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VOL. 37 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 04, 2013

Big concerts only a memory for MTSU's Murphy Center

By Brad Schmitt

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The King came, sang and conquered. So did The Boss. The Thunder rolled, there was some rollin’ on the river and, at some point, Jeremy spoke in class there.

Elvis Presley, Pearl Jam, Garth Brooks and Tina Turner once played a renowned concert venue on a college campus about 30 minutes southeast of downtown Nashville.

Magical tours of giant stars like Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Elton John would draw besotted fans to Murfreesboro and the campus of Middle Tennessee State University where Murphy Center was the place to rock out in the 1970s, ’80s and 90s.

Alas, the times they were a changin’, and newer venues such as the Bridgestone Arena (ranked seventh for concert attendance in the U.S. and 23rd worldwide in Pollstar’s Mid-Year Ticket Sales Report), L.P. Field, long-closed Starwood Amphitheatre and others eventually pushed the storied arena out of the spotlight.

Today, Murphy Center is undergoing a major facelift – new HVAC system and lights, remodeled sound system, concessions and restrooms – but university officials say that is mostly to improve it as a place for athletics.

Despite brutal competition, though, college campuses still want to attract the occasional A-list music act as a way to attract attention and generate some revenue.

Think U2 at Vanderbilt’s football stadium in 2011 or Jay Z at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym in 2009.

One school, Lipscomb University, is quickly carving out a niche as the venue for Christian artists to play in Nashville.

Steven Curtis Chapman and Third Day have played Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena, and the Christian music Dove Awards and Chris Tomlin are scheduled for appearances in October.

“Booking these events brings people to campus who may never be introduced to Lipscomb in any other way,” says Walt Leaver, Lipscomb’s VP for University Relations says.

“In the past few years, our total number of guests on campus each year has increased from 100,000+ to 150,000+ (not counting athletic events),” he adds.

“[These] are intentional efforts on the university’s part to engage the community on campus. They are each attended by several thousands of people each year.’’

Lipscomb also hosts an outdoor Amy Grant Christmas event and a Charlie Daniels’ fundraiser show each year.

At Vanderbilt, the one-off major events are good for recruiting students, even better for generating money, says Brock Williams, vice chancellor for facilities.

“We are always actively searching out opportunities to generate revenue,” Williams says. “We would love to have another big concert.”

Lipscomb’s Leaver agrees that money is good.

“Tuition only covers about 80 percent of students’ educations at Lipscomb. Gifts from donors make up the rest,” he explains.

“Our facility rental fees are modest, but any way we can generate a little revenue to keep the cost of higher education down while giving our visitors great value means everyone wins.”

To be sure, the Bridgestone Arena and Ryman Auditorium get the lion’s share of major concerts that come through the Midstate. The Schermerhorn Symphony Center also is getting in on the acts.

But college campuses offer alternatives for promoters.

Sometimes, for instance, the arena is locked for Predators games. Sometimes, certain acts want to play college campuses to generate a different energy at shows.

“A lot of it is just timing,” Williams explains.

And universities just have to say no sometimes, especially when it involves the football field.

“Wear and tear on the venue, on the field – you’ve gotta take everything into consideration,” Williams adds.

Facilities directors try to be creative and take everything into consideration in attracting any renters to campus.

Murphy Center may not get Garth Brooks again. But, Ron Malone, MTSU assistant vice president for events and transportation, says there are other, if less glamorous, opportunities.

“Community support has been, and always will be, a priority of the Murphy Center Complex and MTSU,” Malone says.

“The improvements will make the environment much better for high school graduations, TSSAA [sporting] events, and large spectator events such as the World Outreach Church Easter Celebration,” which drew 13,000 to campus earlier this year, he says,

Still, Vanderbilt’s Williams is looking for another home run, but he knows the bar has been set high with U2 and the Rolling Stones.

“How can I top that?” he said. “I have no clue, unless I get a Michael Jackson to come back.”