The mystery and validity of a possible entertainment monster

I’d never heard of them either. Oak View Group is a multi-national corporation, which self-describes as ‘a positive disruption to business in the sports and live entertainment industry.’

The American company is living up to billing as far as Manchester is concerned. Oak View has been busy disrupting. A couple of weeks ago the programme for this November’s Stadium Business, Design and Development Summit in London caused surprise 200 miles north. 

Has there been an assumption this is a done deal, before statutory processes have been completed?

The list of new developments under discussion included ‘Manchester City FC – New Indoor Arena/Expansion (UK)’, on the empty land between the Etihad Stadium and Alan Turing Way. This was a wonderful Trumpian moment of shooting from the hip or, to mix metaphors, a fine example of jumping the gun.

Oak View had gone very early.

As the city council told Confidential, the possibility of a new 20,000 entertainment arena, is included in the updated Strategic Regeneration Framework (SRF) document for future regeneration options for Eastlands. This has been out for consultation (31 May-26 June) and included a ‘significant’ letter drop to local residents and businesses in the area’. 

BUT, no decision on an arena for East Manchester has been taken, no consultation specifically on an arena has been undertaken. The SRF, after all, is an overview of possibilities rather than a cast in stone document of what will happen.

Manchester Arena We Are Manchester Concert
We Are Manchester concert at Manchester Arena

Confidential asked the council: ‘Has any agreement been made with the operators of the Etihad Campus, or any other external operator, to deliver a large arena in East Manchester?’ The answer was a simple and resounding: ‘No’.  

So, it appears Oak View took it upon itself to speculatively promote their arena without any discussion, consent or council, or other agency, involvement. It has now removed the reference to such an arena from the summit programme. Quelle surprise.

Yet, it’s all a bit weird. How could a cautious multi-billion corporation with arenas and stadia across the world expose itself like this? Did it think it had been given the nod over a future stadium? 

2019 06 26 Arena Story Programme
The, now, redacted stadium summit programme listing

John Sharkey, executive vice president of the Manchester Arena and operator SMG Europe, hasn’t been nodding, he’s been shaking his head in disbelief.

“There is no capacity in Manchester or the North West for another 20,000 arena,” he says. “If the project went ahead at the Etihad, then it would divide the market and there’d end up with only one survivor. And why propose a competitor arena in an out of town, largely residential, area with poor transport infrastructure? Has there been any environmental consideration? Why also rush the SRF consultation through in a few weeks, with no depth of penetration?

“It’s good the council has sent letters to local residents and businesses,” continues Sharkey, in exasperation, “but why haven’t they discussed the idea of a large new arena with existing Manchester venues, with the promoters? That would be the obvious thing to do.”

2019 06 26 Arena Story
The Manchester Arena at full pelt

Sharkey's frustration led to the commissioning of an independent study by number crunchers Grant Thornton. They 'reviewed nine large-scale arenas in the UK and found that most had only one or two other arenas within a 60-minute drive time, whereas Manchester Arena (a top five global venue for attendances, 1.4m) already has three’. 

Grant Thornton also had a gander at the economic benefit on Manchester city centre of possessing a 21,000 capacity arena. Apparently, the gross spend by Manchester Arena visitors was estimated to be £120m in 2018, with 95% of that dosh dishing taking place in the city centre.

Maurizio Cecco, of Salvi’s restaurants, has a unit in the nearby Corn Exchange. He said, “Most of the food and drink places in the Corn Exchange absolutely need the Arena. Without the large number of events they put on every year a lot of the restaurants in here might not survive.” Retailers in the area say the same.

2019 06 26 Arena Story Corn Exchange
The Corn Exchange: Eastlands gain would be the city centre's loss

The northern end of the city centre has been slower to rejuvenate then the southern side. Now it’s buzzing, from Ancoats, through the Northern Quarter and NOMA, things are on the move. The refurbishment of Victoria Station, and the opening of Hotel Indigo are part of this. A little to the north there are grand plans for the Northern Gateway. Meanwhile, there are ambitious schemes to revitalise the immediate area of the Arena itself, on the Cathedral side with new landscaping and on the Boddington’s Brewery site, to the west.

And, of course, Sharkey would have a bee in his bonnet. Confidential said to him, “It’s inevitable you’d complain about a new Arena. Couldn’t your objections be dismissed as sour grapes? After all, Manchester Arena is looking its nineteen years; the concourses are shabby, the food and drink offering overpriced and out-of-date, the approaches grim and the exec boxes nowhere up to present international standards. Maybe you’re just afraid of a sparkling brand new rival in the east of the city?”

2018 12 17 Mamucium Exterior Hotel Indigo
Victoria Station and Hotel Indigo are next to Manchester Arena

John Sharkey shook his head, “We are aware Manchester Arena needs a lot of work. That’s why the owners of the site Prestbury Investments, with SMG, are set to revitalise the precinct around the Arena, the connectivity through the building and exponentially improve the customer experience. That is going to happen, although it may be compromised by a new 20,000 Arena."  

He paused, "Yet, that is not the point," he said. “We have asked for an independent survey and found the prospect of two large arenas two and a half miles apart unsustainable. We have found that it jeopardises this whole area of the city centre and the city centre economy as well.

"A new arena at the Etihad Stadium would be a drive in and drive out arena without money spreading into the city centre. Manchester Arena is the most connected arena in the country, we sit right on top of Victoria Station, not on a pair of Metrolink lines. Fundamentally, we are asking why the rush and where’s the deep analysis of such a project? We want time to consider if a new arena is good for the city and especially its centre.”

2019 06 26 Arena Story Etihad
The Etihad and the site in question bordering Alan Turing Way

Anybody, who has taken a tram to, and from, a gig at the Etihad, Lancashire County Cricket Club or Heaton Park knows the limited capability of a pair of tramlines to move tens of thousands quickly.

Confidential has sympathy for Sharkey’s other arguments too. 

Given other large capacity venues arriving permanently or temporarily in the next couple of years such as The Depot and The Factory, then can Manchester really sustain another 20,000 arena? Of course, the programming at the latter would be different from that of The Depot and The Factory, rather, it would be a mirror reflection of Manchester Arena. But if, in the worst case scenario, the competition might close the latter, then the harm to that sensitive part of the city centre would be considerable. Over all there seems no case for another arena.

Confidential suggests going for a reinvention of Belle Vue instead, a big amusement park, rides, big dippers, candy floss. That is something the city region misses, if we're talking recreation and entertainment. 

The Factory Manchester
CGI of The Factory

So, has something been said to Oak View to give them the confidence to think they could move ahead? Has there been a mistaken assumption that should influential people in the city so choose, this could be a done deal, even before due statutory processes have been completed? 

It’s puzzling in the extreme. The official line is, ‘We have always envisaged a range of destination uses on the Etihad Campus. Should a decision be taken to pursue an arena, then this will be the subject of determination through the normal planning process following further consultation with residents and the fullest range of stakeholders.’ 

In other words, the council has no involvement, beyond being the planning authority, in any proposal to bring forward a new arena, it is merely assessing whether Eastlands might be a suitable location for any such scheme. 

What seems clear in this muddy affair, is that should Eastlands be deemed suitable for an arena, then an American ‘disruptor’, Oak View, believes it is first in line to break ground.