Homan. “I think we could raise that per cap to closer to $22 a head, as we get better and more efficient in future years.”
It’s important to reiterate Dickies Arena is much more than just the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo. During the 11 months of the year when the building is not in rodeo configuration, hauling in or out 750 truckloads of dirt, or cleaning the building then cleaning it again, and again, even turning up the sound system’s bass full blast to shake out the lingering dust, it is hosting the typical menu of events for a full-scale, 14,000-capacity sports and entertainment arena.
To optimize the changeover process after the rodeo dates were complete, Homan had it filmed, and the time-lapse videos analyzed in an effort to improve the exiting strategy.
“You see where things cost you time, cost you potentially hours or days of time,” Homan says. “So you put some cameras on it, you watch what you do, and you get better at it.”
Originally projected to do 125 events in its first 12 months, Dickies Arena is now on pace to host 155 to 160 events, contingent upon the current COVID-19 outbreak alleviating and related bans on mass gatherings lifting. Dickies Arena has already had to cancel the American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship, and the fate of future events is simply unknown at this time.
“We’re bringing acts and events that have never been in Fort Worth before… It’s selling lots of tickets, and that’s always a good recipe to get more events in the future.”
– Matt Homan, Dickies Arena
But as of this article’s deadline, the Dickies Arena events calendar is teeming with concerts featuring artists from a broad spectrum of musical genres, including Michael Bublé, Five Finger Death Punch, and James Taylor. Previous acts include Alan Jackson, George Strait, The Black Keys, and TWENTY ØNE PILØTS, who christened the building.
Music was always top of mind for Mr. Ed Bass, chairman of the board, project leader for Dickies Arena, and namesake of the famed Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
“[Mr. Bass] knew a long time ago, acoustics were going to be something that had to be top of the line, so having an acoustician on board very early to make sure that the acoustics in this building were second to none was extremely important,” says Homan.
The geometry of the arena also sets it up for concert success. With only 4,200 seats in the entire upper bowl and because the floor is larger than other arenas in order to accommodate the rodeo performances, the majority of seats are in the more profitable lower bowl or on the floor for a 12,500-seat end-stage performance. By comparison, American Airlines Center in Dallas configures a comparable 12,900 seats for a similar format.
Looking to the future, Dickies Arena has already secured the American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship through 2022, the NCAA Men’s Basketball First and Second Round games in 2022, and the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships through 2022.
“We’re bringing acts and events that have never been in Fort Worth before because they didn’t have this sports and entertainment facility,” says Homan. “Now that this building is here, it’s very vibrant, and it’s selling lots of tickets, and that’s always a good recipe to get more events in the future.”
An Independent and Sustainable Marketplace
The initial success of Dickies Arena is made even more impressive by the fact Trail Drive Management Corp, the company setup to operate Dickies Arena, is a self-operated startup. Everything from premium sales, to parking services, to food and beverage, to event operations launched without assistance from outside support organizations or strategic partners.
“From top to bottom, I can’t thank our staff enough,” says Homan. “They’ve done such a great job and created a great experience that I would put on par with any seasoned-level group in our industry.”
As this group continues to move from selling the dream to executing the reality of Dickies Arena, the chamber-of-commerce sales pitch to artists, managers, agents, and promoters continues. The message is simple: Fort Worth is not Dallas. Dallas is not Fort Worth. They are two separate markets with two separate buying patterns in the same way Los Angeles and Anaheim are.
“We’re proving it through ticket sales,” says Homan. “That’s a good sign for Fort Worth. Fort Worth is its own independent market.”
The early demand certainly bodes well for the future. And Dickies Arena was always a project with a long-term vision for the community in mind.
“Further down the road, the only thing we can do with our dollars is help city buildings like [Dickies Arena] and reinvest those dollars back into the community,” Homan says. “Then we’ll have created something here that is truly remarkable.”
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