Industry Profile: Erwin Center Director John Graham retires from the memory creation business

October 3, 2017

Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director of the Frank Erwin Center John Graham, a titan in arena & venue management, is retiring from the "memory creation business" after an incredibly successful 28 year run as the director of the 17,000-capacity University of Texas at Austin's Frank Erwin Center arena.

Part tactical field commander, part old school theater producer, it quickly becomes obvious after speaking with Graham why he’s had such a successful career in venue management: he's focused on attention to detail, very no-nonsense in a way that artist's would appreciate, and to borrow an analogy, the 40 year event production veteran is playing chess, not checkers.

In our exclusive career retrospective interview, Graham talks with us, just a few days before his late August retirement, about his early days as a movie theater owner that gave him the skill set to manage larger venues, memorable moments like walking the arena with Bruce Springsteen as they inspected which seats a fan would truly enjoy, and his advice for anyone that would like to work in the high risk, high reward job of entertainment venue management.

TMO: We’ve been speaking with a variety of folks whose jobs are behind-the-scenes in the music industry, as opposed to the stereotypical job of “performing artist.” Your job is really interesting because on paper, based on your title, some might assume that you’re working with athletics as opposed to music.

Graham: “Well, that’s who I report too. I’m director of the Erwin Center, and everything we do covers all the stuff we do. So a chunk of that obviously includes athletics.

“This is the home for the two basketball teams, the men and women’s, and all the other things that support that. For instance, they have a practice going on right now, a few minutes ago, so that’s one of the things we do.

“But also, like any major arena that you see in a big city, we have both sports and entertainment.

"And the reality is - and I’ve done this for a while, 37 years, going on 38 - there’s no difference (between sports use and entertainment use of arenas). The difference is what’s on the court, or what’s on the stage…and I only see the court as a stage.

“You’ve got an artist, or a team. You’ve got an audience, or fans. You have to reach out to them: marketing, promotion, publicity. You have to sell tickets to them. Tickets – I’m not sure you even use those anymore with ticket applications being able to be used on the phone – now we call them an admission device. And so, you’re promoting it, publicizing it, selling a ticket for the doors, people come in, you support their time here with food and beverage, and other things that happen, and they have a 2 hour event that they’re part of, because they’re half of what happens (in the arena).

“And as I used to tell people, ‘If we didn’t have the audience, a game would be a practice, and a show would be a rehearsal.’ So…the audience is a big piece of what happens, and they make that thing. They create that moment. And every one of these is different. I don’t care if it’s the 40th show that Bruce Springsteen has played on his tour. What happens here is a unique experience. It’s unique even for the artist. They may play the same songs, and hit the same cues, but there’s a different set of vibes that happens. There’s going to be something different that happens here.

“And for the audience, we used to call what we sell ‘an opportunity to create a memory.’ And when they come here, there’s an experience, and that is a memory. Doesn’t matter what the experience is. And that’s what they walk out with. Other than the t-shirts and the popcorn, we don’t sell much that’s tangible, but we give them an opportunity for an experience that creates a memory. And how the audience jumps into that depends on what their experience is, and their experience to that artist, or to those games, or to that team, or to that coach. And so that’s what we do.

“We try to do that in a safe environment, and today that’s a changing challenge, if you will. A majorly changing challenge, and it has been for the last 25 years. Really ever since things happened in Oklahoma City with the bombing there. That was kind of a first time…at least in the United States. And you had another change happen on 9/11, and then subsequently to that, multiple times per year, there’s some action that occurs somewhere in the world that affects what we do.”

TMO: Yes. Like the attacks in the nightclub in France…and in Orlando.

Graham: “…and wherever the next one is. Sometimes things are sort of tangential, where something happens in an airport, and someone says, ‘Well, that could happen here. We need to adjust accordingly.’ So they start driving over people on London Bridge. Why wouldn’t they also do that here? So some of these things…we’re not even sure the answer (to combat those kind of situations) has been developed yet. But we still want to provide that envelope (of safety) for them. And we provide a security envelope for the artists and the teams as well.

“So sports and entertainment, to a certain extent, is the same thing. We’re doing the same thing. The same actual audience members might come to a basketball game, and to see Bruce Springsteen.”

TMO: It’s true. I’m a perfect example. I grew up going to men and women’s basketball games here…and I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen here on 2 separate tours.

Graham: “It’s really the same thing. We’re moving the stage around. Or we’re moving the court around. But, that’s really what we’re putting on here.”

TMO: Over the years that you’ve been working here, has the hospitality part changed? As a patron, I’ve seen additions get added to the building, private spaces get added, club areas, etc. Is that an industry trend, or is that something specific to the Erwin Center?

Graham: “That’s definitely an industry trend. The first building I worked at, there were not even permanent concession stands. And so those things were all kind of ad hoc, because in those days, there were places where you couldn’t even take the concessions into the seating area. And if you go back further, it all started with theatre and Broadway. Then you had a larger area, where it became an arena…then with hockey and basketball, someone started saying, ‘Well, we could put Elvis Presley in the same place we do hockey. Or The Bee Gees. And then over time, it’s evolved…along with the amenity industry, which is the clubs and the (VIP) suites. And raising the level of the food and beverage experience. That is a constantly moving target. It’s constantly changing with, not just more variety, but also with higher quality.

“And at the same time you have to have your core: hotdogs, popcorn, and peanuts, and soft drinks. But people are expecting other things too. If they’re coming down here, we’d rather have them come here and have dinner, than go somewhere else and come in here later. So you look at that whole experience, going back to what I said before, that we’re providing an opportunity for an experience to create a memory. So now we’re expanding that experience. We’re making it a wider, deeper experience, so hopefully it’s a better memory as time goes on.”

TMO: That makes sense.

Graham: “So yes, there are certainly those club areas. And those are also part of the financial drivers that we’re able to fund and pay for these kind of places as well. Because people pay more for that kind of experience. And there’s also – in the last 5 or 6 years – a really strong attempt for people to have some kind of special experience…including the guy who just shows up that day, and bought a ticket to that game or show…so there’s something special for him. Maybe it’s a food court. Or maybe it’s someplace his kids can put their faces in a spot where they’re like one of the players. You’ve seen those: where it’s a cut-out with the uniform, and they kid puts their face in and they become Shaquille O’Neill or something. All the way up to the high-end suite, where you invite your friends, and it’s costing quite a bit per person. There’s an attempt to have (those unique experiences) from top to bottom, so there’s something special for everyone. And hopefully over time, you kind of move them up, up that latter as it were. So there’s an intentional effort to do that.”

TMO: I’ve also noticed that in an attempt to expand that experience, about 2 years ago, y’all brought in the celebrated local, DJ Mel. This guy who’s been doing his thing in clubs in Austin, creating an added experience for folks, helping them have a good time. Next thing you know he’s going from clubs, to festivals, then to the White House…and now he’s creating that experience here at the Erwin Center. That was an interesting move to bring a DJ into the basketball environment…who can interact with the crowd, like the UT Band does, playing a song that people are identifying with right now, in popular culture.

Graham: That’s called ‘fan engagement,’ where there’s an attempt to engage the fans in a different way. It’s almost like, ‘OK. We’re selling hotdogs, popcorn, and peanuts. Now we’re going to have a different kind of pizza, or a local craft beer that we add into it.’ So you’re adding to your palate of experiences.

“And some of those things don’t work. Some of those things, you try them, and the audiences goes, ‘we don’t get it.’ Or, ‘we’re not keen on that.’ So you try something else. And the idea though is, that you’re trying something. And so that does happen.”

TMO: Do you recall any challenges, or differences, between the Erwin Center and your prior job at the University of Illinois?

Graham: “When I was in Champaign - which is my hometown. I grew up there - I actually watched them build that arena. And I went to school there. And I have a couple of degrees from the University of Illinois. So I went in that arena for basketball games, and a few shows. I used to work at a radio station on campus, and that’s where I really got into the concerts and shows.”

TMO: College radio?

Graham: “Yes. It was actually the number one rock station in town. It was housed in the basement of one of the residence halls. We would do promotions like you see today. The first show I ever saw there was Emerson, Lake, & Palmer…a long time ago. That was my first big arena concert that I went to. So then later, years go by, and I end up working there. I started out as Events Manager, which I was the only Events Manager. And I worked with the audience, parking cars, working on selling tickets...

TMO: Was that your first job after college?

Graham: “No, no. I had a couple of other jobs before that. But that was the first one in the arena business.

"My first job actually…my wife and I had a theater that we owned. In 1977, we bought a theater, a little movie house. We did some work to it. Ran movies. Did whatever we could to try to keep the doors open. We did that for about 3 years, then sold that. Then got the opportunity at the arena on campus.

“When I was event manager there, whenever something came up where my boss asked if there was someone that wanted to do something, I would raise my hand. Then eventually I was assistant director, then I came down here (to UT Austin) as associate director in 1989. Then a year and a half later, I was appointed director in 1990.

“So, the difference (between University of Illinois and UT Austin) is the size of the community. Champaign is a third level community as far as the interest in shows. But it is a very big basketball community. And then, here, it was a second level community. But now Austin is encroaching on Level 1. And we’re Tier 1, Tier 1-minus, you might say. And we do a lot of concerts and shows, and there’s a lot of interest in stuff that happens here, as far as that’s concerned. So we just stepped up in popularity, as far as the number of events that we do. More events, bigger staff. And now our staff is also engaged with football and softball and soccer and track and all the other facilities that athletics is involved with.”

TMO: I’ve read about how some shows are planned very far in advance. For instance with the 2 night stand of Paul McCartney shows, I read that it took years of planning to figure out. Is that on the artist’s side?

Graham: “The planning (for McCartney) didn’t take two years. What happened was, the conversation had been going on for years: ‘We’d like to do McCartney. When can we do McCartney?’ So their people would contact us, ‘How about these dates…oh those won’t work.’ So we’d go back and forth.

“Finally, over time, it’s more like some kind of a long distance marriage proposal. ‘I like you…I really like you. OK. That will work. No that won’t work.’ Then finally, all of a sudden, (snaps fingers). It happens very quickly when the day arrives.

“And an artist like McCartney is a little different than some others, because he’s an icon, number 1. And he can play almost anywhere in the world and do pretty well. And so, he has a lot of other priorities and options other than us. So, for us to eventually get into that sequence (of his touring dates)…it was important for us. And also, thankfully, it worked out really well for everyone…which we thought it would. He had never played here, so he thought things would be pretty strong. He’d played Houston, Dallas, and some of our fans might have gone up there…which I’m sure they had. And on the other hand, they were very good word-of-mouth spokesmen for us. So when the word (on his Erwin Center shows) went out, they were telling their friends, ‘That’s a great show. You don’t want to miss that!’

“And particularly when you get an artist that’s a little older, as I am, you never know when you’re going to get a chance to see them again. And so you want to take that opportunity when it comes.”

TMO: With McCartney, his never having played in Austin, and being an icon, he’s able to charge a significant ticket price. I saw him one of the nights here, and I was happy to pay the ticket price that I did…as were so many others.

So many of the shows here sell-out, or are at very near capacity. Is there a lot of research that has to go into managing those scales of setting the right ticket price, versus the artist’s demands, versus what the market is willing to pay, and making that all balance out?

Graham: “At the base of it, there is a fixed cost of what it takes to bring that artist here. And the artist has those expenses. All the stuff you saw: the gear, the lights, all of that travels with McCartney. And it’s a sizable road show. It’s many semi-tractor trailers full of gear. And there are people traveling with them that are trained professionals. That’s their gear, and they know how to put it up, and their not volunteering to do this (for free). So…we have to hire a small army of people locally to put all that up. And we have our house costs, and the advertising costs, and the catering, and all this stuff adds up to ‘this is the nut we’re looking at.’

“And then McCartney has some existing standards (for fees). And the artist, the artist’s manager in particular, they have some range for what they’re looking at for ticket prices. And so, we do some research: Can this area support that? Are people willing to do that? And have we had similar shows where we had prices that were close to that? Or were there shows at the UT Performing Arts Center (PAC) like that? Because to a certain extent, you might look at McCartney and consider that his is a Broadway audience. Or where we’ve had shows at the PAC where the tickets were in that (Broadway audience) price range…

“Also built into that is some flexibility. So that when we have some ticket prices, we might be able to adjust ticket prices as it goes along. So that we’re able to adjust ticket pricing to the demand, sort of in real-time. Fortunately with McCartney it sold-out pretty quick. So we didn’t have to do that very much. But that’s another common thing today, where there is a movement in the pricing. As you see with demand, the prices are there, but what seats that price is attached to might change based on demand. Not a whole lot. But there might be a 5-10% flex on where those seat locations are that that ticket price applies to. So you may go from a price 1 to a price 2. Or the demand goes the other way, and you move a price 2 to a price 1, because people are willing to pay that, and we’re going to go ahead and move p2 to p1, and so on like that. And the modern computerized ticketing systems allow you to do that.”

TMO: Has the battle of dealing with the scalping industry remained a headache. Or is it a cost of doing business that you have to deal with?

Graham: “It’s not so much a cost for us of doing business, but it is an existing issue that’s not going to go away. There have been many, many attempts to try to do things to address that. I can see where the fans get upset. Why is someone buying that seat, then turning around and selling that ticket for 3-to-4-to-5-times face value.

“The artists get upset about it, because they think their fans are being gouged. And the reality is that that money is going to someone other than the venue, other than the artist, other than the promoter…the people that invested in bringing that event to the location are not seeing any of that. And so, we’re having to try to make do with the monies that we have in that mix. Success varies a little bit. And then there’s laws that come into effect. There’s some places where it’s against the law. There’s others where it’s ok, and you can’t stop it. And so it’s pretty inconsistent.”

TMO: You mentioned your first concerts…and that you came from college radio. Any acts that were your favorites?

Graham: “Well, looking back, there was a time when I was at the University of Illinois where we did a U2 show every 2 years.”

TMO: Wow.

Graham: “Yeah. They had just started out and were playing college campuses, because that was their audience at that time. And so they were building that audience. And so the first time I did U2, it was 5,000 people. The next time, it was 10,000. And it just got exponentially bigger. And that was really keen to see that.

“McCartney was a highlight…

“Tina Turner, her last show here, was a fantastic show. And I enjoyed Tom Petty (pictured above) last time he was here. Over the years, there’s been so many. I’ve done almost 900 shows…”

TMO: Gesh…

Graham: “I remember doing Bruce Springsteen and he did 4 encores with the basketball lights on. And it was a 4 hour and 20 minute show, or something like that. Insane.

“But related to that, the first Springsteen show I did was probably in 1984. I get this call from Springsteen’s security person. We hadn’t sold all the seats yet because we didn’t know what the sightlines would be yet, and so we’d held some seats in some ticket locations until they got there, to make sure everything would work. He was selling tickets in the round. And so his security guy asked me, ‘We need to go up during sound check and see what it sounds like, and see if we can open those seats, or keep them closed.’

“And we go up there…and we’re walking around with Springsteen. Bruce was personally picking out where these seats were that were going to be sold. I was like, ‘Wow!’ Here’s an artist that’s really engaged in his fan’s experience. He was personally gonna decide if those seats – that were pretty far up – were ones that he would want to sit in. And he would actually sit down (in the seat), and go, ‘Yeah, we can sell these.’ Or, ‘No, let’s not.’ And so on. And that guy, he’s walking the walk. That impressed me. That particular moment.”

TMO: I saw the Born in the USA tour here at the Erwin Center, but it wasn’t in the round.

Graham: “Well, he had an end stage, but he would sell tickets all the way around the stage…”

TMO: Oh, I see what you mean. Not ‘theatre in the round’, but tickets that sometimes can go all the way around/behind the stage…

Speaking of big Erwin Center shows…I noticed that during the last several years, I Heart Music Fest has taken place here. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, that isn’t a tour that travels around?

Graham: “No, no. It’s a one-off event. That was created by the Erwin Center, in association with I Heart. I met with their producer many years ago, this guy calls me out of the blue, and says we’re doing this I Heart Music Fest in Las Vegas. But now we want to try and split off the Country music piece of that. And he came here, one guy, we walked around, talked, and said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do this.’

"And then I met them in New York, and we tightened it up. And yeah, that happened. That was a partnership with us and I Heart.”

TMO: I found that to be very interesting that it wasn’t in other cities. So if anyone in the country wants to see that, they gotta come to Austin.

Graham: “Yes. That stage you saw here, if you did come to see it, that stage was the same one they used in Vegas. It’s a rotating stage, so you could have one act setting up on the back, and then 3 minutes later they’re out in front, and you can go from one to the next very quickly.”

TMO: Brilliant.

Since the venue at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) has come online. And ACL Live. Has that reduced the amount of concerts here at the Erwin Center? Or has it made the Erwin Center have to bid against some of the bigger shows where, years ago, you wouldn’t have had to do that?

Graham: “Well, the same promoters and producers work with all those locations: COTA, that’s LiveNation. C3 is at ACL Live and with us. And we work with LiveNation and C3 on our events. There’s some events that are designed to be outdoors. You’re doing a festival, this is what it is. Same thing with the amphitheater shows. That’s a different production design, and those shows are meant to play outside.

“What really happened, and I was concerned at the time when those venues came online - as anyone would be - but the reality is, it took Austin from a B market to an A market. And so it made us more viable. It made the arena more desirable.

“And if someone played ACL Festival 2 years ago, then they’re playing here (now). Or if they played COTA in the summer, and they want to come back in the winter time, or the fall and the spring, then they’re playing here. So it really made Austin bigger on the (touring circuit) map. Because - going back to the Paul McCartney example - can the community support that ticket price? Well, if the community can support COTA and ACL, then they can support these other things.

“And there’s a certain fan base that doesn’t want to be outdoors. And there’s a certain artist that doesn’t want to risk the weather issues because of what they perceive their event to be, and what they perceive their audience to like, and so they’re going to want to play indoors because they can maintain that integrity no matter what is happening outside (weather wise).”

TMO: Last questions. Can you give some proverbial advice for young folks out there that are interested in events management, whether it’s entertainment arenas or athletics arenas?

Graham: “The one thing I…well, I got my undergrad degree in History and Political Science, and my Master’s Degree was in Theatre History. To do what I’m doing, at this point in time, the space in between there – and it’s a big space – this is the entertainment business. Sports and entertainment business. The money part of that is really important. Because without that, none of the other things happen.

“And so one of the things that I had to do over the years, through self-teaching and experience, was learning about that: how to read ledgers, how to put together a business plan, how to look at profit-and-loss statements, profit-and-loss per-event statements, so you know whether or not you’re making money, and how and why. Because if you lose money, you won’t be doing that job for long. I don’t care what it is you’re doing. I don’t care if you’re running a gas station or a restaurant. Most of ‘em don’t go out of business because they have too much money. They usually go out of business because they don’t have enough. And they may be making the best corn bread on the planet, but if it’s costing more to do that than what they’re receiving, or if they have employees taking (money) out of the back door, then they’re out of business.

“So, getting that piece of the equation in place is really important. Because everybody thinks it’s great to be at the basketball game – or the show – and boy, is this fun. But at the end of the day, and this is what happens here, whenever we have a concert or show, we have what is called ‘settlement.’ Settlement occurs the night of the show. We determine how much money we owe them. So all the bills come in, the income comes in, (he makes a machine counting sound) we add it all up, and then here’s the number, and we’ll send (the artist) the money tomorrow via wire, or transfer, is how it’s done now.

“But, being able to do that efficiently and correctly, and the fact is, that it is important, because those guys are driving Ferraris. And they want to keep putting gas in them. And we want to pay our bills here. And we have significant bills: 58 full time staff. And hundreds upon hundreds of part time staff. And they’re all trying to put something on the table too.

“So the business part of it sometimes is overlooked. So getting that experience would be important. There’s lots of schools and colleges now that have sports and entertainment program training. They have curriculum around that. And sometimes it includes hotel/motel, hotel convention centers. There’s a lot of crossover between performing arts, arenas, stadiums, hotels, convention centers, it’s all kind of one thing, in a way.

“The conference I was at last week was the International Association of Venue Managers, in Nashville. And people from all over the world were there, from stadiums, arenas, performing arts centers, and convention centers. And venues that are putting all these events on.”

TMO: And when you mentioned that you and your wife had bought the little theater. You had to have gotten a little taste of (the business end of venue management) when you were the owners of that…

Graham: “Well, it’s funny that you mention that, because when I got my first job at the arena in Champaign…that was on my resume. We bought this theater, and we had to re-do the seats, and we had to re-do – I also was doing full-time work as a machine tool operator. I had done that to put myself through school. And it paid more than anything else. And so, I’d done mechanic work on cars, which I still do…

“So I had to rebuild the movie projectors to make them work properly. And I had to install PA systems, and all that. I had to get the movies in. I had to order them out of Chicago. Pick ‘em up. Had to advertise in the community. We had to sell tickets. We had to sell popcorn. And Pepsi’s, up there. Then we had to clean (the whole place) out. And do it all again.

“In a microcosm, that’s what we do here. We were doing the same thing, only it was just two people. We were doing all the same things. You had to get the programming. Promote it. Sell tickets. Add it all up. Make enough money to pay the bills, and do it again tomorrow.

“So when I applied for the job as event manger (at the University of Illinois’ arena), that was all on my resume. And the guy that ended up hiring me, a guy named Tom Parkinson. He said, ‘That was the most important part of your resume. Because the rest of it was theoretical. That was application. You took the theory, and applied it, and you made it work! You were doing the ground level work, just like all the other parts of the arena that we do. And you survived.’ And Tom was a big man in the business. He designed this building.

“He designed the building in Reno. He designed the building at Michigan State. University of Massachusetts. He did a lot of arena design work. So I was really fortunate to learn from him, and be a part of his organization.”

Interview conducted by TMO Marketing Coordinator Marc Fort.