Photo credit: Nick Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks’ Raj Saha is currently a GM without a building, but the situation isn’t close to a first for the industry veteran. Saha has taken part in the developing and opening of 10 venues over three continents throughout his substantial career.
Saha was born in London and raised in New York City. His mother was American and his father was from India, giving him a global upbringing that has made him the perfect person for traveling the world to bring new arenas to life.
“Both my parents were involved in the travel agency business,” Saha told Amplify. “So growing up I had the very fortunate experience of going to Helsinki, Finland on summer vacation at 12 years old. While everyone I was going to school with was talking about their summers at the Jersey Shore, I was talking about coming back from Mykonos and Athens. That’s where I caught the travel bug.”
Saha has worked at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York, O2 Arena in London, and Toyota Park Stadium in Illinois. He has helped operate and open facilities in Istanbul, Stockholm, and Sao Paulo, Brazil amongst others.
“I’ve never been smart enough not to raise my hand for things. That’s probably why I ended up in Turkey and Brazil,” Saha said. “It’s been a great experience and I love getting uncomfortable in your skin. I love going to places where you have the knowledge of how to run a building and how to do events, but you’re doing it in a language you don’t understand.”
Saha is now developing the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena in Wisconsin, set to open in September of 2018. According to Saha, the 730,000-sq.-ft arena and entertainment complex is nerve-rackingly on pace with the 17,500 seats already starting to be fitted.
“We’re in a great place from a scheduling standpoint. Every milestone from the construction has been hit in advance of the date,” Saha said. “I love the ability to have to adjust to the local understanding of how building operations and entertainment work. There are things that I have picked up along the way that I would love to put into Milwaukee.”
Amplify sat down with Saha to discuss the upcoming arena, growing the Milwaukee market, and what made him perfect for this position.
How did you get started in the facilities business?
I went to Syracuse University in New York. I did everything from working on concession stands to doing building conversions and concert security. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but the one thing I knew I didn’t want was just to go sit in an office and do the same thing every day from 9-5. After I graduated from Syracuse and working at the Carrier Dome, I ended up at the Jacob Javits Center for about six months. While at the Javits Center, New York was getting ready to host the ’98 NBA All-Star game and I became friendly with some people over at Madison Square Garden. I started at the Garden in January of ’98 and spent nine years there.
Where did you go from there?
At the time, this unknown facilities management company AEG called me and I ended up going out to Chicago to work with the Chicago Fire and help get the new stadium open down in Bridgefield, Illinois. The one thing that I loved coming out of that was the ability to open new buildings. I spent nine years with AEG and got put in a role of not just a regional director from an operations standpoint, but going in and supporting a lot of the building openings. After Chicago, I went back to Newark, New Jersey where I was at the Prudential Center for two years. Then went over to London for five years because AEG was going through their huge European expansion and I ended up transitioning a few buildings that were independent or government owned and helping them get adjusted to the AEG family. I was overseeing building openings in Turkey and a few other places. I was helping out in Houston on the soccer stadium (BBVA Compass Stadium) and then Stockholm, the Tele2 Arena as well.
How did you end up in Milwaukee?
I was doing the often replicated commute between London and Sao Paulo, Brazil because AEG was involved in four stadiums there. In 2012, I spent 75 nights in my own bed. The reason it was that high was because we had the Olympics going on in London. I made the decision that I wanted to be based in South America and went down and headed up the local AEG office for Brazil. Peter Feigin who is our team president convinced me that Milwaukee is indigenous language for Rio De Janeiro of the midwest, so I ended up with the Bucks.
As someone who has opened/operated buildings around the world, are there any constants for every market?
People want to run the marathon. People are going to run the 26 miles and everyone is going to have a different strategy for how to cross the finish line. While some people might want to go out and sprint as much as they can for the first 13 and then jog the rest of the way, some might want to evenly pace themselves. The constant is the communication and not working in silos. The decision you are making in 2016 is what you live with when you open the building in 2018 and it is also what you are working with in 2028. The thing that is consistent with all buildings is, let’s not just see what this is on day one. Let’s look at what this is in year 10. It’s not just let’s get to opening day and figure it out from there. If it means not building out a space in the venue because you don’t know what it is, then that’s okay too.
You’ve worked at some of the most esteemed buildings, have you taken best practices from them to bring to Milwaukee?
Milwaukee is far and away the smallest market I have ever lived in. You want to own the market at the end of the day. That is one thing that is consistent whether you are at the Garden, The O2, you want to own the market. You really need to know how to go out and compete on everything that you are doing, especially when it comes to live entertainment and content. What the challenge is here in Milwaukee is that the arena, the Bradley Center, has never been historically as strong as other markets that are in the Midwest. So the challenge and the opportunity here is how do we look at the entertainment side of the business and not just the basketball side. How do we up the numbers that history has said have never been accomplished?
You are the GM for the new arena and also in charge of programming. Milwaukee has a great music scene with Summerfest, are you planning on building off that excitement for music?
Yes. Summerfest takes over the entire region. Bob Babisch for the last three or four decades has really done an amazing job of booking talent and getting people excited. It’s one thing to book talent, but it is another thing to get people excited about your product. We see what they do and they are definitely a model of success here. But they are a ten-day festival in early summer. We have to take what they do and that mantra of getting everyone involved, doing the different genres, going after different acts, and turning that into a 365-day business. Not only do we have the 17,500 cap arena, but we have a 75,000-sq.-ft. plaza which has the ability to be programmed for different events too.
What challenge does a market like Milwaukee present?
We have to sell Milwaukee. In the last ten years, there have been a lot of people who have looked at Milwaukee on the arena side who probably haven’t given it a shake. There’s a million reasons behind that. We have to sell the city, not just the arena. The club and theater side does good business. But how much have the CAAs, the UTAs, the Paradigms, and WMEs been looking at Milwaukee? We’re explaining to them what the market is capable of. It hasn’t been a first look for a lot of tours. We know the content that does well here. This is a really good market for comedy and rock and country. Acts like Romeo Santos, J Balvin, Shakira have never been on the arena side here. So what does it mean for Latin and hip-hop as well. We’re 90 miles away from the third largest market in the US. There is a way to attract a crowd to Milwaukee from the north side of Chicago.
What is it like being a GM without an actual arena yet?
We still have games that we are playing as a tenant in the current building (Bradley Center). I am at every game. I am able to identify fan behavior, look at all the pricing strategy, and the Bradley Center executives have been great about letting us in. If you’re going to be serious as a team about running your own building and getting involved in the business of your building, you need to have your General Manager on 15-20 months beforehand. A lot of these teams know their team and their product, but they don’t know about a building as a product. It is bringing on board a food and beverage partner, a merchandise partner, your building operating people, and learning about your building systems. All the fun stuff that people look at me and go ‘Why are you in this business? You’re boring talking to me about lighting levels.’ But it is all important to make the building successful.
What should people be excited about for the new arena?
What I am most excited about is the way the building lays out. You’re going to come in and it is going to be beautiful glass frontage. If you are on the east side of the building, it is all open glass facing downtown, facing the lake. When you are in the building, you’re going to get views that no one has ever seen from that part of town before. The coolest thing is, we have what’s called our Panorama Club. We took space that is generally air in a lot of other buildings and it is a 360 degree view of the bowl and of downtown east facing the lake.
What I am also excited about is the backstage experience. Our owners get it. They want everyone associated with the show, not just the artist, to have a great experience. We really paid a lot of attention to backstage. I know a lot of buildings are saying that, but I think we have done a really good job to make sure the tour manager, the production manager, and stagehand and rigger experience is great. When we looked at the customer journey, it wasn’t just artist focused.