The Co-op Flop: Inside the Chaotic Launch of OVG’s ‘Game Changing’ UK Arena — and What Comes Next

British rock band Elbow was never supposed to be the first act to play Co-op Live — the United Kingdom’s newest and biggest entertainment arena. That honor was originally supposed to go another Greater Manchester local, comic Peter Kay, who grew up in the nearby town of Bolton, and was slated to officially open the 23,500-capacity venue in on April 23.

But construction delays led to the cancellation of Kay’s shows and subsequent gigs for The Black Keys, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Keane, Olivia Rodrigo, as well as a five-night run by Take That. After weeks of false starts, executives with building co-owner and developer Oak View Group — partners on the project with City Football Group (the parent company of Manchester City football club) – insist tonight’s (May 14) long-scheduled Elbow show at Co-op Live will go ahead. Across the live business, executives will be keeping a close eye on how events unfold in Manchester, where the much-hyped project is located.  

Billed as a “game-changing” best-in-class new arena facility, Co-op Live has long been positioned as an important international pivot for co-owner Oak View Group, the LA-based arena development company launched by OVG chairman and CEO Tim Leiweke a decade ago. OVG has successfully designed, built and opened more than a dozen successful arenas in the U.S. including Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and UBS Arena in New York and has a full slate of arena development projects in progress in Brazil, Nigeria, Canada and Wales. The firm has also confirmed that it’s in talks to open a new arena in West London.

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Arena construction is challenging under the most ideal conditions, and delays are common, but the arena’s aggressive opening calendar, with more than a dozen concerts planned in its first month, became a liability and source of embarrassment for the company as the delays worsened.

The first signs of problems became apparent at a press launch and invite-only test concert on April 20, headlined by U.K. acts Everything Everything and Rick Astley. OVG’s Leiweke travelled to England to be at the launch, which was attended by Billboard, and told guests of his extreme pride at what OVG and its partners had built in Manchester, which he enthusiastically called “one of the greatest cities on the face of the Earth.”

Foreshadowing some of the issues that were soon to follow, Leiweke urged those present to be patient as his team hosted an audience inside Co-op Live for the first time. “It won’t be perfect,” he said. “Please bear with us as we get through the growing pains and learn tonight how to better operate this building.”

As Leiweke spoke, extensive construction work could be seen and heard taking place in the background. At the time, only the ground floor and sections of the first floor were open to visitors. In those areas, lights, cables and wires could be seen hanging loosely from fittings. Temporary wall and floor coverings were a common sight and only a small number of toilets were accessible. The cold temperature inside the building suggested either its heating system was not working or had not been switched on.

Co-Op Live Manchester England

Rendering of the interior of Co-op Live in Manchester, England.

Courtesy of Oak View Group

Hours before doors opened that night, Co-op Live announced it had cancelled thousands of free tickets for the test event, provoking an angry backlash from disappointed fans on social media. Inside the venue, the show went ahead smoothy in front of several thousand people — but it was hardly the grand unveiling OVG were hoping for and was overshadowed by negative headlines.

Less than 48 hours later, Co-op Live began detailing the construction issues delaying the building’s opening, starting with power supply issues that would push back shows for Kay, the comic, and The Black Keys by one week.

That news was followed by the surprise resignation of Co-Op Live building manager Gary Roden, who came under fire from the UK based Music Venue Trust for criticizing a proposal to raise money for venue preservation by adding a surcharge to Co-op Live and other U.K. arena tickets. The next day, the rescheduled opening shows by The Black Keys and Kay were postponed for a second time.

In an interview with the Manchester Evening News, Leiweke said Brexit, Covid and a record amount of rainfall were in part to blame for the delays to the project, while a joint statement from Manchester City Council and the city’s emergency services on April 26 blamed outstanding issues should been fixed in advance of opening including “a fully tested emergency services communication system… some remaining internal security systems, and fire safety measures.”

On May 2, during a soundcheck for A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, a piece of the building’s ventilation system fell from the ceiling, shaking confidence in the building’s readiness. That led to another round of cancellations at Co-op Live, including upcoming shows by Rodrigo, Keane and Take That.

In response, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Take That’s teams jumped into action and moved their concerts (six in total) to Manchester’s rival arena facility, the ASM Global-operated AO Arena, who’s general manager Jen Mitchell relished the opportunity, telling Billboard, “Everyone really pulled everything out of the bag at the last minute. It’s been a lot of late-night calls and problem solving, but in the best possible way.”

Mitchell declines to discuss operations at Co-op Live but says she empathizes with the issues the venue has experienced. “Arenas are big venues and there’s always challenges around those, and opening any space comes with its own [unique] challenges,” she says.

In Roden’s absence, Co-op Live is now managed by Rebecca Kane Burton, the former GM of London’s O2 arena, which is owned and operated by AEG. 

Over the past two weeks, contractors have been working overtime to fix outstanding issues to the building and get it ready for tonight, insiders tell Billboard. An inspection by Co-op Live subcontractor, SES, found that the issues with its ventilation system, which led to the pulling of A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s May 2 show, was the result of “an isolated manufacturing fault.”

Sources tell Billboard that all premium member spaces for which tickets have been sold are up and running, including the venue’s deluxe spaces, Ciroc Lounge and AMP Club. As compensation for recent disruptions, ticket holders for all postponed shows would be offered a free drink and food item of their choice when visiting the arena, Co-op Live said.

“I think the lesson to be learned in all of this, is never over promise and under deliver because it will catch you out,” says Mark Borkowski, founder of London-based communications agency Borkowski and an expert in crisis and reputation management.

“The magnifying glass is now on them but if they can get it right, and they have got to get it right, then all of this will be forgotten.” says Borkowski.

He cites the troubled birth of London’s Millennium Dome, which was subsequently redeveloped as The O2 arena, as an example of high-profile building projects that experience major teething problems before eventually turning it around.    

“No project of this scale runs to plan,” adds Borkowski. “The negative headlines that surrounded the Millennium Dome totally dwarfed what’s going on in Manchester, but now [The O2] is held up as one of the best in the world. Co-op Live can use that as exemplar of what they need to do.”

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