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Columbia Business Monthly

25 Years Ago, Bon Secours Wellness Arena Transformed Greenville’s Entertainment Landscape

Sep 12, 2023 11:49AM ● By David Caraviello

Greenville Memorial Auditorium may have been a classic basketball arena, but as a concert venue it clearly had its shortcomings. From a music standpoint, its claim to fame was a 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd show held the night before the plane crash that killed three band members.

In its final full year of operation, 1996, the 7,500-seat arena hosted a number of up-and-coming indie rock acts, but none of the top-grossing tours of that year. To see the likes of Billy Joel or Reba McEntire, you had to drive to Charlotte or Atlanta.

That all changed in late 1998, when the 15,000-seat facility now known as Bon Secours Wellness Arena opened on the same East North Street location that had once been home to the auditorium. The first concert at the new arena was by Janet Jackson, whose “Velvet Rope” tour was the eighth-highest-grossing in North America that year, according to Pollstar. Elton John and Shania Twain, whose tours were also among 1998’s top 10, would follow later that year. Suddenly, Greenville’s entertainment landscape had been transformed. 

That remains the case now 25 years after its opening, as Bon Secours Wellness Arena continues to bring major concert acts and sports events to a city of 72,000 that would likely be bypassed without it.

“Having an arena of its size in Greenville gives the market the ability to attract the biggest names in talent,” said Grant Lyman, president of the concert promoter Live Nation Carolinas. “Over the past few years, we have promoted concerts there with Bon Jovi, the Eagles, Reba, The 1975, Chris Stapleton, and many others. One of the best parts about Bon Secours is its size flexibility as well. We can set up large shows to seat over 12,000 people, but the venue is also able to cut down to as small as around 4,000 capacity, allowing us to bring artists of varying size and popularity.”

After Jackson opened the facility with her sold-out concert on Sept. 3, 1998, Pearl Jam and Reba McEntire with Brooks and Dunn quickly followed. In the quarter-century since, the building has also hosted the likes of Prince, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, and Bruce Springsteen. From a sports perspective, the arena regularly hosts the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and SEC women’s basketball tournament. It all makes Greenville stand out, given that other cities with similar populations have far smaller arenas — like the 5,000-seat civic center in Canton, Ohio, and the 2,500-seat field house in Wilmington, Delaware.

“Greenville is unique, because it’s a small market with a big arena,” said Jay Williams, co-head and partner in the talent agency WME Nashville. “I grew up in Chattanooga (Tennessee), which is another small market, and the arena was a little older and didn’t serve alcohol until recently. So, it was often overlooked. But Greenville has a great geographic location that draws from Columbia to Asheville (North Carolina), and they have a great-sized building. For classic rock and country and emerging rock bands that are doing a lot of touring, I think it’s a perfect market.”

‘When can we come back?’

The $63 million arena originally known as the BI-LO Center broke ground on March 7, 1996. Opera singer Sarah Reese, a Greenville native, and the Daniel High School jazz ensemble performed at a ceremony in the parking lot behind the Memorial Auditorium, which would be demolished. Giving a keynote address was Jerry Colangelo, owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, whose America West Arena was the model on which the new Greenville facility would be based.

It was part of a new era of sports and entertainment promotion in the Palmetto State. In 1993, officials in the Lowcountry had cut the ribbon on the 13,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum, which was the largest indoor arena in South Carolina at the time of its opening. In 2002, the University of South Carolina upped the ante even more with the debut of the 18,000-seat facility now called Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, which is home to the Gamecocks basketball programs.

But it’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena that seems to have best hit the sweet spot with its combination of just-right seating capacity, geography, and buzzy host city. Greenville is also just far enough from Charleston that the two cities aren’t seen as competitors. “I don’t ever think, ‘Shoot, we’re playing Charleston, we won’t play Greenville,’” said Williams, who represents artists like Luke Bryan, Eric Church, and Chris Stapleton. 

Bon Secours Wellness Arena currently hosts between 25 and 30 concerts each year, according to Beth Paul, the arena’s general manager. The arena underwent a renovation in 2013 and 2014 to modernize and update the backstage areas and the customer experience, Paul added, and arena management executes a capital plan each year to ensure that it remains relevant within the industry.

“The biggest challenge to staying relevant as a concert venue is being willing to continually invest and make improvements for both the artists’ needs and the fans’,” Lyman said. “When you walk into Bon Secours Wellness Arena, there is nothing about it that appears to be 25 years old, because Beth and her team do a tremendous job making upgrades and improvements. Whether it’s new and improved concession areas, suite upgrades, or backstage dressing room enhancements, Beth’s team is always working to raise the bar and provide a top-notch facility.”

Even 25 years in, Bon Secours Wellness Arena has managed to maintain a modern ambiance, unlike other facilities of its era that can feel cramped and dark. There’s a reason why Church has played the arena roughly five times in the past decade, Williams said.

“I’ve never heard one complaint about it from anybody,” he added. “There are some arenas that are older that we do hear complaints about sometimes, but definitely not that one. I think Beth and her staff do a great job of making everybody feel really welcome, and rolling out the red carpet anytime we have a tour coming through. I’ve never had anybody play that building and say, ‘I never want to come back here again.’ It’s more often, ‘When can we come back?’”

A mecca for March Madness

For a facility like Bon Secours Wellness Arena, landing March Madness is the ultimate sports coup. The Greenville arena did just that in 2002, hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, marking the first time the event had been played in the Palmetto State since 1970. But the excitement didn’t last — the NCAA decreed that there would be no more men’s March Madness events in South Carolina until the Confederate flag was removed from the statehouse grounds.

That finally happened in 2015, after which Greenville tourism officials began lobbying the NCAA to return to a city that had earned very positive reviews in its debut as tournament host in 2002. So, when the NCAA balked at holding tournament games in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2017 over a bill preventing transgender people from choosing bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity, Greenville was ready. The NCAA first and second rounds in 2017 marked the true basketball breakthrough for Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which also served as the launch pad for South Carolina’s unlikely run to the Final Four that year.

Greenville has since become the destination for postseason basketball in the Palmetto State. In addition to 2002 and 2017, Bon Secours Wellness Arena also hosted the men’s NCAA first and second rounds in 2022, and will do so again in 2026, which is more than any venue in the state. Bon Secours Wellness Arena has also become a regular host to the SEC women’s basketball tournament, which it’s welcomed in five of the last seven years, and is again set to host in 2024 and 2025.

In 2023, Bon Secours Wellness Arena also hosted a pair of regionals in the NCAA women’s tournament, in which South Carolina and LSU punched their respective tickets to the Final Four. How did “The Well,” as it’s known in hoop circles, become such a postseason basketball capital?

“Working partnerships with Furman, the Southern Conference, VisitGreenvilleSC, the city of Greenville, Greenville County, and the arena are critical to the success of these major events,” Paul said. “The student athlete experience is the primary focus, as well as the experience for fans, families of the athletes, university administrators, alumni, and faculty. Greenville offers a great basketball arena, hotels, restaurants, and a vibrant downtown in walking distance.”

Twenty-five years ago, this “big arena in a small market” provided a venue for major music acts that would otherwise have seen Greenville as a blur through the window of their tour bus. It gave the NCAA a place to plant a flag in the Palmetto State, adding Greenville’s name to the exclusive list of cities that are regular hosts to the men’s basketball tournament. And it forever altered the city’s entertainment identity, allowing it to play in a much bigger league than its population might suggest. 

“Just like the Greenville market itself, we have seen steady growth in our show count and ticket sales at the arena,” said Lyman, of Live Nation Carolinas. “There is an energy in Greenville that is fresh and exciting, as evidenced by the number of people who are moving there. It’s a city that people love to live and love to visit, which is reflected in our concert attendance. We always look forward to producing events at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, primarily because of Beth Paul and her amazing team that go above and beyond to make the promoters and the artists feel welcome and want to come back again and again.”