Al Karosas’ office is a constant reminder of his passions.
There are cards of past sports greats like Scottie Pippen and Emmitt Smith embedded into the top of his desk, and there are passes displayed from every show ever performed at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Effective Saturday, Karosas is in charge of the BJC, a place where he has combined his passions of sports and music for about 20 years. As assistant general manager, Karosas orchestrated how to put on shows like the circus, Jay-Z and Thon, and he has helped negotiate deals to bring in acts.
“When I finished my final year at Penn State the Jordan Center was being constructed, and I thought I could do it and still be involved with sports,” he said. “My family is also very musically oriented, and I thought I could combine passion for sports and music. I basically sent a letter to (longtime general manager) Bob (Howard) and said, ‘I know you’re opening and busy, and I’ll do whatever I can to help out.’ I was brought on board and signed to be first group sales manager when it opened in January 1996.”
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Karosas has since seen it all, but his favorite act was a class act.
“By far best event we’ve hosted was Garth Brooks,” he said. “First, and most important, the fans, some of the nicest and polite and energetic and passionate fans. They just enjoy being a part of it. It makes your job — when you work 16, 17, 18 hours for a show day — so much more enjoyable. He is also an amazing person and so down to earth. That is a rarity in our business. I walked with him to the press conference, and he stopped and talked and said hello to ever staff members whether it was a door guard or a maintenance worker. He just thanked people for being a part of his show and it was totally genuine.”
Q: Was the goal all along to be the general manager?
A: I probably didn’t know it then. Deep inside it probably was. My career path within the Jordan Center went from ticket sales, some marketing experience, and when we first opened we underestimated our events and needed an events coordinator. I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Then I was events manager, and then I was an assistant GM, then associate GM. At that point this is what I wanted, not just for a personal thing, but the people here are so unique. We have part-time people that have been with us from day one. It’s not because we’re paying exuberant salaries. It’s because they buy into what we do to give our fans the best experience possible.
Q: What has changed in 19 years?
A: (Laughs). Tickets prices.
Competition, too. That’s a big one. When we opened there was the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, and there was a building in Philadelphia, and we were the next largest arena ... then Hershey built the Giant Center. Wilkes-Barre got an arena, and then Erie did a $100 million renovation. All of a sudden there were eight to 10 pretty comparable arenas in the state of Pennsylvania. A music act will typically go 30 to 40 stops. They might only play at one, two at the most, places in Pa. I have to be competitive with that. While I have more seats than all but two of them, that’s not what’s selling it. What sells it is our customer service, our employees and the buy in from everyone that works with us to be the best.
Q: What are your responsibilities now?
A: It’s managing day-to-day responsibility. The biggest component is our financial work and booking ... (Bob Howard) has 40 years of contacts and experience, and that’s big part of why State College has gotten some of the shows it has in the past.
Q: Has Bob given you any tips?
A: An incredible amount of tips. Bob’s very supportive. It’s not that we foresaw that I would be the next GM, but in my career he wanted me to start having this experience a couple years out. He would let me be a part of the negotiations, or he’d introduce me to contacts he has, so he’s been really supportive.
Q: Even then there were no guarantees you’d get the job?
A: Never. Never. I’m very lucky.
Q: What do you feel the BJC has meant to the Penn State and local community?
A: I hope it has meant an unbelievable place to see a live entertainment act, not just concerts. I think a lot of people say, “We remember the Garth Brooks concert or the KISS reunion tour,” but you know, we have some really great basketball teams, too. The experience of seeing the teams and getting behind them is fantastic. The men and women that are part of these organizations are so passionate and are so fun to be around. My mission is take what we’ve done for 19 years and to make it better.
Q: You mentioned basketball. Attendance soared last year. How much would you love if the building was packed for every game?
A: I’d love it. It’s not based just on having more people in the building. Each team deserves the community’s support. What they do day-in and day-out is amazing. They have practice, film study and manage to do great academically. They’re incredibly talented people that deserve support whether they are 12-1 or 1-12. Everyone will get a fun and memorable experience at the Jordan Center.
Q: What event do people get most excited for?
A: Well, that’s one of more challenging questions. There are super fans to every show that would say their show is the greatest thing ever. One of the best things Penn State does as a whole is Thon, and I’ve been lucky to work with them every year that they’ve been here. We consider ourselves partners of Thon to help them and extend the mission. Sitting with the executive committee of Thon and seeing the dedication and what they put in is amazing. It’s what they do all year-round and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Q: Can you believe how big that event has gotten?
A: It’s unbelievable. It’s a good example of the cause. If it were run haphazardly or done half-heartedly, it wouldn’t be as big. If you look at the production value, it’s an experience. There’s an unbelievable cause behind, and we want to enhance that for the people in there that want to be a part of something extremely special.
Q: What are the most difficult events to prepare for?
A: We look at everything as being difficult, because what sets us apart from other places is the experience we can provide. I think if we become a little lax on our expectation for ourselves then there would be a let down for fans. We don’t have 2 or 3 million people like Philadelphia. If a few people fall off, they won’t miss them too much, but I would miss them tremendously. That’s why we fight for everything we can to make sure our fans come back.