The Moody Center is scheduled to open on the University of Texas campus in April 2022. (Courtesy OVG) 

After teaming at BOK Center, they’ll open Austin arena

The band is back together in Austin, a city known for its strong live music scene. Jeff Nickler and Casey Sparks are teaming to run Moody Center, the new University of Texas arena operated by Oak View Group.

Twelve years ago, Nickler and Sparks helped open BOK Center in Tulsa, a thriving entertainment venue even after its primary sports tenant, the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock, moved to Dallas after the 2015 season.

In Austin, Nickler will serve as senior vice president of OVG Austin and general manager of the $338 million arena. Sparks is vice president of OVG Austin and Moody Center’s assistant general manager. (OVG also owns VenuesNow and Pollstar.)

Jeff Nickler

Casey Sparks

Nickler, hired by OVG in January 2019, has been working in Austin since March. He retains his position as senior vice president of the OVG Arena Alliance and Stadium Alliance. Combined, the two groups represent about 40 buildings collaborating to book special events and sell national sponsorships at their venues.

“The opportunity to move to Austin, which is such a vibrant city and growing community, is huge, and to be able to handpick a senior leadership team is even more exciting,” Nickler said. “My intention was always to relocate here and run the alliance. It makes coast-to-coast travel more efficient, based in the middle of the country. It’s something I couldn’t pass up.”

Sparks joined OVG about a month ago after running BOK Center for the past 18 months after Nickler left for OVG. Sparks will relocate from Tulsa to Austin in early 2021.

Over his 11-year tenure at BOK Center, Nickler, with support from Sparks and John Bolton, the arena’s first general manager and now an OVG Facilities executive, booked concerts generating more than $500 million in gross ticket sales. Sparks has 17 years of experience, dating to Colonial Life Center in Columbia, S.C.

Moody Center is targeted to open in April 2022 and Nickler is in the process of hiring 60 to 65 full-time employees. Those positions will include a vice president of programming to book concerts and family shows at Moody Center apart from Texas men’s and women’s basketball. 

Construction of the 15,000-capacity arena remains on time and on budget during the pandemic, and project officials feel fortunate that COVID-19 hasn’t greatly affected labor and the supply chain of materials, Nickler said.

Opening in 2022 is a kind of blessing in disguise, he said. OVG already has dozens of dates on hold for concerts. It’s a mix of rescheduled tours from 2020 and other tours that haven’t been announced yet. Live Nation has an equity stake in the Austin project, but Nickler stressed that Moody Center is available to all promoters.

“The mood has shifted over the past month in a positive way,” Nickler said. “We’re dealing with a major spike in coronavirus over the holidays, but the news of multiple vaccine candidates becoming a reality has given us hope that the live music business in particular can resume by early summer, which is a great thing.”

He said, “We all understand that it’s necessary to have full capacity in our venues. The only way that’s going to happen is with a vaccine. The second part is we have to regain the confidence of fans coming back to our facilities and make sure they know about all the things we’re doing to get these buildings ready for them.”

There’s been a lot of chatter in the media lately about venues and teams potentially requiring ticket holders to get vaccinated or tested for coronavirus before they’re admitted to the facility. In Austin, officials are taking a wait-and-see approach, Nickler said. 

“We have the luxury of not opening until early 2022, which gives us a little more time than other OVG venues (Climate Pledge Arena and UBS Arena) opening in late 2021,” he said. “We’ve seen how things have evolved weekly and monthly through this entire process, so the things we believe will work today may not be the case a month from now. Our plan in Austin is to lay the groundwork for sanitization and safety, but also be patient and see how the NBA and NHL arenas deal with it.”

The early marketing of Moody Center is going well, he said. OVG plans to open the arena’s preview center in January and will start selling the 44 suites, followed by 2,000 club seats and 54 loge boxes.

The preview center, designed by Gensler, the arena architect, is situated in a historic building downtown, steps away from the state Capitol. The center features a theater experience, an arena model and custom software produced by Channel 1 Media to walk guests through the venue virtually to help identify the right products for them.

Toronto-based Channel 1 Media has worked with multiple teams, leagues and entertainment districts to develop touch screen presentations, along with websites and mobile applications.

“The software will be key to this whole process,” Nickler said. “It’s not over the top. We feel comfortable that there is high demand in this market for premium seats, not only with existing UT suite holders and foundation members but also with the booming corporate community.”

OVG remains committed to selling personal seat licenses tied to the club seats, but officials have yet to decide whether it will be a joint product covering both concerts and college basketball, Nickler said.

“We’re bullish on where sales are headed,” he said. “The school has connected us with their foundation members and key donors. It’s a collaborative process. This project will be successful because of the contractually-obligated income generated from sponsorships and premium seating. Having top tier clubs is really important.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was first posted.