Tim Leiweke’s feeling pretty good. It’s partly the Los Angeles sun and 70-degree temps, as he looks out toward the mountains from his desert home while talking with a reporter 1,100 miles north.
More than a SoCal disposition, however, the Oak View Group CEO is beaming like a guy with a new billion-dollar toy. We’re still months away from the first puck drop in the Seattle Kraken’s inaugural season, but Leiweke is eager to tout the Climate Pledge Arena features that have nothing to do with goal horns and future championship banners.
“Everyone thinks we’re building a hockey arena,” says Leiweke, whose company is spearheading the project at the site of the old KeyArena. “Uh-uh. You don’t get it.”
Construction on the brand-new arena with an old roof is heading into the homestretch, on track for a mid-to-late October opening just in time for the NHL season, and the number of sea monster eyes dotting T-shirts and ball caps around town continues to grow. But the future home of the Kraken, Storm and, lord willing, one day the Sonics, has another equally important roommate paying a big chunk of the rent — live music.
From its design to calendar holds, Leiweke insists Climate Pledge Arena is being built with music as much a priority as sports, with plans to host “two to three times the number of shows” that KeyArena did.
“I’m gonna shock you here,” Leiweke says with a salesmanlike setup, “we got about 180 nights booked already. The arena’s gonna be what we thought it was gonna be — Seattle’s now going to have one of the top 10 music venues in the world with this building. It’s gonna be that busy.”
Leiweke has good reason to fire up the hype machine, with tickets on sale for the first announced concert (The Weeknd next spring) and tours to book ahead of an anticipated post-pandemic boom for the ailing concert industry. But before dismissing as hyperbole his ambitious plans to make the arena with a 17,000-seat concert capacity the Madison Square Garden of the Northwest, consider the music biz resumes of the music/sports exec and his well-heeled partners.
Prior to launching Oak View Group in 2015, Leiweke was the longtime president and CEO of AEG, the second biggest concert promoter in the world, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs. His OVG partner is legendary music manager and former Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year. As OVG made its arena-building case to Seattle officials, entertainment behemoth Live Nation — the world’s leading concert promoter by a large margin — signed on as a partner.
“There’s a lot of very smart people, very wealthy people, making a huge bet on Seattle right now,” says Jeff Trisler, head of Live Nation’s Pacific Northwest division.
In order for those bets to pay out, music needs to be a serious slice of the pie, as most of the ticket sales and game day revenue from the Kraken — co-owned by Tim’s brother, Tod Leiweke — will stay with the team. According to Nick Vaerewyck, Climate Pledge Arena’s vice president of programming, they aim to host 200 events per year, with Kraken and Storm games counting for just one-third — the bulk of them concerts, ice shows, MMA fights and other miscellaneous events.
“You can’t spend a billion dollars and build one of the world’s greatest arenas privately and then make it work off of your anchor tenants, because they’re gonna want most of their money,” Leiweke says. “So all these other events are critical.”
Sights, sounds and Trans-Siberian blunders
Of course, the average Seattle music fan couldn’t care less if some rich L.A. guys make their money back. They just don’t want the sound to suck. To that end, Leiweke’s promising a sound quality nearly on par with New York’s Madison Square Garden and the Forum in Los Angeles, which has been hailed as one of the country’s better-sounding arenas since a 2013 renovation that Azoff had a hand in.
While the old KeyArena’s pyramid roof is a skyline staple, it’s a potential acoustical nightmare for concert producers. Once inside CPA, fans won’t even realize the roof’s pointy shape, Vaerewyck says, as a giant steel grid and rigging system descends down from the roof. The ability to rig lighting and speakers to that system will put fans — particularly those in the cheap seats, where arena audio woes are felt the most — closer to the sights and sounds.
The roof is also lined with lapendary panels — large acoustical banners designed to reduce reverb and “the sound intensity throughout the building,” Vaerewyck explains.
“A lot of buildings don’t even have any sort of sound mitigation,” he says. “They’re not built for music, a lot of these venues. They have been built decades ago in some cases, and so a lot of this technology didn’t exist.”
Another sonic pitfall of sports arena concert halls is the bevy of big-money suites ringing the bowl. Beyond a considerable revenue stream, they also provide a lot of glass for sound to bounce off. At CPA, only 40 suites will be visible in the bowl — compared with 220 at Staples Center, which Leiweke helped build with AEG — with the rest hidden elsewhere in the arena, Leiweke says.
One other feature fans will likely notice is the tightness of the bowl area, designed to put them closer to the stage (or rink or court). Instead of spreading outward like a fan, the below-ground seating areas — the result of 660,000 cubic feet of excavated dirt — are layered more like a theater, Vaerewyck says.
“It’s almost like it’s stacked on top of each other, like you would at a theater, where you have the orchestra pit, the mezzanine levels and then the balcony all kind of stacked on top of each other,” he says. “It’s going to make the bowl, for being an arena, a lot more intimate than people are used to.”
Backstage, Oak View Group is building a swanked-out “artists compound” with four dressing rooms, as opposed to sticking pop stars in a “stinky hockey room” before their gig, Leiweke says. Arena brass hope the upscale artist quarters and the building’s carbon neutrality (artists will be asked to buy carbon credits to offset the production’s emissions) will be a draw for eco-conscious artists.
They aren’t the splashiest features, but the upgrades Trisler’s most excited for are on the production side. CPA will have eight loading docks as opposed to KeyArena’s two, and a block-long tunnel running beneath Thomas Street that’s wide enough for two semis to pass through, making loading each show in and out more efficient.
“Loading in a show to the old KeyArena was an unbelievable nightmare,” Trisler says. “One of the last shows we had, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, they had so much equipment that they had to use a freight elevator [and] that freight elevator was broken. So we went through a huge drama just to get that show loaded in.”
All told, the music-specific features cost around $100 million, Leiweke estimates, about 10% of CPA’s billion-dollar price tag.
Lining up concerts for the new arena
Busted freight elevators might be a thing of the past, but CPA has the unusual challenge of opening during a pandemic. To that end, Leiweke says the arena’s air circulation and ventilation systems will provide 80% more fresh air than KeyArena’s did, and “many if not most” concession stands will be grab-and-go options to reduce human interactions. “We’ve thought through and made changes so that not only is the building very driven by sustainability … but it’s very driven by sanitization, trying to be prepared to deal with whatever remnants of the virus are still left by fall.”
While Leiweke and Vaerewyck would love to squeeze in a few concerts before the Kraken get crackin’, there’s no guarantee that full-capacity crowds will be allowed by the October opening date. (Still, in a sign of industry faith, WaMu Theater recently announced a Sept. 18 concert with reggaeton titan Maluma.)
During the bidding period, Leiweke dangled the possibility of an “extended residency” with hometown rock giants Pearl Jam. The band’s longtime manager Kelly Curtis, who quietly retired last year, took part in an advisory board that made recommendations on the arena’s sound and concert experience. No deal is done, though unsurprisingly, Leiweke’s willing to toss ’em the keys anytime the ticket-selling juggernauts would like.
“I’ve always made it very clear to the band, this is their city and this is their building and they can do with it as they see fit,” he says.
Leiweke did say that part of the opening events will include some sort of benefit concert supporting eco-friendly charities, though he declined to name the headliner.
CPA programming boss Vaerewyck says he’s been “having conversations” with prominent artists from Seattle (and beyond) about those opening shows. “Seattle has so many genre-defying moments in terms of its musical history and we want to capture that,” he says. “But we also want to capture the diversity of Seattle and provide something that is for everyone here, whether it’s country shows or Latin shows, or classical shows or rock shows.”
Similarly, Live Nation’s Trisler is spending “a tremendous amount of my time” lining up tours for Climate Pledge Arena. Over his 35-plus years in the business, the born-and-raised Seattleite — who saw his first concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum back in the ’70s — has watched Seattle go from an Upper Left outpost once bypassed by some major tours to a “must-plan” market.
Since Beatlemania swept the States in the mid-’60s, making the mop tops one of music’s first true arena acts, concerts have slowly become more of a priority in stadiums and arenas built for sports. Having music top of mind at CPA is a “huge sigh of relief that we finally got it right,” Trisler says.
“We’ve gone from being kind of the oddball guys over there in the corner to being on equal footing and being equally important as a major league sports franchise,” he says. “I can’t tell you how rewarding that is.”