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EXCLUSIVE: Touring UT's new Moody Center arena (yes, we talked to Matthew McConaughey)

Peter Blackstock
Austin American-Statesman

“You get one chance to do it, and I think this building can last 50 years if we do it right.”

Tim Leiweke is leading a tour of the latest arena he’s been at the helm of creating, the University of Texas’ new Moody Center. He’s beaming with pride, while noting a few improvements still to be made, as he points out features designed to enhance the experiences of music and basketball fans who’ll soon be filling the Moody on concert and game nights.

Set to open Wednesday with a concert by guitar star John Mayer, the Moody is the latest project of Leiweke’s Oak View Group, his partnership with music industry executive Irving Azoff. Others involved include C3 Presents co-founder Charles Attal, architecture firm Gensler and UT "minister of culture" Matthew McConaughey. The new UT arena replaces the 45-year-old Erwin Center, which still looms a couple of blocks to the south but will soon give way to expansion plans for UT’s Dell Medical School.

History and memories:Erwin Center to close in May after 45 years

More background:What does University of Texas get out of the Moody Center? First dibs on schedule, for one

EXCLUSIVE: Texas basketball coach Chris Beard discusses roster management, recruiting

The Erwin Center, which opened in 1977, gave the Longhorn men’s and women’s basketball teams a much larger venue than the still-standing Gregory Gym and provided Austin with its first arena-sized indoor concert space. If Leiweke’s long-term goals are realized, the Moody will still be presenting events in the 2070s.

The Moody Center is seen here on April 12, as crews prepare for the new arena's opening night on April 20. The Erwin Center, which the Moody will replace, looms in the background at left.

For now, though, the focus is on its sheer newness. When we toured the facility a week ago, hundreds of workers were still putting finishing touches on a building so large and multifaceted that it seems there’s always something more to fine-tune. We saw still-sealed furniture boxes in premium seating sections. Crews were installing a massive video wall outside a private-club area for local tech giant Dell. Artists added color and detail to murals painted on the walls.

Out front, crews were doing cleanup on an open plaza that leads to the main entrance. The plaza serves as a gateway connecting the new arena to UT’s football stadium, which dominates the view just across Robert Dedman Drive on the eastern edge of campus.

“A lot of thinking went into how we integrate it into the campus," Leiweke said. "At the end of the day, we want this to be more than just a place that people come for 100 to 150 events a year. We'd like this to be a gathering place for cultural activities of the campus and the city.”

What to expect: No paper tickets, no cash at the new Moody Center

The Moody Center has two primary entrances. Most attendees likely will use the west doors, which open to the arena’s atrium and main concourse on the building’s third of five floors. From here, concert-goers can proceed to the arena’s lower-level seats, as well as the spacious Indeed and Dell Technologies club areas.

At the bottom is the event level, which accesses floor seats to concerts and includes the basketball team’s locker rooms plus a private club area. A private floor with air-ventilation machinery and other engineering equipment is between the event level and main concourse.

From the archives:UT's Moody Center will be 'a world-class venue built for music,' its developers say

Going up from the main concourse, the next stop is the suite level. As the name implies, it features dozens of private suites with lounge rooms and bar areas, plus extra-comfortable stadium seats.

The outdoor terrace on the Moody Center's upper level offers views of downtown Austin and a wood canopy for shade.

Above that is the upper concourse, which is directly accessible from the building’s southeast entrance. The upper-level seats are more steeply pitched than those in the lower level, bringing those sections closer to the action.

The crown jewel of the top level, and perhaps of the entire facility, is an open-air terrace along the west side of the building that offers commanding views of the Capitol and downtown, as well as the UT tower and campus. The building’s signature architectural element, an overhanging wooden canopy that extends beyond the walls of the building, shades the entire terrace.

For most music events, the stage will be at the west end of the building, with a capacity designed for about 15,000 concertgoers. Occasionally, the setup will be in-the-round, with a stage at the center of the floor; that configuration will be used for the George Strait/Willie Nelson shows April 29-30 that serve as the Moody’s official grand-opening bash.

A couple of important details: The Moody Center does not deal in paper tickets or cash. All tickets will be sent electronically and presented via mobile device for entry; more details are at the box office page on the venue’s website. For concessions, all major credit cards will be accepted, along with Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Pay-to-park garages available for Moody Center events include Manor Garage, directly north of the arena, and Trinity Garage at 1815 Trinity St., a couple of blocks south. More details, plus an option to pre-purchase parking, are available on the venue's website. There's a cost for the convenience: Pre-purchase options at the Manor and Trinity garages for the arena's first week of shows are $62 and $38, respectively.

For ride-hailing services, the venue suggests dropoff and pickup at Red River Street and East Martin Luther King Boulevard, about two blocks from the west entrance.

Also available for parking is the East Campus Garage next to Disch-Falk Field on the east side of Interstate 35. Concertgoers can walk across the MLK overpass to the Moody’s southeast entrance.

A 'fine, fine, fine' addition to Austin and UT

“This place is FINE, and I don’t use that word lightly,” says Matthew McConaughey, applying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm to “fine” that he’s known for bestowing upon the words “all right.”

The Oscar-winning actor was recruited for the Moody Center project as part of his “minister of culture” role with UT. “We’ve got two cultural heritages that I came in wanting to make sure we protect and offer: Austin, and the University of Texas,” he explained in a phone interview last week.

Murals painted by local artists decorate many walls in the Moody Center's main concourse.

McConaughey suggested design touches like a standing-room-only student section for basketball games; bar stations in the club areas that remain closer to the game/concert action; and a barbecue pit on the upper-level terrace with a rotating cast of local barbecue joints. (The last of those is still in the works.)

A key element for basketball is an array of acoustical panels in the ceiling that will be lowered to obscure the upper level, creating a more intimate 10,000-capacity venue for the UT teams.

More:Courtside season tickets at Moody Center will cost Texas basketball fans $8,500 apiece

McConaughey got his first look at the nearly finished product in early April. “I had really high expectations, and it met 90 percent of them,” he said. “Each level has a very particular and original experience that other levels don't have.”

In an interview with the Statesman’s Matthew Odam last year, McConaughey said he hoped the Moody Center would become “the first place a big band wants to play in the world, and the last place a visiting basketball team wants to play.” We’ll find out about the latter this fall, but dozens of major music acts already have concerts booked at the new arena.

Beyond Mayer’s two-night stand this week and the Strait/Nelson grand-opening bash at the end of the month, upcoming shows in the Moody’s first two months include Bon Jovi (April 23), Justin Bieber (April 27), The Who (May 3), the annual iHeartCountry Fest (May 7), the Dave Matthews Band (May 11), the Eagles (May 19-20), Jack White (May 25), Machine Gun Kelly (June 8) and Jimmy Buffett (June 11).

Other concerts booked this summer and fall include Andrea Bocelli, James Taylor, Leon Bridges, the Lumineers, the Killers, Iron Maiden, Alan Jackson, Roxy Music, Florence + the Machine, Shawn Mendes, Roger Waters and the Black Keys.

How the Moody got made

Leiweke gives a lot of credit to UT athletic director Chris Del Conte for his oversight and direction of the Moody Center’s creation.

“If not for Chris, we never would have gotten through this partnership, because it's too hard and too complicated,” he says. “You’ve got to figure out, ‘How do I protect the best interests of the athletic department? How do I protect the best interests of the private investors? How the hell do we spend almost $400 million ($375 million is the official total, according to a venue representative) and then donate the arena to the university?’ Because at the end of the day, they own this thing when it's finished.

The new Moody Center has a 15,000-plus seat capacity for concerts, and 10,000 for University of Texas basketball games. The stage can be anchored on one end, or it can be set up "in the round."

“And how do you balance all of that out in a new economic model where the public and the state aren't paying for the arena? Chris was the one who got it from Day 1.”

Gensler, a worldwide firm with a significant Austin presence, served as architect. Design director John Houser says Gensler began working with UT six years ago, when things were still at the stage of identifying the site. 

“A great deal of the people on the team that helped to design this project are from Austin or went to the University of Texas,” says Houser, who attended high school in the Austin area. “To be able to work on a project of this cultural significance in your hometown is really special, and I think it shows through in the way we approached the design.”

As an example, he notes that the skyline view from the upper-level terrace resembles the artificial backdrop of the iconic “Austin City Limits” TV show. Now, he says, “Austin's largest music venue has that real panoramic view of downtown Austin. … I don't think there's anything like it in the city, to really experience Austin from that vantage point.”

Houser is also particularly proud of the overhanging canopy, which became “this unifying architectural element … connecting the exterior and the interior of the building,” he says. “That wood canopy is actually what allows us to open up the building the way we do. It creates all of these visual connections back to the city and the university.”

The outdoor plaza at the Moody Center's west entrance can also be used as a performance and activity space.

The plaza at the west entrance can accommodate a crowd of several thousand and likely will be used for outdoor entertainment and football game-day events, as well as activities before and after concerts.

“That plaza was certainly designed so that we could have both pre- and post-events from the shows going on,” Houser says. “But we could also operate the plaza independently on on down nights, potentially. A lot of thought was put into making sure there was a lot of functionality.”

Underneath the building sits a loading dock specifically designed to improve and expand access for performers. Leiweke pointed out eight bays where trucks can load in gear. He said that's six more than the Erwin Center had.

The goal, Houser notes, is that “when we bring in the biggest shows, those folks feel comfortable, and they want to come back to Austin to play again.”

What’s for dinner and drinks?

The Moody Center drew from the local community for its food and beverage concessions, much like Austin’s airport features outlets of hometown restaurants and bars.

A town that boasts seven entries on Texas Monthly’s hallowed list of the state’s Top 50 barbecue joints is represented at the Moody not by Franklin or Interstellar or Valentina’s, but by Stubb’s — likely because of ties between the Red River District restaurant/venue and music promoter Live Nation, which books the Moody.

Such connections also clearly influenced other food selections. C3 Presents co-founder Charles Attal, who partnered with Leiweke and Azoff’s Oak View Group to develop the Moody, owns an East Austin biergarten called Koko’s Bavarian that has a spot in the arena. Across the way is Big Chicken, a new venture of NBA great Shaquille O’Neal that Leiweke brought to other recently opened Oak View Group facilities (including Seattle's Climate Pledge Arena).

Shaquille O'Neal's restaurant chain Big Chicken has a location just inside the west entrance of the Moody Center.

As for pizza: Don’t look for Home Slice or Via 313 or East Side Pies. That concession went to Tony C’s, a largely suburban operation with locations in the Bee Cave and Round Rock areas.

Other food options include Right on ‘Cue Tacos, Dig Vegetarian Grill and ATX Street Eats. Beverage stations include bars sporting the logos of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Milagro Tequila and Hennessy.

Spectra, which venue developer Oak View Group acquired last year, is the arena's primary food-and-beverage company. The Moody is the first of Oak View Group’s arenas that will feature Spectra’s services.

‘Building stories out of this place’

The Moody Center’s general manager is Jeff Nickler, who moved to Austin a couple of years ago from Los Angeles after a decade in Tulsa, Oklahoma, opening and running that city’s 19,000-seat BOK Center.

“I was Oak View Group employee No. 1 here in Austin,” he says. “My job was to put together the leadership team and staff here, and then the entire organizational structure for how this arena will operate. Once we open, I'll have day-to-day oversight of the venue and the staff.”

Different clubs and lounges have been created within the new Moody Center. They have different sponsors, such as the Indeed Club, seen here on April 12.

Nickler says the Moody has 65 full-time employees, plus hundreds of part-timers working any given event, from ushers to concession crew members to security personnel. “On average, it’s about 750 people per event,” he says.

More:Most people in Austin who want a job likely have one, economists say

“The biggest challenge, which we share with probably most employers in the Austin market, is hiring hourly event labor," Nickler says. "But through frequent job fairs, and also absorbing quite a bit of previous employees of the Erwin Center who worked events, I think we're in really good shape for opening day.”

Full-time employees came to Austin “from all over the country,” Nickler said. “There really was an allure to move to Austin and be part of this project, because in the arena industry, there is an incredible amount of buzz out there about this building.”

He’s bullish on the Moody’s prospects in the year, and years, ahead. “We truly believe this will be the busiest arena for music, by far, in the state of Texas,” Nickler says.

Attal, an Austin native whose C3 Presents is now part of the concert-promotion behemoth Live Nation, says everything is in place for that to be the case.

“We’re a tier-one market now, with some of the best ticket sales in the country," he says. “I think our natural sales on tickets will be a little stronger than most places, definitely strongest in the state.

“We’ve called ourselves the Live Music Capital of the World since I was a kid. But we got looked over a lot of times by Dallas and Houston, even a few years ago. But you won't be able to skip the market anymore. You have to play Austin. It's the fastest-growing city in the country, and we have the nicest facility now. It will be a stop for every major touring act in the world.”

McConaughey says he has fond memories of games and concerts at the Erwin Center, but he’s eager for the Moody to extend UT’s sports traditions and Austin’s music reputation.

“I’m looking forward to building stories out of this place,” he says, “so that we can look up in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and go, ‘Look at how we continued the story, but also how we upgraded and evolved.’”