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Pitch perfect: Stadium report 2022

Stadium operators discuss recovering from the pandemic, dealing with a congested calendar, and their plans for a bright future

By Derek Robertson on 01 Nov 2022

Suncorp Stadium


Keen to make up for two years of inactivity and to meet public – and artist – demand for huge concerts, the 2022 stadium show schedule was packed like never before. Derek Robertson talks to stadium operators about recovering from the pandemic, dealing with a congested calendar, and their plans for a bright future.

It was a statement that had become inevitable but was still dreaded – 13 words that nobody in the live music industry wanted to hear. “We collectively recommend large-scale events through the end of March be postponed.” The date was 12 March 2020; those words came from a joint statement issued by Live Nation, AEG, CAA, WME, Paradigm, and UTA. That same night, the last four arena shows in the US – Billie Eilish, Prince Royce, Post Malone, and Lauren Daigle – took place; one day earlier, Maroon 5 had headlined Uruguay’s Estadio Centenario, while 7 March had seen Elton John entertain over 26,000 fans at Australia’s Western Sydney Stadium. Such shows were no more, though – and no one knew when they’d be back.

As Covid-19 rampaged across the planet, axing public events and social gatherings became the first step toward lockdowns, with sporting events, cinema, theatre, and music the first to shut down. Safety, and fear of the virus, were the primary considerations; as the joint statement continued, ensuring that “precautionary efforts and ongoing protocol are in the best interest of artists, fans, staff, and the global community” were of paramount importance. Some smaller shows and events continued, particularly in territories that enacted less stringent restrictions, but in the main, stadiums remained shuttered. And despite the arrival of the vaccine in early 2021, successive infection waves and the number of Covid-19 variants ensured that it wasn’t until the second quarter of this year that full-capacity stadium shows became viable once again.

Overwhelming demand
In the midst of lockdowns, some wondered what profound behavioural and societal changes the virus might leave. Handshakes would be out, mask-wearing in; and as for large social gatherings, a whole new range of protocols and norms would be adopted to defend personal space and hygiene. Yet to gaze upon any number of packed stadiums and festival fields this summer is to realise that public concern has all but vanished; demand for large-scale communal, euphoric, sweat- soaked music experiences is higher than ever.

“Everyone – both fans and artists – learned to appreciate live entertainment when it was taken away from us for so long”

This comes as no surprise to Tom McCann, venue director of Arsenal F.C.’s Emirate Stadium in the UK’s capital. “Everyone – both fans and artists – learned to appreciate live entertainment when it was taken away from us for so long,” he says. “And with so many bands having produced new music over the last two years, it’s created a perfect storm of fans wanting live concerts and artists wanting to play.”

Indeed, rather than uncertainty holding back stadia management, a number of venues chose the pandemic recovery period to enter the market.

Barely four miles (6km) north of Arsenal, rivals Tottenham Hotspur dipped their toes into the concert market this year, hosting back-to-back shows by both Guns N’Roses and Lady Gaga with just under 200,000 fans in attendance across the four nights.

Across the city, arguably the world’s most famous stadium, Wembley, was the setting for as many concerts – 16 – as games this year, selling more than 1.3 million tickets in the process. However, next year it will shatter that record with agreements to host 26 concerts.

In the UK in general, the total number of stadium and festival shows will exceed 2,000, double-digit growth from pre-pandemic levels, according to the Financial Times. And it’s not just here or in Europe: Argentina’s River Plate Stadium will host Coldplay for ten nights in November (they’re also doing five nights in São Paulo, Brazil), while the likes of Ed Sheeran and Billy Joel have had to add extra dates to the Australian and New Zealand legs of their respective tours.

“We’ve had to work harder as a team and work more collaboratively with our partners and promoters to satisfy such a crowded calendar”

Of course, this is not just due to pent-up demand and consumer confidence. As Alex Luff, venue sales manager at Principality Stadium in Wales, says, many of the postponed shows from 2020 and 2021 have simply been rescheduled. “We’ve had to work harder as a team and work more collaboratively with our partners and promoters to satisfy such a crowded calendar,” he says. Rammstein’s Stadium Tour is one such example; originally planned for 14 June 2020, they finally played in June this year, wowing nearly 40,000 fans with “audacious theatrics, extravagant pyrotechnics, and world-class production.”

In total, the Principality Stadium has welcomed over 350,000 music fans this summer, including 110,00 across two nights for Stereophonics’ We’ll Keep a Welcome shows – with support from Sir Tom Jones, his first time playing the stadium – and 75,000 back in May for Ed Sheeran, the biggest capacity crowd to have ever taken place in Wales. “It was a bumper summer,” says Luff, “and an incredible opportunity to present the stadium to new audiences.”

Restricted calendars
Of course, the long lead time required to plan and execute such huge shows has meant a some- what truncated summer season. The Emirates Stadium hosted two shows by The Killers, which was all they could fit in, while Rome’s Stadio Olimpico has managed three concerts, down from their pre-pandemic average of seven. “The spike in Covid cases around December 2021 and January 2022 stopped productions that were about to be launched,” says Andrea Santini, Stadio Olimpico and Parco del Foro Italico manager, by way of explanation. Australia’s Suncorp Stadium was due to host three, too, with Guns N’ Roses, Justin Bieber, and Foo Fighters all due in Brisbane later this year – sadly, the latter was cancelled due to the untimely passing of drummer Taylor Hawkins.

Worst hit was Cape Town’s DHL Stadium, which has managed only one show – Justin Bieber’s Justice World Tour – due to the very late lifting of Covid restrictions in South Africa. Doing more simply wasn’t possible at such short notice. But Gina Woodburn, commercial manager of the stadium, echoes what everyone IQ speaks to says about the rest of the year and beyond – demand and the number of booking enquiries are higher than ever. “We have a very busy calendar in the planning, with the 2022/2023 financial year set to be one of our busiest ever,” she says. “Our bowl is fully booked for next year already.”

Growth business
DHL’s experience is mirrored elsewhere, with a stadium concerts sales spike suggesting confidence at the A-list end of the market. However, many promoters globally are expressing concern about what effect that may have for artists lower down the pecking order.

New Zealand’s Eden Park, located in central Auckland, is another newcomer to the concert game but is already making its mark. It has five concerts planned for 2022, with talks still ongoing over extending that before the turn of the year. “We’re delighted to be building on the momentum of our first-ever concert, Six60, from April last year, and look forward to hosting more international headliners,” says Nick Sautner, CEO of The Eden Park Trust. “And our content calendar looks busier than ever.”

“Our back catalogue of success demonstrates we’re a must-play, must-show, multi-event arena”

Part of that comes from non-music events – after all, sports are most stadiums’ primary reason for existing in the first place. But as the stadium business recovers from the pandemic, they are not only stepping up their efforts to host more concerts – other sporting and speciality events are equally as important when it comes to boosting revenues. For example, Eden Park has the Cricket World Cup, the women’s Rugby World Cup, and Māori performing arts event Te Matatini on its calendar.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is also making moves to develop its commercial potential. “We’ve just hired [former Wembley Stadium and London Stadium exec] Danielle Buckley to be our senior manager – event programming, specifically to drive this area,” says McCann. “We have a licence to host six major non-football events per year, three of which can be concerts, so we’re keen to be doing that and maximise usage of this amazing stadium.”

Up the road at Tottenham Hotspur, chief commercial officer, Todd Kline, has no such restrictions. “We are extremely proud to have finally been able to stage our first concerts since opening – something we have been waiting to do for more than two years,” he says.

“To receive the acclaim that we have done from within the music industry is testament to the incredible effort made by everyone at the Club to convert the stadium to concert mode and put on a great show for everyone in attendance. We look forward to bringing fans another exciting summer of concerts at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2023.”

Family entertainment is also a growth area. In Wales, the Principality Stadium welcomed WWE’s first major UK stadium event in 30 years, in September, while the Supercross World Championships come to town in October. “We have a 22-year history of holding major events,” says Luff, “and our back catalogue of success demonstrates we’re a must-play, must-show, multi-event arena.”

“We have invested in the latest pitch technology to extend our third-party event window”

In part, the Principality Stadium’s success is also due to its implementation of technology to combat another issue facing stadiums hosting non-sporting events – protecting the pitch. With many stadiums’ primary focus being world-class sporting venues, maintaining a pristine playing surface is paramount – but that’s not always easy when you’re hosting dirt bikes, monster trucks, or 50,000 people dancing for three hours.

“We have invested in the latest pitch technology to extend our third-party event window,” explains Luff. “Traditionally, that window ran from May to August, but with our new state-of-the-art hybrid roll-and-play surface, we can host major events into October while still guaranteeing the optimum playing surface required for elite international rugby within a matter of weeks.”

There’s also the fact that the stadium’s famous retractable roof can transform it from a 75,000-seater outdoor venue into the UK’s largest indoor arena, offering endless possibilities for show production.

Tottenham also have retractable capabilities, as their entire pitch can be slid out of the stadium, allowing a quick turnaround for non-football events, potentially making the stadium available for clients throughout the entire year.

Antipodean success
It’s not just northern hemisphere stadia bosses who are shoehorning new events into their schedules. DHL Stadium’s enviable location in Cape Town makes it very attractive for large-scale events, sporting and otherwise. “We were very fortunate post-Covid to secure most of the broadcast rugby and football matches hosted in Cape Town,” explains Gina Woodburn. “Securing new events is an ongoing objective and one we plan well in advance.”

“We’re always looking for new and exciting content in the form of concerts and other events”

As examples, she cites the British and Irish Lions tour, the URC Final, as well as the forthcoming Rugby World Cup Sevens. “We’ve also hosted a number of non-bowl events such as the Cape Town Marathon, the Cape Town Cycle Tour, and We Are Africa, to name just a few.”

It’s a similar story at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. “We’re always looking for new and exciting content in the form of concerts and other events,” says Alan Graham, general manager. Alongside concerts, this year they will be hosting the Nitro World Games – a two-day competition of action sports from BMX to scooter to motocross – and the NRL Magic Round. “It provides a carnival-like atmosphere over multiple days in both the precinct itself and wider South East Queensland, generating plenty of revenue for the city, state, and business community.”

Remaining grounded
While state-of-the-art new-build stadia are em- ploying technology to remove of cover their hallowed turf, for traditional sports outfits, it’s a tricky balancing act.

At the Emirates, McCann notes, “We are a football club first, so ensuring a great pitch for the team will always have priority.”

Rome’s Stadio Olimpico is similarly constrained by the 60-plus football games hosted each season, with concerts only possible during a dedicated window of June and July, while Eden Park is beholden to its Trust Deed obligations to their legacy partners, Auckland Cricket and Auckland Rugby. “But our Turf Team have years of experience delivering some of the most hallowed grounds in New Zealand,” says Sautner.

“We have exceptional relationships with local authorities, businesses, and residents”

Eden Park’s central Auckland location poses a range of challenges for non-sporting events that are commonly shared by other stadiums located in dense urban, suburban, and downtown areas. Litter, noise pollution, curfews, and local transport all become serious issues when dealing with tens of thousands of late-night revellers.

“We take a collaborative approach,” says Sautner, “working together with our community, Auckland Council, and promoters.” He notes that when seeking consent, they frequently receive “96% support from our neighbours”; furthermore, he says they have “the right team to find solutions that deliver the best results for all parties.”

At Suncorp Stadium, events must secure prior approval from the minister of sport and be carried out according to specific regulations concerning noise monitoring and management, strict hours of operation, and traffic management plans. “We have exceptional relationships with local authorities, businesses, and residents,” says Graham.

“It’s all about planning,” adds Woodburn at DHL Stadium. “That’s really important to maximise the capacity of bowl events in any given year. This, together with maximising the broad- cast and attendance at each event, is core to the success of any stadium.”

Capitalising on the growth of live music and seizing opportunities are crucial to future profitability and something they are all actively working on.

“We want to supply services and infrastructure that cut production times s well as offering higher added-value services to spectators”

Continual investment
Capitalising on the growth of live music and seizing opportunities is crucial to future profitability and investment in facilities has become integral to stadia business plans.

DHL Stadium has refurbished and increased its hospitality areas – they now have a total of 2,100 places in the shared hospitality Business Lounge and an additional 5,000 seats in private suites (total capacity is now 60,000). The Stadio Olimpico is investing in production – “We want to supply services and infrastructure that cut production times,” says Santini – as well as offering higher added-value services to spectators and even taking back direct control of specific activities such as corporate hospitality.

The Principality Stadium is targeting tech and the role it can play when it comes to the fan experience. “In 2021, we upgraded our in-stadia technology and installed two giant HD Samsung screens supported by a new state-of-the-art broadcast and digital media studio by Ross Live,” says Luff. “But we’re also thinking about how to utilise technology to build on the stadium’s services and retail environments to enhance the fan experience. As a venue, we must listen to fans and evolve with changing tastes and trends.”

That’s of concern to Suncorp’s Alan Graham, too; delivering “interesting and engaging fan experiences that are unique and amazing” is vital. To help do this, they lean on management partner, ASM Global, whose portfolio includes over 350 arenas, stadiums and venues. “We utilise this network to capitalise on new trends and innovations from all over the planet,” adds Graham.

“We strongly believe that stadiums should be considered a hub for the community: civic buildings that serve a function above and beyond the event-day experience”

But no one takes growth, or a stadium’s wider role in the arts and the community it serves, as seriously as Eden Park. “We are committed to championing music, arts, and culture at all levels, and while Eden Park has been seen in the past as primarily a sporting venue, we aspire to change this perspective,” states Sautner. “We strongly believe that stadiums should be considered a hub for the community: civic buildings that serve a function above and beyond the event-day experience. They should operate as facilities that local residents can use and engage with all year round, instead of just being an underused asset that’s locked up after each event.”

Such a philosophy sees the team consider the stadium something more akin to a Town Hall; as if to prove this point, Sautner notes it has hosted school assemblies alongside sold-out gigs.

Bright future
Having emerged from one of the darkest periods for live events in living memory, the outlook for the biggest venues on the planet appears very healthy for the rest of this year and beyond.

“That feeling when you finally get five minutes to surface and see the artist(s) performing live to a crowd, who are captivated by the music and production, will never get old,” says Danielle Buckley, who transferred to Arsenal F.C. on 16 September. “I am inspired by the vision here at Arsenal: we have already announced three concerts with Arctic Monkeys for 2023 and continue to receive vast enquires for sports, music and entertainment events.”

“We strongly believe – and this year has shown us – that there’s such an appetite for live music”

Enquiries at Eden Park seem to be following suit as they are “pouring in – even for as far ahead as 2025,” says Sautner. Meanwhile, DHL Stadium is already fully booked for the next 16 months. The Stadio Olimpico has plans for 12 to 15 concerts next year, a significant increase on its pre-pandemic levels of six or seven per season, while Suncorp has six major events lined up – three nights for Ed Sheeran, plus Elton John, Post Malone, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “And we will continue to work with promoters on any additional opportunities that are on the horizon,” says Graham.

After all, after that 13-word bombshell, no one knew when stadium shows would be possible again, so it’s no surprise that everyone – fans, stadium owners, promoters, labels, crew, and artists – have embraced the magic of huge live shows like never before; you never know what you have until it’s gone.

“As we emerge from the pandemic and two years of isolation from families and friends, we strongly believe – and this year has shown us – that there’s such an appetite for live music,” says Luff. “Fans want to see major artists play stadium shows with that communal, once-in-a-lifetime ‘I was there!’ moment, with thousands united by a love of music. It’s important we don’t ever take that for granted.”

This feature was first published in the latest issue of IQ, out now.

 


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