Arena that defied its critics

Leeds Arena
Leeds Arena
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There were doubts over the site, the cost, over whether it would be built at all but one year on, Leeds First Direct Arena is proving its critics wrong. Interviews by Neil Hudson

It might not feel like it but it’s been one year since the First Direct Arena staged its inaugural concert and in so doing ushered in a new era for the city by bringing some of the biggest names in showbiz to Leeds.

Concerts for big names such as Sir Elton John and Prince can generate up to £1m and since January the arena has sold more than 240,000 tickets and raked in more than £10m in sales.

It is also estimated to have made something like £25m for the wider economy – that’s things like hotel rooms, restaurant and cafe bookings, taxi rides and shopping.

In the beginning, of course, there were doubts raised about whether Leeds ought to have its own arena at all, not least from those worried about how the venue might impact on a certain venue in Sheffield.

Clive Betts MP was among those who voiced concerns over the use of around £18m in public money from the now defunct regional development agency Yorkshire Forward but those backing the bid to get Leeds, then one of only two cities in the UK without an arena, its own major league entertainment venue, won the day.

It was the sale of Leeds/Bradford Airport in 2007 which netted Leeds City Counil £55m (it had a 40 per cent share in the airport). Then council leader Coun Andrew Carter was instrumental in earmarking almost half of that to make sure Leeds got its own arena and despite opposition from within the council, the project was green-lit.

That act alone was enough to boost confidence in the city – the Trinity Shopping Centre project, then in the doldrums because of the recession, was dramatically restarted so it would be finished in time for the arena’s opening.

Coun Carter said in a previous interview: “That project would 
possibly not have happened if we hadn’t taken the opportunity when 
it arose.”

Since its launch several other schemes have begun – a new Hilton hotel is being built a stone’s throw from the arena, the Merrion Centre is undergoing its first refurbishment in years and business is generally improving in the so-called Northern Quarter – even the Grand Arcade’s historic mechanised clock has been restored.

In terms of the big names, Leeds has welcomed Sir Elton John, Prince, Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, the Kaiser Chiefs, not to mention the WI, the world of American wrestling and – what turned out to be one of the most surprising nights – world darts.

Tony Watson is sales and marketing manager for the venue.

He said: “When we had Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, there were some people who said we would never top it but then we had Prince. The names just keep coming. When we had Pearl Jam last week, it was one of the best nights I can remember – I didn’t know any of their songs but the atmosphere was electric and they played for something like three and a half hours.”

Like the rest of the team at SMG Europe, who manage the arena for First Direct, Tony is used to doing whatever it takes to ensure the show goes on. When Prince came to Leeds – one of only three venues the artists played in the UK – he was up at 4am and still going after midnight.

“You do whatever it takes, there are busy times and times when things calm down a little. What makes it worthwhile is seeing people like Dolly Parton walking around and bringing those big names to Leeds.

“We’ve had an awesome first year. Our official civic opening was September 4 but we like to think of July 24 as our ‘Bruciversary’.”

The number of big name artists who have performed at the arena has meant the first 12 months have been relentless for staff but their work has paid off.

Just last month the arena was voted Best New Venue In The World 2014 by the Stadium Business Awards and concert industry trade publication Pollstar ranked Leeds as having had the 5th busiest venue in the UK.

“We’ve brought some of the biggest names in showbiz to the city,” said Tony. “Elton John, Prince, it was a full house for the Stereophonics, Rudimental have played twice and the Kaisers are booked to return on St Valentine’s Day. When Pearl Jam played, according to, there were no rooms left in Leeds – we like to call it our Bethlehem moment – it’s the first time it’s happened in Leeds.

“In terms of the arena benefiting the local economy, you only have to look at the surrounding area to see the effect. When the arena hosted a private event for a women’s charity, one local restaurant had an extra 500 lunch bookings.

“Pearl Jam called it their ‘Goldilocks venue’, Andrea Bocelli described the acoustics as ‘wonderful’ and another said it was second only to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. All these artists talk to each other, Leeds is gaining a great reputation – we are in a quiet period at the moment through July and August as people, including musicians, go to festivals but we’ve already got some big announcements lined up for September, the big names will keep on coming.”

Earlier this year, the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post became official media partners of the Leeds First Direct Arena.

Last week, another deal was struck with Yorkshire car retailer JCT600 – it was the first time supercars had been inside the venue.

Nigel Foster, president of Leeds Chamber of Commerce said: “The First Direct Arena has had a huge impact on the city, not just bringing economic benefit, which is significant but also on the city’s confidence.

“The opening of the Arena coinciding with the opening of Trinity Leeds has provided a real boost to 
the visitor economy and collectively they have brought millions of people 
to the city.

“Overall, confidence across the city is manifestly higher and we are seeing this reflected in increased investment as companies seek to expand and 
grow. Billboard magazine listed the arena as one of the global ‘must see’ venues of 2014 and seeing the arena dressed as it was for the Sports Personality of the Year for example I don’t think any of us would disagree.”

Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication covering the worldwide concert industry, said: “The new arena has really put Leeds on the global touring map. First Direct ranked No 17 on our worldwide ticket sales chart for the first six months of this year.”

Phil Marshall, a club promoter who runs the Warehouse and Control in Leeds, opened The Proper Sandwich Company because of the arena, which often opens until 11pm.

He added: “We opened here about three months ago because of the arena, I just saw an opportunity.”