EXCLUSIVE: UT's Moody Center will be 'a world-class venue built for music,' its developers say
When plans for a new arena to replace the 44-year-old Erwin Center coalesced a couple of years ago, much of the focus was on the University of Texas men’s and women’s basketball teams getting a new home court. But the new Moody Center also is aiming to become one of the nation’s premier concert venues.
About a year from now, if all goes according to plan, the $338 million Moody Center will begin presenting shows by some of the biggest names in popular music. Already announced is Canadian superstar the Weeknd, who played the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl. Many more shows are in the works — possibly at a pace of 150 a year, up from Erwin's average of about 50, according to three of the key players involved in building and booking the arena.
Major entertainment industry figures Irving Azoff and Tim Leiweke created Oak View Group in 2016 to develop new arenas in several large markets. They joined Austinite Charles Attal of major concert promotion company C3 Presents — whose parent company, Live Nation, is part of the Moody Center development team — for an exclusive interview with the American-Statesman.
Leiweke said that part of the reason for the conversation was to call attention to the new arena’s ambitions for music as well as sports. “We've been late talking about it,” he said, “because right now, everyone thinks we’re building a basketball arena.”
In reality, Azoff said, the Moody Center “is going to be a world-class venue that was built for music. I don't mean to say that University of Texas basketball isn't going to be really important, but this is going to be one of the top 10 concert venues in the country.”
The Erwin Center has been Austin’s largest music facility since it opened in 1977. The Moody Center will hold about 15,000 for concerts, similar to the Erwin Center’s size in its most frequently used south-stage setup. Though capacity won’t change much, the Moody’s builders promise a significant upgrade in sound quality and overall concert experience.
Key players: Azoff, Leiweke, Attal, McConaughey
As the former head of sports and entertainment presenter AEG, Leiweke, 63, helped create the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Azoff, 73, is the longtime manager of the Eagles and other music superstars and was named the most powerful person in the music industry by Billboard in 2012.
After launching Oak View Group with a redevelopment of Seattle’s KeyArena, which plans to reopen this fall as Climate Pledge Arena, the pair began looking at other cities ripe for arena upgrades. They zeroed in on Long Island, where they’re building a new home for the NHL’s New York Islanders, and Austin, where expansion of UT’s Dell Medical School created a need to replace the Erwin Center.
“We looked at Austin,” Leiweke said, “and said, one, fastest growing marketplace in the United States. Two, arena that’s past its prime. Three, from a (major concert) music standpoint, why is it that Austin isn't as important and as vibrant as Nashville, Los Angeles or New York? It’s there on the festival business; it’s there on the club business; it's there on emerging markets; it's there on artists who are being developed in Austin.”
To help change that, they partnered with Live Nation and Attal, who, as co-founder of C3 Presents, helped to grow the Austin City Limits Music Festival into one of the biggest events of its kind.
They also brought aboard UT Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey to help add localized touches to the venue.
“Matthew jumped in from day one and spent long hours and long days on details all the way down to the fixtures,” Attal said. “He's been super influential on this and really guided the finishes of this building.”
Those finishes include the creation of club spaces for premium ticket buyers and an outdoor plaza with a barbecue station that’s designed to be “one of the great gathering spots in all of Austin,” Leiweke said. “I'm pretty sure Matthew is going move his trailer there and live there, he likes it so much,” he added with a laugh.
The partnership behind the building represents an innovative funding approach that will cost nothing to taxpayers and is a first at a university. ArenaCo, which includes Oak View Group, is paying $338 million to build and operate the venue. UT will own the arena and the land and have control of it for about 60 days a year for men’s and women’s basketball games, graduations and other school-related functions. Oak View Group will manage the facility as part of a 35-year agreement with a five-year option.
Attal said that the venue will book more than just artists who are Live Nation’s management clients and that he sees a “perfect storm” that will give Moody Center a chance to triple the Erwin Center’s typical bookings of around 50 concerts a year. “It's a new building; Austin is the hottest market in the country; it’s coming out of the pandemic,” he said. “There's more holds (booked dates) on the calendar for 2022 into 2023 than I've ever seen come through Austin in my life.”
“Everybody who’s anybody will be through that building,” Azoff said, noting that he already has holds on dates for several of his clients, including the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and John Mayer. Some will be for more than one show: “When I'm holding the Eagles, I'm holding two (nights), not one. I think we're going to see a bunch of multiple dates played.”
A Springsteen-inspired 'sweaty hall' vibe
Leiweke sees his experiences in building the Staples Center as lessons for the arenas he’s building now. He tells two colorful stories about when Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler appeared there for the first time.
Springsteen, who played the opening night at Staples in 1999, expressed dismay at the abundance of suite spaces. “He said, ‘I like hot, sweaty halls; I don’t like all those suites,'” Leiweke recalled. Midler, who played the venue a couple of months later, called Leiweke on the carpet during a sound check for not applying acoustic treatments to glass and concrete walls.
“I promised myself that between Bruce Springsteen kicking my ass on stage that night and Bette Midler kicking my ass at sound check that day, I was never going to make that mistake again,” he said. “So we have sound engineers that look at every set of designs we have.”
Invoking the “sweaty hall” atmosphere involved rethinking the placement of suite and club spaces. “What we did with a lot of those spaces is built them so that they don't interfere with the artist’s experience with the fans,” Leiweke said. “They don't disrupt the acoustics; they don't disrupt the bowl (the primary attendance space). We still generate the revenue we’ve got to generate, but we do it in a way where the clubs are the social gathering space, and the bowl is the cathedral.”
A major structural challenge they worked through with local architecture firm Gensler was keeping the room capacity around 10,000 for UT basketball games while allowing expansion to 15,000 for concerts. It required an adjustable ceiling and movable seats.
“All of my engineers and construction people will get mad at me that I made it sound this simple,” Leiweke said, “but essentially think of garage doors that hide up in the ceiling during a concert and then flip down and take out that upper bowl during a basketball game.”
In addition, they drew on the deep experience of Azoff and Live Nation to configure the seat sections. “We used retractable seating on the stage end so we could tuck that stage back as far as we can, so that we get more capacity in the bowl, which means a tighter experience in the bowl,” Leiweke said. “It's a really tight, intimate bowl, which is what we wanted. We didn't build out lots of corporate boxes, so we don't have levels and levels of suites.”
Planning beyond the pandemic
A major hanging question: Will the Moody Center be finished in time to realize its big plans for the spring of 2022? The UT basketball teams will play one more season at the Erwin Center this fall and winter. The Weeknd’s concert is booked for April 18, 2022, but the coronavirus pandemic has caused some construction delays.
“Originally, we were looking at February, and now we're looking at April,” Azoff said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to make those dates. We’re still hoping there's not some variant or fourth wave or something that knocks a bunch of workers out that could delay us.”
Plans are in the works for a Texas-themed grand opening concert, though a date and lineup have not yet been set. “Every time we open a building, we think it’s important to engage locally,” Azoff said. “In this case, we consider Austin the capital of Texas, so (it would feature) not just Austin-based musicians, but people who have been important to the history of music in Texas.”
Leiweke said the pandemic also spurred some adjustments to the building’s design “to make it better and safer from a health/wellness standpoint for our employees, our artists and our fans. There’s 80% more air circulation in Moody Center than the (Erwin Center). Our filtration system is state of the art.”
They have no plans to limit capacity for concerts. “We as a society can take social distancing for some period of time to help defeat the virus, but we will get past social distancing,” Leiweke said. “Social distancing was a temporary situation, not a permanent fix.
“Our permanent fixes are going to be how we keep an eye on our employees and their health, how we have air circulation in the building, and how we cleanse and sanitize the building. By the time we open this building, we will be beyond temporary measures, and I believe we'll be back to 100% capacity. This building will be one of the healthiest and safest in the industry, because it's new.”