Folks in casinos dream of "getting on a roll."
Tom Cantone, vice-president for sports and entertainment at Mohegan Sun, is definitely on a roll - it's just in a different "jackpot" context. Starting just after Thanksgiving with two sold-out shows by boy band sensations One Direction, and steamrolling onward into the new year, Cantone, 62, is on a decidedly impressive hot streak - and not just by casino standards.
After One Direction, the Arena closed out 2012 with performances by The Dave Matthews Band, The Who and Coldplay. A partial and representative list of artists who are already confirmed for 2013 includes Lady Gaga, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Muse, Rush, Pink, Sting, Green Day, Fleetwood Mac, The Killers, Kevin James, Keith Urban, Eric Clapton, Maroon 5, Motley Crue, Sully Erna of Godsmack, 3 Doors Down, Reba McEntire and Matchbox Twenty. (See sidebar for show dates.)
It's the sort of relentless A-list onslaught you'd expect to see on the marquee at Madison Square Garden or the Staples Center.
"I'm proud of what we're doing here because, yeah, it is somewhat of an unprecedented and historic casino run that seems to have caught a lot of industry attention," Cantone says.
Indeed. For 2012, in terms of total gross and attendance for facilities up to 10,000 seats, Billboard magazine ranked the Mohegan Sun Arena third in the U.S. and fourth in the world. In a year-end report released last week, Pollstar placed the Sun Arena at #48 on its list of Top 200 Venues in the world regardless of size - and many have much larger capacities than the Arena. On that roster, the Sun beat out such elite rooms as the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., the XL Center in Hartford, TD Garden in Boston, Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas and Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall.
Given the upcoming schedule, it's only reasonable to assume the Sun's reputation will continue to grow.
Cantone, who has worked in similar capacities at Foxwoods Resort Casino - where he was one of the first anywhere to book hip-hop and modern R&B acts into a casino - and at the Sands in Atlantic City, is happy to talk about the battle plan to raise the Sun's profile as a live entertaiment attraction.
"Our goal is simple," he says. "We want to make the Arena a top-of-the-line destination - equal to the best-known venue brands in entertainment."
Cantone says the Sun's website has scored more than 18,000,000 hits and that, for some Sun concerts, ticket requests have crashed the Ticketmaster website. In the past six years, he says, the Sun has drawn more than 5,000,000 people to the arena - a figure unmatched by any other casino in the world.
Cantone is also quick to pass out praise.
?This has come about because of the power of good timing, good luck and good planning," he says. "I work with a wonderful group, from ushers and vendors to ticket takers, box office employees and the security staff. We work hard at creating our good luck and we work hard to parallel our bookings with what's happening in American popular culture. To do that, we've tried hard to build relationships throughout this business. To make something happen, you've got to not be afraid to pick up the phone and create the perfect storm."
Kenny DiCamillo, music agent for New York's William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest and most prestigious talent agencies in the world, says, "It's absolutely true that the Mohegan Sun has become a top-level arena destination, and what Tom's doing with this current run of acts is quite amazing. But even more interesting is how he's doing it."
Over the years, DiCamillo explains, the tension between in-house casino agents and "civilian" promoters who work independent, non-casino halls was decidedly high. Typically, the casinos were able to throw a lot more money at artists because of the post-show windfall provided by fans hanging around the casino and gambling. As such, in a given geographical area, a town like Hartford or New Haven might not be able to get a targeted headliner if, for example, the Sun decided to up the ante in its bid.
"Tom has always been a very forward thinker, and he was the first to broach an alliance between the two factions and say, 'Hey, let's work together,'" DiCamillo says.
"We've cultivated relationships with various agents and with (entertainment company) Live Nation," Cantone says. "They're great partnerships and we try to help each other with our respective resources. Together we try to think far in advance, tracking the buzz of certain names that we come to believe are going to become the next big things."
In that spirit, the Sun tries to cultivate a relationship early in an act's career, booking the artist first in the Mohegan Sun Wolf Den. Then, as the fan base grows, the act graduates into the Arena. Lady Antebellum, Toby Keith and the Zac Brown Band are a few examples of headliners who started their Sun associations in the Wolf Den.
"We try to ensure that the entertainers enjoy our efforts on their behalf," Cantone says. "I think our folks impress the artists; our goal is the acts should enjoy their time here as much as their fans enjoy the show they've come to see.
"In the end, with both artists and customers, we're building lifetime friendships."
Backstage with Tom Cantone
Marking his 30th year in the casino business, Tom Cantone decided to write a memoir of his experiences booking entertainment. "I didn't really do it for any reason other than I'd been fortunate to meet a lot of great artists and people, and I thought I'd better do it while I can still remember it all," he laughs.
Called "Book 'Em," the tome includes Cantone's recollections of working with almost 100 artists, athletes and personalilties - ranging from Jennifer Lopez, Eddie Murphy, Al Pacino and Al Gore to Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry and Ke$ha.
Regis Philbin wrote the introduction, and Cantone says the book will be published later this spring with a release party at the Friar's Club in New York City.