Joshua Tehee

Is this a renaissance for downtown’s Selland Arena and Convention Center?

A scene from the popular Life in Color tour, which played at the Fresno Convention Center in 2016.
A scene from the popular Life in Color tour, which played at the Fresno Convention Center in 2016. Special to The Bee

Earlier this month, more than 7,000 people crowded into downtown’s Selland Arena on a Wednesday night to see underground rapper Tech N9ne on his Strictly Strange tour.

It was sellout crowd on a tour full full of sellout crowds; but this was the biggest yet, what Tech N9ne called “the big show.”

The concert, promoted by the Los Angeles Company Diamond Productions Live, was a surprise success, generating both industry buzz and profits. The show made more than $73,000 for the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center, which operates Selland and co-promoted the event.

It isn’t the only success Selland has seen lately, either. Last April, rap-star G-Eazy brought 7,700 people to the arena. The worship band Hillsong United sold out its Empires tour that May with a crowd of more than 6,000. Carlos Santana had 6,400 in September and R&B legend R. Kelly had more than 5,400 fans at his show in February.

“Success breeds success,” says Bill Overfelt, the Convention Center’s general manager.

It might not be a full-on renaissance for the arena, which was built in 1966 and struggled over the past few decades as local casinos and the Save Mart Center entered into the market.

It certainly marks a turnaround.

Much of that should be credited to the City Council, which in 2013 approved a plan to allow the Convention Center to co-promote certain events. The focus has been on hip-hop R&B, Latin music and EDM.

“And it was a damn good thing,” Overfelt says.

The industry has changed. For much of its life, the Convention Center operated like a rental hall. Promoters paid a fee and that was that. If an event failed, the promoter took all the loses.

And those loses could considerable; $100,000 or more, Overfelt says.

These days, promoters want to feel that the venue also has some “skin in the game,” he says. Being able to share in profits on things like food/beverage, ticketing commissions, rent and facility fees can help limit a promoter’s possible loses, without the Convention Center taking losses of its own.

Had it not been for co-promotions, “I would have skipped Fresno and kept going,” says Diamond Productions CEO Jason Winborne.

In Selland Arena, he’s found a consistent venue for his shows. That includes the R. Kelly concert in February and a series of Holiday Jam concerts that have featured artists like Wiz Kalifa and Ice Cube.

“It’s an intimate building,” Winborne says.

Sell 3,000 tickets and the place looks full.

Sell 7,000 and you have the makings for the best show of a tour.

That is something he can sell. It took two years of work and persuasion before Tech N9ne agreed to come to town, but now Winborne has agents calling him wanting to bring in groups that might normally skip Fresno.

“There’s a lot of eyes on Fresno, right now,” he says.

That’s not only from companies like Diamond Productions, but also industry giants Live Nation and AEG. The latter co-promoted that G-Eazy concert, which made close to $70,000 for the arena.

Which brings up Overfelt’s original point about success. He sees the success of the Selland Arena – of all the convention center’s properties, in fact – as proof to promoters and artists that whatever their needs – be it a 300-capacity club, a theater or arena – the city is a viable market.

“Fresno works,” he says.

“It works.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee