Pollin’s Musical Hat Trick

Abe Pollin, who died Nov. 24, was one of the most influential figures of professional sports, having owned an NBA team for a record 45 years. But while the tributes and memorials to Pollin focus on his sports achievements, they’re missing his significant contribution to the concert industry.

“He was an incredible man. He built two buildings on his own and we’ll never see another one like him,” Mike Evans, executive VP of sports and entertainment for SMG, told Pollstar. “But there were three things that he did that were innovative in the concert business.”

He would know. By either working alongside Pollin or directly for him as VP of Musicentre Productions, Evans spent 23 years working with the businessman.

Pollin not only owned the Washington Wizards throughout its various incarnations and hockey’s Washington Capitals but built the Capital Centre to house the teams. He also built Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center and its parent company, Washington Sports & Entertainment.

But for all of the significance the Capital Centre had for Washington sports, it also changed the concert industry, according to Evans. In fact, it was responsible for two of the three components that Evans mentioned.

“When Abe built the Capital Centre in 1974, there were two things that weren’t in any other buildings,” Evans said. “It had these big screens hanging in the middle of the building called telescreens. I’d say to our guys, ‘Imagine when an act comes in and all of a sudden you’re telling them that they’re going to be projected on these screens.’”

Today it is hard to imagine a concert without accompanying video. But in the mid-’70s, the Capital Centre was the only place in the country to have such an attraction. And no matter how well the venue staff advanced the show, the artist was rarely prepared for the giant screens hanging in the middle of the room.

“You had all kinds of issues,” Evans said. “We had all kinds of discussions with managers and agents. Most of the time we had to turn off the screen that faced the stage because it was distracting to artists to have to look at themselves.”

The Capital Centre’s second contribution was its architecture.

“It was just unheard of: Sky suites,” Evans said. “Again, no matter what kind of advance you gave them, a tour accountant would look up and say, ‘So what are those? I didn’t see them on the manifest.’ And you’d tell him he’s not getting revenue from those suites. It was something they didn’t face in any other building and it was way at the forefront. Think about it: Los Angeles didn’t have any suites in an arena until the Staples Center in 1999.”

Pollin’s third contribution occurred in 1985. It is so commonplace today that it’s hard to fathom how controversial it was nearly 25 years ago.

“Abe called Barry Silberman, Pat Darr and myself into his office,” Evans said. “He was always great at asking questions that seemed so simple but in reality were complicated. His question was, ‘Look. We own two sports teams. We book and market our own family shows but, yet, when it comes to concerts, we rely on other people to call us on the phone and rent the building. Why?’”

What Pollin was proposing – to buy talent directly – was unheard of. In fact, Evans recalled when he and his contemporaries then flew 3,000 miles to Michael Ovitz’s new agency, CAA, only to be turned away in the lobby.

“They said, ‘We can’t meet with you. We don’t meet with buildings.’” Evans said. “And we had a meeting in New York with ICM where they told us how we were going to ruin the business.”

Evans recalled a time, after Washington Sports & Entertainment agreed to manage the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., it bought a show through William Morris Agency. But the agency soon realized it made the cardinal sin of selling directly to the venue and, to cover for its transgression, it brought in promoter Alex Cooley to get the universe back into alignment.

But that was 1985 and ’86. By 1987, when Pollstar had an award called Trend of the Year, the winner was “Direct Talent Buying By Venues.” And, of course, it didn’t ruin the business – just before talking to Pollstar, Evans worked with CAA to fill 10 avails at several of the venues SMG oversees.

Musicentre Productions was a natural result of Pollin’s direct talent buying. The promotional company was created to bring shows to the Capital Centre and Patriot Center – but, because Pollin was respectful of his friend Jack Boyle, Musicentre only did shows that were not being promoted by Cellar Door.

That meant Musicentre brought a lot of country shows to D.C., which was fine with all of the Nashville agents happy to take the calls. It also brought in middle-of–the -road acts. In fact, the first profitable show at the Patriot Center was Tony Bennett – a show promoted by Musicentre after several stiffs with outside promoters.

Evans moved on to SMG in 1997 but said that Pollin continued to be very active in making sure his buildings were filled with music.

It should also be noted that Pollin maintained his own Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster of Baltimore-Washington runs independently of the rest of the company and is owned by WS&E.