‘It may be just that I’m stubborn’

When it comes to Manchester’s new Co-op Live, no matter who you talk to, from architects to sponsors to the general manager, they all point to the vision of Tim Leiweke, chairman & CEO of Oak View Group. Leiweke wanted nothing less than to create the best arena for music. Here, he discusses the state-of-the-art arena, the European market and why this could be “the beginning of a revolution.”

VenuesNow: Can you describe the vision you had of Co-op Live, when it came to you, and what goes through your head so close to the building’s first show?

Tim Leiweke: Well, it may be just that I’m stubborn. It goes back to the days when we were building AEG, and The O2 in London. I was always fascinated that, even when The O2 opened, the Manchester building would be neck and neck with The O2 on tickets sold. Then I started spending time in Manchester, and I began to understand. Manchester is the cultural capital, and a central capital of northern UK. If you look at arenas, and the north of the UK, from Dublin to Liverpool to Newcastle, they don’t have a big arena. They all gravitated to the AO, or the MEN (Manchester Evening News Arena) as I knew it. So, the fact that you had an (aging) building that was doing the kind of ticket sales it was doing, that spoke about what a great music market Manchester is, its culture and history, the artists that have come from there. We made a bet that we would build an arena that would ultimately be the most sophisticated built internationally. We love what the market has traditionally done in ticket sales. Our ticket sales today absolutely prove that point, and the number of events we’re going to do in our first year is stunning.

With a project as complex as the building of an arena, how do you make sure the many partners, contractors and subcontractors are working in tandem?
We have one of the world’s great partners in City Football Group. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ferran (Soriano), and Marty (Martin Edelman) at City Football Group most of my adult life. I have great admiration for City Football Group, what they’ve built, and the brilliance they’ve established as an organization, both on and off the pitch. To have them as a partner, to be a part of the Etihad Campus, is phenomenal.

Secondly, we’ve got Harry Styles, part of the Azoff family (of artist management). I have a huge amount of respect for Harry as an artist and one of the biggest selling artists of this era, and an intelligent, thoughtful business person as well. He’s from Manchester, and feels strongly about what we’re doing there. It gives you a lot of comfort that Harry lent his vision, ideas, and creativity to the things that he cares about, in particular the artist compound, the acoustics, the fan experience, the loading dock and the bowl. He’s given us a lot of feedback on that.
Mayor Andy (Burnham) and head of the Council, Bev (Craig) have been phenomenal in their partnership with us. They’re equally passionate and committed about sustainability as we are. This is the most sustainable building ever built anywhere outside of the U.S. We believe it’ll be the second carbon-neutral arena built after Climate Pledge Arena.

Can you talk about partnering with Populous again on the design?
We’re blessed. I challenged Declan (Sharkey) out of the London office to reinvent the industry. We talked about what we’ve learned from the Forum, the Sphere, Madison Square Garden, Climate Pledge Arena, Moody Center. Between our partnership with the Garden, and the buildings we own, Declan had an enormous amount of information and experiences that he could lean against, to do what he ended up doing, which is a revolutionary design that’s going to change the industry — from the 23,000-seat bowl to a floor capacity that will get close to 10,000, to the intimacy of the bowl as it relates to music and to the acoustical treatment, which is the single most driven acoustical installation I’ve seen in any arena. Only Sphere will ultimately have the kind of acoustical build out that we put into this building. The way Declan and Populous thought through our premium spaces, our back-of-house spaces, our loading dock — I’m really grateful to them.

Finally, BAM, our contractor. They have had probably the biggest bumps in the road within this process, yet they persevered. I’m astounded by the work they’ve done and their eye to detail. The quality craftsmanship of the finishes in this building are some of the finest I’ve ever seen in my career. What I love about our construction workers is how proud they are of this building. They know they’re building the most expensive arena ever built outside of the United States, and their commitment to the quality here has been unbelievable.

You came back to the UK, which has always had a special place in your heart after opening what became the world’s busiest arena, and are now on the brink of doing it again.
I love the crew that we put together, from Jessica (Koravos, president, OVG International), and (OVG International COO) Mark (Donnelly) and Sam Piccione, (president of global partnerships, OVG International), and the fact these are all people that worked for me in a previous life, and all came back and wanted to be a part of this journey. They feel passionate about it. I sometimes joke that I’m going to find a country estate and settle down there with my dog. I find it to be a wonderful country and a great place for us as a company to invest.

It’s not our only investment. We bought Rhubarb last year, which is one of the largest catering hospitality event companies based in London, operators of the Sky Garden. There’s more coming from us. We’re looking at other investments in the UK. We have thousands of employees based in the UK, a number that will be close to 5,000 employees that work for our company in the UK by the end of this calendar year.

Speaking to the UK’s and Europe’s promoters, most would welcome more music-focused buildings where sports won’t take up space and disrupt avails. How much of a blueprint is Co-op Live for your upcoming plans in Europe and the UK?
If you look at the new venues built in the UK, in Europe, you can literally rattle them off on one hand right now, shockingly. The UK is the No. 2 market in the world for live experiences. but there are no new significant arenas being built there. Italy, France, same thing. This is the beginning of a revolution. The way we designed this building, the experiences that we create in the building, the way we treat people, the food we serve, is going to create a whole new level of expectation for artists and their fans.

There are 20 places in Europe and the UK that need new arenas. We’re very fortunate that the best promoters in the UK are my partners. (Promoter) Stuart Galbraith has been fantastic at advising us.
A lot of our corporate partners want us to take this vision, and now emulate this in other markets in Europe. We have an industry that’s exploding and an artist base that’s exploding. We’ve been outspoken about London, but there’s another half dozen arenas you’re going to hear about by the end of the calendar year that we’re going to build in Europe and the UK.

Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’m told we’re going to be at about 60,000 employees in this company by the time we open this building. I’m grateful to the passion that the 60,000 employees have for their company, grateful to the passion that our partners bring to the table, and grateful to Manchester and the region for the support they’ve given us before we even opened the doors. We’re not going to disappoint them.

The building’s stunning and we have some massive surprises coming as we roll out what will be one of the greatest first years of music, sports and entertainment. We’re grateful to be a part of this community and we won’t let them down.