When large groups of people gather together there is always the potential for something to go wrong and for injury to occur, be it intentional or otherwise. Musical events are certainly not immune to this phenomenon as history has provided many examples: Altamont, the Great White show in Rhode Island, Woodstock ’99, and the Who at Riverfront. Altamont’s tragedy was the result of concert promoters and the Rolling Stones hiring the Hell’s Angels as event security. The fire at the Station in Rhode Island during a Great White performance started after people associated with the group lit off pyrotechnics inside the venue. Woodstock ’99 is what happens when gross commercialization and the corruption of a once potentially noble concept supersedes any other concerns. The Who disaster, however, was not the fault of the band or Electric Factory Concerts, the event’s promoters. After inquiry, the blame effectively rested with the venue’s festival seating policy – a general admission making seats available on a first come, first serve basis.
Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena) was no stranger to incidents. Fans at a 1976 Yes performance set off fireworks inside during the performance. The venue itself had developed a reputation of allowing crowds to run out of control, especially after an incident at a 1977 Led Zeppelin show. At that performance 60 would-be concert goers were arrested and dozens more were injured as a seat-seeking crowd forced its way forward crushing people against the closed doors. Despite this incident and the elimination of festival seating in similar venues across the United States by this time, Riverfront maintained its festival seating ticketing policy.
December in Cincinnati is certainly not a time when one chooses to stand outside for hours on end. However, weather, pleasant or not, would not deter Who fans from collecting outside Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979. With a combination of the venue’s festival seating and the event being the Who’s first performance in Cincinnati since 1975, fans gathered shortly after noon for the 8 p.m. show. By mid-afternoon, the police had to be called in to help quell the crowd, which by this time was swelling into the thousands. By 7 p.m., a crowd estimated at 8,000 people had amassed outside the venue’s locked glass doors.