1979 casts shadow on Bruce's concert - 1,800 festival seats sold

Cincinnati Post, 2002-11-09, by: Rick Bird
It's only 1,800 seats. But in a city known as the site of the worst concert tragedy in rock history, it's a significant as well as a symbolic number. That is how many general admission, or festival seating, tickets were sold for Tuesday's Bruce Springsteen concert at the U.S. Bank Arena. It will be the first time any festival seating has been used for a rock show at the former Riverfront Coliseum since 11 concertgoers died in a crush outside the Who concert at the venue on Dec. 3, 1979. That night nearly 20,000 festival seats were sold. Doors opened late and, when they did, only two were used, creating a massive crush that caused the deaths. Cincinnati consequently banned all festival seating, but the crowd-control ordinance allows for exemptions.

The Springsteen show is the first festival seating exemption granted for a rock concert by Cincinnati Police since then. Occasionally exceptions have been made over the years for non-music events, and general admission seating was permitted for the Billy Graham Crusade in June at Paul Brown Stadium. "We felt Springsteen draws the type of crowd not conducive to rowdiness," said police spokesman Kurt Byrd. "We're covering our bases. It will be a safe concert."

"I've done a lot of shows and if I was convinced it wasn't going to be 100 percent safe, we wouldn't be doing it," said Jim Moehring, the arena general manager. "With all due reverence for what happened here, it's very hard when it's only 1,800 seats to even compare it (to the Who concert). It's apples and oranges."

The 1,800 general admission seats are for the arena floor. The rest of the house--about 15,000 seats--is reserved seating. The entire Springsteen tour is being configured in the same manner. Springsteen saw how the band U2 used a similar arrangement for its recent tour and liked the ambiance created when people could dance and jump around on the floor of the concert halls.

Paul Wertheimer, a consultant with Chicago-based Crowd Management Strategies, said the problem with the exemption was not the Springsteen show, but the precedent it will set. "The damage is once he leaves town. How can the city turn down somebody else?" he said. Wertheimer was a City Council aide when the Who tragedy happened and wrote the task force report on crowd safety that recommended the festival-seating ban. The report remains one of the touring industry's key white papers on concert crowd safety.

He contends that the Springsteen exemption will make it harder for the city to turn down other groups--like hip hop or punk bands--whose fans might create more of a problem in a festival-seating arrangement. "There's no written procedure or standard that they required the Springsteen people to pass," he said. "If you don't treat everybody equally, it won't survive in court. The first punk band that can't get festival seating will be the first to sue the city because the city doesn't have a standard. The festival seating ban that has worked so well for over 20 years can be open to a court challenge." Byrd said police would look at future concerts on a case-by-case basis, examining "the size of the crowd, the type of crowd it will draw." He said he thought the Springsteen show would be a good test case to reintroduce limited festival seating. "We feel you have to step into the future, but we haven't forgotten the past."

Members of the police department's Event Planning Unit, which oversees crowd control at such events as Riverfest, traveled to the Sept. 25 Springsteen show in Chicago with U.S. Bank Arena officials. "I liked the staging," said Moehring. "It was a pretty neat scenario." He said U.S. Bank Arena is taking extraordinary precautions outside the building to deal with those 1,800 concert-goers. They will be shuffled through an inverted triangle bicycle rack system designed to relieve any pressing toward the doors. They will be wrist-banded and searched. Once on the floor, another barrier system, 30 yards from the stage, will allow 300 people in that area in a plan designed to prevent all the people on the floor from pressing toward the stage.

Tri-state Springsteen fans who have seen the show in other cities say the staging seems to work just fine. But some noticed festival seating is still a magnet for early arrivals. "The crowd (in Detroit) did start forming early in the day because the first 300 people are way up close to the stage and the other 1,500 are behind them," said Marylyn Kirby, owner of Everybody's Records in Pleasant Ridge, who has seen around 100 Springsteen concerts. "They are still waiting all day so they can be that No. 1 person front row center."

Cincinnati has lost countless concerts because of the festival seating ban, but it's impossible to say how many, because promoters with general admission shows simply don't even bother to book them here. Moehring said he wanted to bring U2 here when he worked for Clear Channel. But the attitude was, "U2's got a partial festival seating show. Cincinnati? Forget it."

Prior to the Springsteen concert, the only time police were actually asked to grant a partial festival seating waiver for a rock concert was in 1996 when operators of the arena wanted to offer a mosh pit for a Smashing Pumpkins show. Police turned down the request, but the band still played the venue.

Wertheimer wonders why Springsteen couldn't be more sensitive to the legacy of Cincinnati's Who tragedy. "Bruce Springsteen didn't have to come here and do festival seating," he said. "He could have sold out reserve seating. He has not responded to the criticism." Moehring said the 1,800 festival seating tickets sold out in one day when they went on sale in August, but reserve seats remain.

Moehring said festival seating can be done safely if done properly. "You have to preplan it and you have to spend the money on staffing and doing the right things. It's all about dollars. Riverbend deals with 13,000 festival seats all the time. If you train the staff and spend the money and work all your plans with the police and fire department, it can be done incredibly safe."

Festival seating is still widely used around the country--notably at Dayton's Hara Arena, where up to 10,000 general admission tickets are routinely sold for rock concerts. But Wertheimer wonders why tempt fate. "All I know is this: Nobody's died in over 20 years in Cincinnati at a rock concert," he said. "Everywhere else concert dangers have gone up considerably across the U.S. Litigation for festival seating injuries has risen astronomically."

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2002-11-12 US Bank Arena, Cincinnati, OH