Meet the diehard music fan who runs one of the world's busiest arenas

Meet the diehard music fan who runs one of the world's busiest arenas
  • London's O2 Arena is one of the world's busiest and sold a record 2.5 million tickets last year.

  • The venue is managed by Steve Sayer, a music fan who previously worked for Manchester City.

  • The O2 Arena presents comedy, boxing, UFC, esports and even monster trucks as well as music.

It may not be the world's most famous, but London's O2 Arena is now one of the busiest.

The venue, part of what began life as the Millennium Dome but was renamed The O2 following its sponsorship by a cell network, sold a record 2.5 million tickets last year — about 200,000 more than in 2022 — according to AEG.

That puts it in the same league as New York's Madison Square Garden, which first opened in 1879. Its London rival has only been oeprating since June 2007.

The O2 Arena has sold more than 30 million tickets since then, and in December notched up its 3,000th event: a concert by Tom Jones. The Welsh singer is known for songs such as "It's Not Unusual," and "Thunderball," which Business Insider once ranked as the 23rd best James Bond theme song (out of, erm, 25).

The arena is run by Steve Sayer, who joined AEG Europe a decade ago as commercial director before becoming general manager five years later. We meet in the windowless depths of the arena in the area behind the stage one chilly afternoon in March, just a couple of hours before a Jason Derulo concert.

Steve Sayer O2
Steve Sayer is general manager of London's O2 Arena.Luke Dyson

Sayer says the O2 is one of those venues that "artists really want to play" because headlining it marks what he calls an "arrival moment" in their careers. Some 24 acts including SZA and Ateez headlined the arena for the first time last year, with a similar number including Olivia Rodrigo and Noah Kahan doing so this year.

Prince played an epic run of 21 sold-out dates in the summer of 2007, while Sayer also cites Madonna's six shows last year, along with runs from the likes of Elton John, Monty Python, Adele, and the Spice Girls as some of the venue's most memorable.

Elton John during his "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" Tour at London's O2 Arena in April 2023.
Elton John on his "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" Tour at the O2 Arena in April 2023.Simone Joyner/Getty Images

The O2 hosts about 220 shows a year, and Sayer is ultimately responsible for some 190 full-time staff, and as many as 700 on event days. While "it has its stresses from time to time, like any senior role — it's pretty full-on," he maintains that running the O2 is an enjoyable job.

Creating a good workplace culture is very important for Sayer, but so is "having fun along the way. I like to use that world thrive — I want people here to have a great experience as an employee, have opportunities to learn and develop and grow."

He describes music as his main passion, having grown up with two brothers who played a lot of records, and then started going to gigs and festivals as a teenager, discovering dance music and "the rest is history really."

Sayer, 49, says he decided to go to university in Manchester because of its music scene. After graduating with a geography degree he started working for the soccer club Manchester City, staying for 17 years and ending up as operations director overseeing match days and major events.

Sayer says he and his team have considerable autonomy to run the O2 Arena — the biggest business unit of AEG Europe — as they see fit. It was crowned "venue of the decade" by Billboard magazine in 2019, which suggests they're getting it right.

The division also operates arenas in Paris, Berlin, and Hamburg, as well as music festivals, tours, and other events. It's part of AEG, which was founded by Philip Anschutz and has become one of the world's biggest sports and live entertainment businesses.

Dua Lipa Brit Awards 2024
Dua Lipa performs at the 2024 Brit Awards at The O2, London.Karwai Tang/Getty Images

While music accounts for about two-thirds of its shows, the arena also hosts everything from comedy to sport in the form of WWE, UFC, boxing, darts, and tennis; esports such as this November's League of Legends world championships; family and podcast shows — and even monster trucks.

The arena was closed for 18 months in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic and Sayer says there was some doubt about whether demand for live entertainment would return, but those fears proved unfounded.

He rates the first post-pandemic show by Gorillaz — one of Sayer's favorite acts — as his top gig ever at the arena. It was a thank-you for staff in the UK's National Health Service — "the atmosphere was unbelievable that night." His other top acts are Leftfield, New Order, and The Killers.

Gorillaz perform at The O2 in 2021.
Gorillaz perform at the O2 Arena in 2021.Joseph Okpako/Getty Images

Even before COVID-19 struck there'd been a growth in the "experience economy," and Sayer says that's even more the case now, with very buoyant demand for live performances in stadiums and festivals as well as arenas like his.

Something else that seems to keep rising is ticket prices. Sayer agrees that the cost of seeing some top-end superstars has escalated, but supply and demand is a factor along with higher costs for touring and production.

He says prices for some tickets for Madonna's Celebration tour last year were high, but that the production values for the show were "incredible." (This writer forked out a three-figure sum to see it, and apart from a late arrival meaning an abrupt early end when the 11pm curfew struck, I'm inclined to agree.)

Madonna played six shows on her Celebration tour at The O2 last year.Kevin Mazur

AEG is improving the arena by adding 5G coverage, "frictionless" food and drink outlets, and refurbishing performers' dressing rooms.

It's also replaced 12 corporate boxes with The NinetyThird by Qatar Airways — a private members' club that costs about $20,000 a year and boasts a retractable walkway over the arena for a "wow" factor.

Two people chat at the end of the walkway at The O2's The NinetyThird by Qatar Airways
The retractable walkway is part of a new private members' club at The O2.Luke Dyson

Sayer says this year is proving just as busy as 2023 for the O2 Arena with shows coming up from Take That, Olivia Rodrigo, Liam Gallagher, Girls Aloud, and The Killers.

One record that the London venue may not be able to break any time soon, however, is Billy Joel's decade-long residency at Madison Square Garden. The Piano Man is due to perform at the venue for the 150th time in July.

Read the original article on Business Insider