Tim Leiweke was the CEO of AEG when the company’s facility group signed KeyArena in 2008. Now, nearly a decade later, he’s hoping to refashion the important Pacific Northwest building into a facility that more resembles The Forum — AEG’s biggest competitor in LA — rather than the Staples Center, which anchors AEG’s West Coast portfolio.
AEG is proposing its own plan to build a world-class “Seattle Coliseum” in the Pacific Northwest and is hoping to tap into the company’s extensive network in the region, which includes the Showbox and the Bumbershoot festival.
But if AEG wants to keep KeyArena in its column, it will have to head off an insurgent bid from Leiweke and the consortium he’s put together, which now includes Live Nation, Azoff MSG Entertainment, Populus, ICON and even Pearl Jam, whose manager Kelly Curtis has joined the group’s advisory board.
Amplify recently caught up with Leiweke to hear about his plans for KeyArena and how one of Seattle’s favorite bands might be enough to put the plan over the top.
So Pearl Jam has become the big headline of this story. Did you expect the media to hone in so quickly on this part of the narrative?
It’s ironic because if you look at the very heart of the KeyArena story, it’s about taking a historic landmark and tradition that dates back to the 1962 World’s Fair. We have a dream for a world-class venue that not only honors that history and that tradition, but will be just as phenomenal in its renovation and experience for music as it is for sports. If you integrate all that into your thinking, you’re going to get to Pearl Jam because that band has played that building more than anyone. That’s their hometown and they are proud of that fact. They significantly help our vision because we are just as driven by the music experience as we are about getting a sports team long-term.
So how did Pearl Jam manager Kelly Curtis get involved in this project?
Kelly is our influencer and part of the advisory board we put together. They are massive fans of Madison Square Garden and the recent renovation and the purity of that experience for music and how Jim (Dolan) protected that. They love the fact that we’re protecting the history of Seattle Center. They don’t love the acoustics, but they love Seattle and they want us to design it so that it’s just exactly like the music experience at the Garden.
How will you improve the acoustics?
We’re going down 15 feet and we will increase the size of the building in the bowl. We will double the square footage of the building, but protect the historic tradition and the landmark of that building above ground. KeyArena today is still acoustically challenged and in our commitment to making it work for sports, we don’t want us to sell our soul on music. Going down is good. Going down 15 feet is really good because acoustically you’re a much tighter bowl and your sound isn’t bouncing everywhere. You’re not adding lots and lots of space on top, which is where your acoustical problems generate. The lower level is going to be about 9,000 permanent seats plus the floor. We will have a very large lower level and offer a personal experience with the artists and their fans because the bowl will be so tight.
How would it compare to the design of the Staples Center?
What they don’t want is Staples Center. They don’t want the three levels of suites. They want it to be acoustically perfect where there’s not a lot of interruptions in the bowl, there’s not a lot of different levels and you don’t feel like there’s a class warfare going on in the building.
Does your plan have any suites?
Yes, but they are minimized. We have 40 suites on one level, integrated into the bowl to make it more intimate. We were fortunate because we got to learn lessons from The Garden and The Forum.
What is Goldman Sachs’ role?
They’re going to finance a portion of it. We have a lot of equity in this as well. Goldman Sachs has provided us a letter towards financing so that there is a comfort level with our financial plan. We do not ask the city or the county for any bonding, any commitments, any financing of any kind. Their money is better spent on the issues that they’re facing. We’re privatizing everything and we think that’s the right way to go. It’s more expensive, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take.
What about a Pearl Jam residency? How would that work?
Let’s put it this way: our intent is to have them play the building a lot, and we’ll figure out what that means once we get it done.
Does Seattle have a better shot landing an NHL or NBA team?
I think whether it be the NHL or the NBA, what we’re not going to do is get ahead of the leagues and the owners. I think we will stay quiet on this. We have, and we will continue to until we get direction from the leagues. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think this would eventually lead to one or two teams. It’s just announcing partners or making a decision on who an owner is ahead of a league, that’s not the right way to do this. We’re going to try to do this the right way. Seattle deserves its best shot, and we are trying to make sure that we do that for them.
What has your experience moving the Raiders to Las Vegas and your attempt to build Farmer’s Field taught you about the NFL?
I understand how heartbreaking it is for a community to lose a team, but how exciting and vibrant it is for a community to get a team. We’ve been through this a few times with the Timberwolves in Minnesota and being a part of that expansion. We know how to win teams. The thing I’ll tell you that wins teams is proving that we can get this built and not getting ahead of the leagues. We’re going to be very committed to that.
By the way, I failed a couple of times too so, I’ve been on both sides of this.
What’s different now?
I’m older and wiser.