More Than 30,000: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
15,001-30,000: The O2 London
10,001-15,000: 3Arena, Dublin
5,001-10,000: Radio City Music Hall, New York
2,001-5,000: Fox Theatre, Atlanta
2,000 or Less: 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.
Comeback of the Millennium
The heart of live entertainment in London, The O2, beats inside a building once written off as a colossal failure
London’s O2 arena stands at the pinnacle of live entertainment venues, which is no small feat considering the remarkable history behind it.
The 20,000-seat facility, owned and operated by AEG, is a content machine, fueled by the need for a modern, full-scale arena and the insatiable appetite for live music in a world-class market.
The arena recently sold its 25 millionth ticket and has played host to more than 2,000 events since it opened midway through 2007.
Over the past 10 years, Bon Jovi, Prince, Taylor Swift, Michael Bublé, Take That, U2, Adele, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus have all done extended runs of at least five shows at The O2, producing staggering ticket grosses of $11 million to $18 million, according to Pollstar data.
The volume of business translated to 15,579,691 tickets reported sold from Nov. 19, 2009, to Nov. 15, 2019, more than any other venue in the world. The arena also topped $1.2 billion in gross for the same period.
Sixteen years ago, apart from the vision of then AEG executive Tim Leiweke and Phil Anschutz, the company’s owner, the concept of building an arena inside an existing structure had its doubters. (Leiweke is now CEO of Oak View Group, the owner of VenuesNow and Pollstar.)
The O2 originally opened as the Millennium Dome on Dec. 31, 1999, a cultural attraction that the British government sank $1.2 billion into as a marketing vehicle to celebrate the turn of the century.
“I went there once when it was the Millennium Dome,” said Jonathan Lack, senior director of ticketing for the Milwaukee Bucks and AEG’s ticketing manager at The O2 from 2011 to 2014. Lack grew up in Sussex, England, and spent nine years in London, including five years at Ticketmaster with The O2 as his client. “It was a lot of science education with a performance space in the middle. It was unique for what it was.”
One thing it wasn’t, though, was sustainable. Londoners ruled it a colossal failure after its themed exhibits, interactive technology and live shows attracted 6.5 million visitors, just more than half the 12 million attendees anticipated. After the year of 2000 passed, the 22-acre dome closed and sat dormant.
The roof, made of PTFE, the same plastic material used to build roofs at some U.S. stadiums, had the look of a mammoth pincushion, supported by a cable network tied to a dozen poles pointing skyward from the roof surface. Those poles represented the 12 months of a calendar year. Instead, they became the symbol of a white elephant situated on a peninsula along the Thames River in the borough of Greenwich. One reviewer labeled it “a giant embarrassing tattoo on the rump of British culture.”
“They built this thing and they didn’t know what to do with it,” said Randy Phillips, CEO of Phillips Digital Media and head of AEG Live from 2000 to 2013. Phillips promoted dozens of shows over the arena’s first six years, starting with Bon Jovi, the New Jersey rock band that christened the building in June 2007.
A few years after the dome closed, the government issued a proposal to redevelop the property. AEG won the bid to build an arena inside the structure and create a retail and entertainment district surrounding it, all underneath the expansive roofline. The concept had some shaking their heads, including owner’s representative Tim Romani. His firm, Icon Venue Group (now CAA Icon), was AEG’s partner for developing facilities.
“When Tim Leiweke walked me into the Millennium Dome for the first time and told me, ‘Here’s the plan: We’re going to build an arena here,’ I looked at him like he had lost his mind,” Romani said. “But he had complete conviction in it, and Mr. Anschutz did as well. They told me it was going to be the greatest venue ever built, and it turned out to be exactly that.”
The four-year redevelopment was like building a ship in a bottle, Romani said. Construction crews could not excavate below the dome floor because of the Blackwall Tunnel roadway, which runs underneath the building, and the potential of striking undetonated devices buried from World War II. They had to construct a new roof for the arena equipped with a full rigging system without touching the dome’s original roof, which sits 165 feet above ground.
“We had to build inside of that envelope,” Romani said. “It was an engineering and construction marvel to be able to do that. Nothing had been done like that before from a project delivery standpoint. The development had its own set of major challenges to overcome.”
AEG spent about $300 million to build The O2 and an additional $1 billion on the retail and entertainment components. That’s on top of the government’s initial investment to construct the Millennium Dome. Twelve years later, it was money well spent for AEG.
At the time The O2 was built, London did not have an indoor venue bigger than 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena, which was renovated in 2005-06 but had originally opened in 1934. There was no building on par with Madison Square Garden or Staples Center. “London is next to New York the greatest live entertainment market in the world, but it had no world-class arena,” Phillips said.
The O2, designed to hold a full 20,000-plus patrons in an end stage configuration with fewer seat “kills” for concerts, met the pent-up demand for touring productions.
The development inside The O2 footprint grew to include 25 bars and restaurants, an 11-screen movie theater complex and the 2,500-capacity IndigO2 music club, among other destinations. Separately, the five-star InterContinental London O2 hotel opened in 2016 adjacent to the arena. The district is a similar model to L.A. Live, AEG’s entertainment zone across the street from Staples Center, which opened in phases during 2007-09 and transformed a run-down section of downtown Los Angeles. In London, it converted a “wasteland” in Greenwich into a thriving business center, Phillips said.
“The secret to The O2’s success is that AEG built a city within a city,” said Raj Saha, general manager of Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee and AEG’s regional director of operations in Europe from 2009 to 2013. “It’s not just the arena, which is a little bit of a misconception. At any time, you can have 50,000 to 100,000 people on site. Over the course of my time there, we drew 2 million people to The O2 and another 10 million would come to the site in a given year. It’s so much more than the building.”
Make no mistake, the arena was the key anchor tenant, supported by a subway line that transports patrons from the center of London to The O2 in 20 minutes, Phillips said. The North Greenwich stop opened in May 1999 and sits next to the arena. Phillips said it was a critical piece for the project to move forward because The O2 has limited parking and the Blackwall Tunnel is the only way to get there by car.
Considering its strength as a concert venue, The O2 books its share of sports events and family shows. Since 2009, it has been the home of the ATP Finals, the second-highest level of men’s professional tournament behind the four Grand Slam tournaments. The event’s 12-year run at The O2 ends in 2021 when the ATP Finals moves to Turin, Italy.
As part of the 2012 London Olympics, The O2 served as a competition venue for artistic gymnastics and basketball. It stages NBA and NHL preseason games, boxing and UFC events, plus WWE and the Harlem Globetrotters. In that respect, it’s just like any arena in North America, Saha said.
“We did the 25th anniversary of “Les Miz” for a BBC broadcast on a Sunday night and by 10 a.m. the next morning we had the Lakers shooting around for a preseason game,” he said. “It wasn’t just the acoustics but the ability for quick changeovers. It’s one of the biggest arenas in Europe, and London is the cultural heartbeat of the world, and when you put those two things together, you’re going to have an amazing success story.”
Editor’s note: This story has been revised since it was originally posted.
Greatest hits and hot prospects: Three executives talk about what makes The O2 special and what’s to come
The Jackson 50: The outrageous O2 residency that never happened
Tangled up in blue: The O2’s naming-rights deal for the arena became a pioneering sponsorship in the U.K.