At the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home turf last week, "we had all baseball players there. We had a lot of Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees who were down there for spring training," said Chesney, who opened his Goin' Coastal Tour last weekend in Florida. "If you're in the NFL, you're in the [contract] lockout: You can't go to your stadium, you can't work out at your stadium, you can't talk to your coaches. At West Palm [Beach], we had a ton of NFL players. I saw [guard Steve] Hutchinson from the Vikings. If we were to play the Dome [in Minneapolis], he couldn't come to the show."
A four-time Country Music Association's entertainer of the year, Chesney has sold more tickets - 8.8 million - than any other act since 1999 except the Dave Matthews Band. As a performer, he said he approaches arenas and stadiums differently.
"In a stadium, I try to get there early and soak up the environment and put myself in the place of the fans and figure out how far I have to go emotionally and mentally to get to them," he said. "Mentally, I love the energy of an arena. In a way, it's louder. You can have so much more people in a stadium but the sound goes away. But when you get an excitable bunch in an arena, their sound stays there. I love that. I'm looking forward to hearing that."
After an 18-month respite from the road, he was anxious to hit the stage last weekend.
"My body feels great," said Chesney, a fitness buff who began working out in earnest Jan. 1. "More importantly, the heart and the mind and soul feel better. I could tell that me and the band had a hunger onstage. After Tampa and West Palm this weekend, I had a spring in my step that wasn't there almost all of 2009 because I was just tired."
In concert he's still an eternal frat-boy partying in overdrive. Will Chesney, who turns 43 tomorrow, ever grow up onstage?
"Yeah, I don't think we do 'Keg in the Closet' anymore," he said with a chuckle. "I have this very free spirit about me. But life has a way of growing you up even if you don't want to. I think that's starting to happen. I feel an artistic shift."
Offstage, he feels his maturity is manifested in his song choices for last fall's album "Hemingway's Whiskey." He figures he wouldn't have recorded Guy Clark's reflective title song four years ago, or tackled the sobering "You and Tequila" (by Deana Carter and Matraca Berg), as a quiet duet with Vermont rocker Grace Potter.
But the pivotal song is "The Boys of Fall," the 6 1/2-minute tribute to high school football that has had more multigenerational appeal than any previous Chesney hit. Being a skinny 5-foot-6 wide receiver for two years at Gibbs High in Corryton, Tenn., had a big impact, he said.
"I'm very competitive," he said. "Whether it's music or playing basketball backstage or playing a dollar a hole in golf or PlayStation college football on the bus, I want to win."