The O2 – London’s new sporting hub

October 28, 2016

Situated in South-East London is The O2, home of a 21,000 capacity arena, which opened in 2007 and has had a phenomenal impact on London.

It didn’t always look that way though. After originally launching as the Millennium Dome, the site was left empty in 2001; an expensive white elephant, and a source of national embarrassment. 

But that all changed when it was converted into a music venue in 2007. An arena was built inside the tent structure, like a ship in a bottle by AEG, The Anchutz Entertainment Group with arena and stadium designers Populous.  The white elephant had turned into one of the most significant venues in London.

A key part of it success over the last nine years has been the partners it works with.  Before the venue opened a naming rights deal was struck by AEG Global Partnerships with UK Telecoms company O2/Telefonica.  In one of the first and most successful naming rights deal in the entertainment business it has brought numerous benefits to fans from Priority Ticketing and dedicated lounges for O2 customers.

O2 Telefonica is intrinsically linked to everything that we do here; we’re very much partnered with them,” says Steve Sayer, Commercial Director of The O2. He highlights that they offer the venue to clients as a space that is not completely free of branding, because that’s the business model that they operate under. “There’s a bit of a balancing act but we’ve been doing it successfully now for 9 and a half years and it’s never been an issue for us in terms of attracting content to the building.”

While the day to day branding balance The O2 treads is difficult enough, in 2012 they faced a unique challenge. They were chosen as the venue for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and, under IOC rules, the arena had to be unbranded. It was simply known as the North Greenwich Arena. 

The entire venue had to be cleaned up in terms of branding for around five months, but Sayer highlights how important bringing the Games to The O2 was for them in terms of showcasing the venue. “Everybody who worked on that project and fans that came to the venue as part of the Olympics in 2012, knew that The O2 is one of the most iconic venues in the world, in terms of sport, music and entertainment. We’re the number one venue in the world as recognized by Pollstar for our music and entertainment content and we are a hugely iconic London landmark. It was important that we seized the opportunity to partner up and be a part of the fantastic games for London and the UK.”

The arena has long been recognised as a top class music venue, but the Olympics helped raised the arena’s profile as a top class sporting venue as well. 

The O2 has partnered with the ATP and the NBA who are anchor tenants. It’s a particularly exciting time for the American franchises, with rumours continuing that one or more of the leagues may set up a London based franchise in the next 10 years. If the NBA or NHL did set up a London franchise, The O2 would be an obvious choice as its home. Sayer was cautious in discussing the subject, but admitted it could be a possibility:

“I have to be careful with this line of inquiry. It is not something we’re actively pursuing at the moment, but we have a fantastic relationship with the NBA and we talk regularly to the NHL. Our parent company AEG has an interest in an NHL team in the States, and other sporting franchises. A lot of venues in the US have sport franchises as their main tenants. Our business model is primarily driven by touring music and entertainment content, together with one off major sporting events. We would never rule out the opportunity of having some kind of anchor property, whatever that might be – whether that’s music based, or entertainment based, or sport based – but it would have to be the right model to deliver the type of return for the business that we can generate from our current model. As somebody who works in the industry, yes, for sure, I can definitely see a time when one of the big US franchises from one of the major sporting stakes would have a home here in London or if not London, another European city. London would be the natural choice due to the strong portfolio of venues that we have here”

But The O2 has another sport very much on their horizon as well – boxing. Quietly, the arena has established itself as one of the most standout boxing venues in the world. Sayer explained it was now a key opportunity for The O2:

“We have always had a rich heritage of boxing here in London, both before and during The O2. We have had some major fights in this venue in the last couple of years with the resurgence of British heavyweight boxing. Anthony Joshua has made The O2 his home. Matchroom, AJ’s promoter, are a key partner and client of the venue. We also hosted David Haye’s comeback earlier this year. He’s previously fought at this venue and, as a local fighter, we worked very closely with David and his team, creating his comeback trail. We’ve really pushed The O2 as the home of boxing, not just the home of British boxing. I think we’re ideally placed because of our relationship with Matchroom. There are so many great British boxers currently coming from London, so the fan base of boxing in London is really strong and we’ve pushed that really hard.”

The USA has its iconic boxing venue, the MGM Grand – is The O2 looking to establish itself as the European equivalent?

“I think we’ve just identified that there is a real opportunity. Las Vegas is always going to be synonymous with the big global title fights and there’s so much money that can be generated there, but certainly as for The O2 as a major venue for boxing, we want to be recognised as a global player. We’re attracting big fights with big names involving highly rated British boxers, and some of the best international talent such as Gennady Golovkin. I think what’s happened over the last couple of years is that the promoters have recognised that actually whether it is Froch and Groves fighting in Wembley Stadium or Anthony Joshua and David Haye – Joshua in particular building his career and David reinvigorating his – London and The O2 is ideally placed to deliver those fights. The US fighters are now starting to look at Europe and London as a realistic venue for the fights they want to make and the purchase they want to deliver.”

The O2 in its current guise will turn ten next year. Across music, and now increasingly sport, it has been incredibly influential for London, and for the UK as a whole, in terms of bringing eyeballs to the city, expanding London further East, and improving the North Greenwich area. An outcome few would have predicted in 2001, when the Millennium Dome closed its doors.

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