Mullins Center 10th Anniversary Commemoration

By Nikolas P. Markantonatos, Collegian Staff

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The William D. Mullins Memorial Center opened in 1993, becoming a crown jewel of the University of Massachusetts.

The $48 million multi-purpose facility hosts most men’s and women’s basketball and hockey games, serves as a convention center for exhibitions, banquets and commencements, and offers a theater setting for both fine arts and rock concerts.

In 1985, Representative William D. Mullins of Ludlow, then the Vice Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, concluded that a large facility for the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts system was in order, according to a pamphlet obtained from Ruth Yanka, Associate to the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance. With 24,000 students and approximately 5,000 employees, the campus lacked a building on campus, or even within 25 miles, that could provide adequate seating for large events.

Representative Mullins called on the support of campus officials and legislative leaders and began building momentum to fund the facility’s construction. After his death in 1986, Mullins’ colleagues carried on his devotion to the project; House Speaker George Keverian and Senate President William Bulger jointly sponsored a bill to set aside state funds, which – in conjunction with a student fee – provided the resources to build the Mullins Center.

Capital outlay appropriation was passed in 1988 by the Legislature and signed by Governor Dukakis to provide the state portion of the Mullins Center’s construction costs. The state Legislature contributed $25 million toward the project, and the University building authority raised the remaining amount by selling tax-free bonds.

By late October 1988, bonds for $23 million requested by the University Trustees (and passed by the UMass Building Authority) along with the $25 million from the state, enabled the project to begin.

Cambridge Seven Associates, designers of Boston’s New England Aquarium, designed the Center. Suffolk Construction Company won bid for the job in December 1990. Construction began in January 1991 and was completed by winter 1992.

In 1992, the University picked the Ogden Entertainment Services Corporation (now known as SMG) to maintain and manage the Mullins Center. SMG (Spectator Management Group), the largest private management company in the world, also runs the Worcester Centrum Centre, the Compaq Center in Houston and the Pepsi Arena in Albany. Amherst Campus Auxiliary Services Division manage the food and beverage concession.

“As a tribute to Representative Mullin’s dedication to higher education and his deep interest in athletics in general and the UMass sports program in particular, the facility was named in his memory,” the pamphlet reads.

The Mullins Center holds 9,493 seats for basketball, a little less for hockey, and approximately 3,200 for theater events. Seating for concerts fluctuates depending on the size of the performer’s stage.

Both a beautiful building on the outside and inside, the Mullins Center has lured throngs of students, faculty and outsiders into the building since first opening on Jan. 31, 1993, sitting on the campus’ western edge.

“It really is a beautiful facility,” Nancy Beauchamp, executive director of the Mullins Center, said. “Everyone should be proud of this building.”

Tied to a contract with SMG, Beauchamp has served as the executive director for the Mullins Center for more than three years. Beauchamp has worked in the arena management field for more than 20 years, including at venues such as the Hartford Civic Center, Providence Civic Center and the Worcester Centrum Centre.

The Mullins Center’s annual operational cost is about $1.9 million, including repair and replacement fees, according to Yanka. Different sources of revenue, including commissions, revenues from events, sponsorships and advertising help to offset the cost. The remaining debt usually runs from about $800,000 to $970,000, which the University pays for, according to Yanka.

By bringing in enough funds, administrators hope to keep the arena in tip-top shape.

“We’re hoping by keeping strong funds there won’t be deferred maintenance,” Yanka said.

“I feel that the arena has been a good asset to the university,” said Yanka. “We’ve gotten some pretty good events to this campus that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. So I think it’s been a good addition to the culture of the campus.”

The venue has played home to performances by artists ranging from Elton John to Bob Dylan, Metallica and Alanis Morisette; the Harlem Globetrotters, David Copperfield, Sesame Street Live and the Wizard of Oz have all performed there.

The Center has attracted people from all over Massachusetts, Northern Connecticut, Vermont, New York and New Hampshire.

The Mullins Center is home to 44 athletic events annually: 14 UMass men’s basketball and women’s basketball games apiece and 16 UMass hockey games.

Trade shows (the popular J. Crew sale) make up 15 event days, family shows (Sesame Street) make up one event, rehearsals about three, religious conferences (church dates during the summer) about 25, graduations about three and lectures about two.

Today, the Mullins Center remains a prized possession at the University, but also faces a number of hurdles.

The Mullins Center tries to hold at least six concerts each year. As it begins its second decade, however, the Center faces a new, more hostile competitive landscape.

Outdoor facilities such as the Tweeter Center in Mansfield and the emergence of the larger FleetCenter in Boston have cut into the Center’s ability to attract top performers.

A ring of smaller venues, such as the Worcester Centrum Centre, Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the Tsongas Arena in Lowell, also has cut into the Mullins’ position in the market.

“This is what I have to compete with in New England alone,” said Beauchamp, pointing to a list of 14 venues in the region.

A new venue, the Harry Agganis Arena, now being built on the Boston University campus, will make it 15 when it opens in late 2004.

The checkerboard schedule is further complicated by the Mullins’ status in the market.

The unique problem the Mullins Center confronts stems from its classification as a tertiary market, which puts the Center at a disadvantage in luring many top concert performers. The tertiary market means the Center’ population base is small in relationship to secondary (Worcester Centrum Centre) and primary (Boston’s FleetCenter) markets.

“There are a number of acts that I can’t go after because of the size of the venue,” Beauchamp said. “‘N Sync, The Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Phish, Cher are playing bigger venues because they can play the larger venues and fill them.”

“Let’s take John Mayer for example,” Beauchamp said. “He’s playing here now but in two years time he’s going to be able to play in larger venues like the FleetCenter.”

Scheduling art performances is an art in itself and helps to make matters even more difficult, Beauchamp said.

“I try to budget seven to eight concerts a year,” Beauchamp said. “The concert industry has changed quite a bit since I’ve started. Acts or events or performers – when they would book their tours, they would route their tours in 100 cities and would play many dates, and they would route their shows across many venues. Now when acts go on tour, they perform on 30 dates as venues have increased two or three fold.”

Scheduling priority goes first to ticketed varsity athletic events, followed by graduate commencement and other university related events. Non-university events such as concerts and family shows receive third priority. Finally, UMass athletic teams receive fourth priority in scheduling practice.

“What happens is that [promoters] may be looking for a day that athletic events are booked and athletics have a priority,” Beauchamp said. “The building was built for use with athletics and for other departments. The other events it puts on are to help the University with finances.”

Besides athletic events, Beauchamp avoids booking concerts during breaks, long weekends and finals week. All of that
leaves a very tight schedule for booking concerts that have high potential for selling out.

“That’s my biggest challenge: to bring events and fill 10,000 seats,” she said.

The Mullins Center has had a difficult time selling out many shows recently for a number of reasons, according to Beauchamp.

“What you have here is a population with a very limited income,” she said. “It has to be the right show to get the right people to come.”

But attracting family shows and seeing them sell well is a tough task in itself, said Beauchamp.

“This is not a family show market,” she said. “It’s a metropolitan area that makes family shows successful. When I was at the Providence Civic Center, we’d sell out shows of the circus.”

Booking fine arts events has also been a difficult task, mostly due to the competition the Mullins Center faces with the Fine Arts Center.

“Because of the Fine Arts Center, we haven’t done as many as I’d like,” Beauchamp said. “I’d like to see more.”

Even with the challenges of booking events and its tertiary market status, the Mullins Center staff continues to bring big name entertainment and family programs to the Pioneer Valley. Besides John Mayer, the Center has hosted concerts by the Counting Crows and Tool this semester alone.

Beauchamp said she would like to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of the Mullins Center with a bash, but due to the current problems the University has faced this year, now is not the appropriate time.

“I really wanted to put on an event,” she said. “Right now, given the economic climate on this campus, the budget cuts, the number of retirements and layoffs, I would agree with administration; now is not the time to celebrate.

“Maybe when it’s more appropriate to celebrate, maybe then it’ll be a better time to put on a belated celebration,” Beauchamp continued. “I see [a celebration] in the near future. I’m hoping that within a year we can do something.”

Asked what type of celebration she has in mind, Beauchamp shared a few ideas.

“It could be both an athletic or concert event,” she said. “It could be a 10th anniversary of the games or a comedian.”

But what she would really like to see is a performance from Boston-based band Aerosmith, who performed at the Center once in 1993.

“That would be a great 10th anniversary in my estimation,” Beauchamp said, although she’s strong to caution that no preparations have yet been made.

The Mullins Center design includes a number of multi-purpose rooms, athletic offices, a green room (where band, cast and musicians relax when not working), press area, and visitor and home team locker rooms. The Massachusetts Room and the Concourse Conference Room are used as function rooms that can be used for banquets and events associated with performances in the main arena.

The Mullins Center is unique in that it does not have a centerhung scoreboard due to the pipes that run across the ceiling of the arena. The pipes are used for theatrical performances (i.e. to attach spotlights, etc.).

Other distinctive qualities include two Olympic size ice rinks. In addition, nearly one-third of the seats in the Center are upholstered for theatrical shows, when only one side of the venue is used. The men’s basketball team helps make the Center one of the most televised venues in the region.

A unique aspect of the Mullins Center design is that it affords direct access to the outdoor playing fields for athletes in the spring and summer.

The Mullins Center also serves as a learning facility and internships are offered through the sport management department.

“We employ 200 to 300 students on a regular basis,” Beauchamp said. “So the students are not only earning spending money, but they’re gaining some business skills.”

Looking ahead, the Mullins Center is preparing for Chancellor John V. Lombardi’s inauguration, which is set for February.

At press time, no acts had been booked for next semester according to Beauchamp, although she constantly works on securing performers. She has sent out about 75 to 100 proposals in the last year alone.

When asked what the biggest challenge the Mullins Center faces, Beauchamp said, “continuing competition to bring in diverse and unique events that the community will support. That was my challenge when I got here, and that’s still my challenge.”

“It doesn’t have to be concerts,” she said in booking events. “I would like to see us utilize the theater setup a little bit more.”

Student involvement in the Mullins Center hasn’t been as strong as it should be, according to Beauchamp.

“I thought I’d see more student involvement in athletic events,” she said. “I’d like to see a lot of students in this building making a lot of noise. This building is theirs.”

As part of the contract with SMG, Beauchamp teaches a Facilities Management course as an adjunct professor in the sports management program. Increased promotion and the employment of two former students may help in luring more students to the Mullins Center.

“This past year the marketing and PR effort is not as strong as it should have been,” she admitted. “I have two students in my class. They are looking for more student based involvement.”

Some information from and a pamphlet detailing the Mullins Center’s history was used in this article.