Staples Center President Lee Zeidman On the Venue Wars, the Clippers' Inglewood Plans and BTS Fan Behavior

ISSUE 26 2018 - DO NOT USE!!! - ISSUE OUT NOV. 8, 2018
Peter Bohler
Lee Zeidman, photographed on Oct. 26, 2018 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, says new Laker LeBron James has “reenergized the staff and downtown Los Angeles.”

Lee Zeidman has been running AEG's Staples Center since it opened in 1999 -- and the evidence blankets every inch of wall in the 63-year-old's corner office.

There's a photo of Zeidman with the late Aretha Franklin, whom he charmed by pointing out that they both hail from Detroit. There's a size-22 sneaker, a gift from Shaquille O'Neal. There are mementos from every awards show that L.A. Live -- the entertainment district surrounding the arena -- has hosted, including the Grammys, the Emmys, the American Music Awards and ESPN's ESPY Awards.

But while the room celebrates Zeidman's run atop the world of sports and entertainment, the office is also at the epicenter of one of the biggest construction booms in downtown L.A.'s history. The $6 billion development in the surrounding neighborhood includes an AEG-backed, 875-room hotel that will anchor an upgrade for L.A.'s AEG-managed convention center.

Zeidman, who lives in Venice Beach, vacations in Bora-Bora and likes to have a bottle of Don Julio 1942 set aside for him at parties, was given oversight of L.A. Live in 2012. Prior to starting as GM of Staples Center, Zeidman ran Inglewood, Calif.'s Forum for a decade; AEG rival MSG later reopened it in 2014. To compete, AEG had, until recently, been asking acts to sign a letter promising to try to play Staples Center if they wanted to play AEG's The O2 in London. The strategy, inspired by MSG, appeared to work: According to the Billboard Boxscore 2018 midyear report, Staples Center posted $42 million in ticket sales from 28 shows, a 57 percent increase over 2017. But AEG said this fall that it would stop asking artists to sign such letters, following a legal challenge by Sharon Osbourne.

Zeidman spoke with Billboard about the competition, the return of the Grammys and the one drawback to hosting K-pop shows.

Let's talk about the rivalry between Staples Center and the Forum. In the past, we've labeled the battle the “Venue Wars.” What do you think about the phrase?

Are they really wars or are there too many venues in Southern California to support the content? In Los Angeles, we have quite a few stadiums, theaters and arenas. And we're not just competing with the other venues -- we're also competing with the theme parks, the beaches and even the sunshine. We're competing for the entertainment dollar. At Staples Center, we have four professional sports teams, which no one else has, so we have to juggle, but I can tell you that this year Staples Center will have the biggest concert year since the Forum opened. I think that's due to more multiples and more artists wanting to play indoors.

Did requiring artists to sign the Staples Center Commitment Letter result in a net lift in concerts for Staples Center?

If you look at the letter, it states that we would like you to play Staples Center while you're in the marketplace. It's doesn't mean you can't play the O2 in London if you don't play Staples Center -- the letter says you need to use your best efforts to play Staples Center. Did it help us get a few shows? I think it did. I don't know exactly how many, but I can tell you that it drew a lot of interest and it created a lot of dialogue in the industry.

Some artists like Drake, Bruno Mars and Guns N' Roses would try to appease all sides by playing shows at both the Forum and Staples Center when in LA, sometimes just days apart. Was that good for business, or do you think it cannibalized sales?

I don't think they tend to cannibalize each other. Depending on the artists and the number of multiples that they want to do, I think that Los Angeles can support that. I also believe that when priced properly, Staples Center allows an artist to take the most money out of a building in Southern California because we have more lower-bowl seats (than the Forum), 9,000 total, and our fans love coming to downtown Los Angeles because of all the things that you could do here.

Do you think you won the Venue Wars?

History is going to prove who actually won and who actually lost. Our relationships with Live Nation, AEG Presents, WME and CAA have never been better. And this opened up a lot of eyes to actually what's going on in this industry and that it's really all about where the artist wants to play. I believe that if we get back to  listening to what the artist truly wants without all the other political shenanigans, we can put forward the best experience for their fans.

The Forum is currently suing to stop the Clippers, one of your tenants, from building an arena down the street in Inglewood. Is a second Inglewood arena good for Staples Center because it possibly hurts the Forum, or bad because it means more competition?

Steve Ballmer has made no bones about wanting to own his own building, and his lease here goes through 2024. He would like a basketball specific arena, which is an interesting concept, with his own bells and whistles and he wants scheduling priority for the Clippers. Is Inglewood the right place? It's near the Forum, the new football stadium and a new 6,000-seat performing arts center. Can the city support a Clipper's game on the same night they are having a 100,000 person event at the stadium? Is there enough content to support all those venues within a mile and a half of each other? I'm not sure.

The Lakers, some of your other tenants, signed LeBron James this year. What does that mean for Staples Center?

I've had the opportunity to see it all -- from the Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jamal] years to the emergence of the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. We opened the building in 1999 and the Lakers won three championships in three years, but when Kobe retired in 2016, it was the time the building didn't really have a superstar, until LeBron. I think he puts the Los Angeles Lakers back in the forefront of being a relevant and successful franchise again. He's reenergized the staff and reenergized downtown Los Angeles, and most importantly, the Lakers are fun again.

The Grammys are coming back to LA after being in New York last year. How do you think it went on the East Coast?

We're not concerned with how it went in New York, we're concerned with making it a great event in Los Angeles. Staples Center is custom built for the Grammys -- he have an elevator we designed for the Grammys so winners can get to where they need to be without walking the entire building. I believe the MusiCares setup at the Convention Center in phenomenal, it allows you to talk to people at your table or get up in between musical acts and converse and network. I don't believe that New York lent itself to do that. I obviously didn't go because I was not going to go to the Grammys in New York, but from everything I heard, there weren't those type of opportunities at Radio City.

New York's Commissioner of Music Julie Menin said that New York was the 'primacy of the music industry.'  What's your reaction to that?

First of all, when she said that I had to look up what 'primacy' meant. And there were comments made that they knew the contract was up and they swooped in and they stole the Grammys -- that never happened. The contract we have is a handshake with the Grammys. That was the relationship between the AEG and NARAS as we built Staples Center, as we built the Grammy Museum and as we have continued to partner with NARAS throughout the years. It was a handshake. That's all we had. The Grammys told us what they wanted to do for their 60th, and we blessed it. We were fine with it. As for New York being the music capital of the world, somebody else can debate that. I can tell you that they have been at Staples Center for the past 17 out of 19 years and they're coming back for another four. So if Julie really thinks that that's the case, I'm having a tough time understanding that because they're back home.

BTS played four shows at Staples Center earlier this summer. What was that experience like for you?

All four shows sold out and I believe BTS could have done eight shows. They could have kept going. It's kind of like the Garth Brooks phenomena, where you just keeping rolling out shows until the demand is met. They chose to end it at the Citi Field in New York City with a big show, but I have no doubt the demand was high enough here -- you had fans camping outside of the building a week before the show, and when they finally got in the building, they never left their seats. Not exactly a great crowd for food and drink, because they don't want to miss a second of the show, but they are an incredible audience and they introduced Staples Center to a phenomenal genre of music.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Billboard.