Arena king conquers

AEG's Leiweke builds live entertainment empires

Tim Leiweke and the city of London got off to a rocky start. A decade ago, the AEG worldwide president and CEO had been scouting locations to build an arena in the British capital. He and his team were close to buying Wembley Arena before that deal went sideways. “We were walking back in the rain from Wembley to the Tube, and we got mugged,” Leiweke recalls, sitting in his third floor office overlooking L.A. Live downtown. “I said, ‘This is God’s way of telling us this isn’t meant to be.’?”

But God — or at least Harvey Goldsmith — had other plans. The legendary British concert promoter persuaded Leiweke to visit the Millennium Dome. Built to celebrate the beginning of the third millennium, the waterfront site in South East London had become a white elephant.

“I got in a cab,” Leiweke says, “and as we’re driving, the (cabbie) says, ‘Where specifically?’ I say I’m going to the Millennium Dome. He pulls over and says, ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t go to the Millennium Dome,’ and he kicks me out of his cab.”

Leiweke hasn’t gotten where he is today without great persistence, however. He eventually made it to the 28-acre site and saw tremendous potential, but even as AEG signed the deal, the U.K. officials “went into this room and I heard this laughing and high-fiving, and I think, ‘They just sold the world’s largest bill of goods to us,’ and everyone was so relieved that some crazy Americans had come in and taken it off their hands.”

Flash forward a few years. In July 2007, those “crazy Americans” opened the O2 entertainment complex, which, in addition to the 20,000-seat arena, includes a club, a cinema and various shops, bars and restaurants. The O2 Arena has galloped past Madison Square Garden as the world’s top-grossing venue two years running. Last year, according to Pollstar, sales surpassed 1.7 million concert tickets.

“I’m the big crazy guy here,” says Leiweke, who is known for his relentless determination and salesmanship.

Leiweke, who during the height of the construction was traveling from L.A. to London four times a month, calls the city “my favorite place on the face of the earth.” The love affair is reciprocal: BritWeek honors Leiweke with its Transatlantic Business Award at a gala dinner Thursday night at L.A. Live.

Leiweke, who reports to AEG chairman Philip Anschutz, oversees 105 owned and/or operated venues around the world, including L.A.’s Staples Center, as well a number of sports franchises including the Los Angeles Kings, Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy, and multiple other holdings. AEG Live is the second-largest concert promoter in the world and operator of such festivals as Coachella. AEG also developed and runs L.A. Live, the ambitious $2.5 billion downtown residential and entertainment complex.

While there have been many moments of glory at the O2 in its short life, there has been heartache as well, none so great as the death of Michael Jackson. AEG had partnered with the superstar to present “This Is It,” 50 sold-out shows at O2 Arena, which were to be Jackson’s final performances. He died June 25, 2009, 18 days before the first concert.

AEG refunded the 750,000 ticket holders’ money, including service fees, for the shows that would have grossed more than $85 million. That tally did not include such ancillaries as merchandise, which AEG later sold online. Between the merchandise, the subsequent concert rehearsal film, “This Is It,” and through “other creative assets we put to work,” Leiweke says AEG recouped its investment.

Jackson’s mother and his three children are suing AEG, alleging the company breached its agreement to provide adequate physical care for Jackson. “Time will show that we actually created hope for Michael again,” Leiweke says, “85% of everything that was generated from ‘This Is It’ went back to the estate.”

The 02 Arena was able to fill about half of the 50 Jackson bookings. “What I miss most of all is the opportunity that we had … to give Michael a platform to prove that he was the greatest performer ever,” Leiweke says.

As far as great moments that have occurred at the O2 Arena, tops on Leiweke’s list is Led Zeppelin’s one-off December 2007 reunion. Leiweke has a wish list of other acts that he’d like to book into O2 for a Jackson-like run, including the Rolling Stones. “Their (50th) anniversary is coming up,” he says. “Fifty shows, 50 nights. If Abba ever got back together, I think they can do 20-30 nights.” He adds he’d love to reunite with Prince, who did 21 shows at O2 in 2007, but publicly denounced AEG for bad sound during three 2009 gigs at L.A. Live venues.

Looking forward, the new London-based CEO of AEG Europe Jay Marciano has specific mandates from Leiweke for O2.

“We don’t rest on our laurels, so he has two huge priorities: keep on coming up with new iconic content that’s recurring and take the rest of that land and develop out how we make it even more a must-see point of destination.”

Key upcoming events are the inaugural Sundance London 2012, a plan to bring Robert Redford’s film festival to O2 in April 26-29. “The Sundance Festival has an opportunity to be an event that all of Europe comes in for,” says Leiweke. He adds that the venue’s goal is to bring in sporting and entertainment events that draw from across Europe and possibly the world. To that end, O2 will also play host for gymnastics and basketball for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

AEG has no plans for other developments in London (the company was a partner in a losing bid for the Olympic stadium), but Leiweke isn’t one to rule anything out.

“We will look at other things in London,” says Leiweke, who never considers a project finished.

Asked if L.A. Live has achieved its goal of becoming Los Angeles’ answer to Times Square, he quickly answers, “Nope.” Referring to the 100-acre site as a campus, he details new developments ranging from increased greenery to a dog park and an effort to grow from 4,000 rooms to 10,000. “What we’re focused on for the next phase here is hotels because those are good paying jobs, a lot of them,” he says.

Speaking of L.A. Live and its neighbors, including the potential NFL stadium, Leiweke says, “I’m driven by trying to make this the juggernaut that will drive the economy in Southern California for years to come.”

More from BritWeek 2011:
Arena king conquers | AEG makes play for L.A. stadium

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