HOT SEAT- Entertainment U: Keeping up with the Joneses (Arena)
Larry Wilson, who's opened a handful of arenas, knows what a disastrous opening is like. He was there in Memphis in 1991 when the mother-daughter country duo, the Judds, were booked to open the Pyramid Arena. And the sewers exploded.
"We had to carry– physically carry– the Judds to the stage," says Wilson. "And we were able to keep the sewage from going to the arena floor. Otherwise, we'd have had to cancel. Since then, facilities do a flush-off before opening."
Now Wilson– general manager of the John Paul Jones Arena– has a staff of 17 crammed into out-of-the-way Arlington Boulevard offices to make sure the 15,000-seat facility opens– and runs– smoothly.
Most recently, Wilson was general manager of the Richmond Coliseum, and he's still employed by arena/convention center management company SMG, which is contracted to run the new Charlottesville facility. But he's wearing a UVA JPJ Arena polo shirt.
It was the Pyramid Arena, despite its nasty debut, that set him on his coliseum career. When he was in school at Memphis State University, looking at a business degree, his roommate worked as an event coordinator at the Pyramid. "One day, the light bulb went off," says Wilson. "I loved going to sports events. I loved going to concerts."
He set about changing his major to sports management at a time when most schools didn't have that degree. He interned with Detroit Pistons and took a job with the company that became SMG.
Being an arena boss is not all watching sports events and concerts. Here's his schedule for May 24:
In the office at 6am– and that's after being in meetings until 8pm the previous night. He answers emails. He's on the phone with two promoters in Nashville and Washington. He reads through a licensing agreement. He meets with a reporter at 9am. At 10:30, he walks a potential client through the arena. Lunch is 1:30pm with someone from UVA's athletic department. At 3, he gives another tour of the site. He's off to Richmond at 4 for a Sevendust concert. "I'm meeting with an agent to discuss shows," he says. He should be home by midnight.
The long hours are the worst thing about a job Wilson otherwise loves because every day is different. "It's not unusual to work 80 hours a week, and in the 100s to open a new facility," he says.
Though the Pavilion and Paramount recently have opened, Wilson isn't worried about Charlottesville becoming venue-saturated.
He does acknowledge the competition: movies, theme parks, or even going out to dinner. "We're fighting for that disposable money that families have," he says.
And with tickets for Cirque de Soleil, the arena's August 1 opening act, starting at $71.50, going to the circus for a family of four is not an inexpensive proposition.
The biggest misperception people have about his job? "Everybody thinks I set the ticket prices, that I decide when a show is announced and when tickets go on sale," he says. "The promoter and act decide all that. At the end of the day, I'm the landlord."
One other thing, in case you need a ticket and are thinking of becoming Wilson's new best friend: "For the majority of shows– 99 percent– there are no comps," he says. "The perk isn't there anymore." He steers those who want to beat the sold-out crush to the arena's website for advance notice and sales.
After working countless sporting events and concerts, the last thing Wilson would do on a day off is go to a game or a concert, right?
"I see live music and sporting events," he maintains. "Some people like to listen to music on their iPods or in their cars. I like live music."
And the aw-moment in his job? Seeing the happy expressions on people's faces, whether at Disney on Ice or the Dave Matthews Band.
"That's what we do," says Wilson.
Why here? General manager of the John Paul Jones Arena
What's worst about living here? High cost of housing
Favorite hangout? Vivace and Blue Light
Most overrated virtue? Moderation– no way! I want it all!
People would be surprised to know: I hate public speaking.
What would you change about yourself? My size– too skinny
Proudest accomplishment? Becoming general manager of a major arena at age 32
People find most annoying about you: At times, I tend to talk over people.
Whom do you admire? Steve Wynn for his big-picture vision and those who took a chance on me!
Favorite book? Tuesdays With Morrie
Subject that causes you to rant? People who talk out of both sides of their mouth
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Blackberry
Biggest 21st-century creep out? 20th-century items coming back to life– like clothes
What do you drive? 2005 Ford Explorer Limited
In your car CD player right now: Rolling Stones, Kenny Chesney, Chris Cagle, Creed, James Taylor and Kiss
Next journey? Honeymoon in St. John with my beautiful fiancée, Crystal
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? When I was 18 I was supposed to water the landscaping while my parents were out of town. I forgot, which killed $10,000 worth of plants.
Regret: None, never look back
Favorite comfort food: Pizza
Always in your refrigerator: Bud Light
Must-see TV: Any reality show, especially Survivor, and all sports
Favorite cartoon: Scooby Doo
Describe a perfect day. August 26, 2006– my wedding day on the beach in the Outer Banks
Walter Mitty fantasy: Owning a major league sports franchise
Who'd play you in the movie? Tom Cruise
Most embarrassing moment? I don't get embarrassed.
Best advice you ever got? When placed in charge, take charge, and always do the right thing.
Favorite bumper sticker? If winning isn't everything, then why keep score??
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO