Defying Pandemic Woes, Live Entertainment Giant OVG Showed New Growth in 2020

Moody Center Front Plaza
Courtesy of Oak View Group

Moody Center Front Plaza

As other live entertainment companies enacted job cuts, the Oak View Group continued to thrive under the leadership of Tim Leiweke.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented financial crisis for the live music business, leading to record job loss within the live music industry, according to recent data compiled by Billboard from state and federal databases. Approximately 75,000 to 100,000 full time concert employees working for North American venues, concert promoters, agencies, ticketing companies, touring crews and support positions have either been furloughed or laid off since the global halt to touring began in mid-March.

Many of those layoffs came from the biggest companies in live entertainment -- Live Nation, AEG, Paradigm, Ticketmaster, Eventbrite, Cirque du Soleil, Feld Entertainment, MGM, Red Light Management and Madison Square Garden -- which have enacted deep cuts as a result of the global shutdown.

One company, however, has not only avoided layoffs completely but actually hired more than 50 executives in the last two months to assist with a growing portfolio of venues and development initiatives. The Oak View Group, founded by former AEG chief executive Tim Leiweke, has been a quiet but persistent force for prosperity and economic development during the pandemic. Launched in 2015 along with Leiweke's partner Irving Azoff, OVG is overseeing $4.5 billion in arena development projects across the world, including in Austin, Texas. There, the company made its most recent high profile hire, announcing that Casey Sparks, who previously managed the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma for ASM Global for six years, was joining the company. Sparks will serve as vp of OVG Austin and assistant general manager of the $338 million multi-purpose, state-of-the-art, privately financed Moody Center at the University of Texas, set to open in 2022.

Sparks joins former BOK Center alum Jeff Nickler, who was hired at OVG in 2019 to manage the company's 29-member Arena Alliance and last month was appointed GM of the Moody Center and senior vp of OVG Austin (he'll also continue to lead the Arena Alliance).

"Tulsa has been near and dear to my heart for many, many years," Sparks tells Billboard. "Developing a live music market in a city that didn't have one previously was incredible. And now joining OVG, I'm attracted to the commitment Tim has made to taking care of his employees and taking care of the communities we represent. I have many great friends at OVG who have been telling me I'd notice the difference in the company culture and it's really impressed me in the short time that I've been here."

Part of  OVG's success is due to its strategic investors, including Silver Lake Partners. It's also been lucky that most of the company's major projects are expected to open after a vaccine for COVID-19 has been widely distributed. But much of the credit belongs to Leiweke, who is both a gifted mega-manager and a music and sports insider.

While many titans of industry have tried to disrupt the live music space by focusing on perceived inefficiencies, Leiweke has doubled down on personal relationships and the premium value of an artist's content. That's led him to seek out unique stakeholders for OVG projects, including recruiting Harry Styles as an investor and key supporter of a new OVG-backed arena in Manchester, England, and bringing in University of Texas superstar alum Matthew McConaughey to serve as the Moody Center's "Minister of Culture," where he will represent the best of Longhorns alumni's potential and "Don't Mess With Texas" charm.

"We're already building the organization and when all is said and done,  we'll have  60 to 65 full-time employees," explains Nickler, who relocated to Austin with his family in March. Nickler has stayed busy in Texas, where OVG represents three facilities in the Arena Alliance -- Toyota Center in Houston, American Airlines Center in Dallas and the ATT Center in San Antonio, Texas -- and has a concert booking agreement at the Texas Ranger's Globe Life Field, which opened in July and served as a "bubble venue" for Major League Baseball's National League playoffs and the World Series.

OVG is also developing Seattle's Climate Pledge Arena (opens Oct. 2021), which replaces the former Key Arena and will be the future home of the Seattle Kraken NHL team; a new arena (late 2022) in Southern California's Coachella Valley that will serve as the home venue for a Seattle Kraken minor league team; the UBS Arena in Elmont, New York (Oct. 2021) that will serve as a home to the New York Islanders; and new arena projects in Savannah, Georgia (early 2022) and Manchester's Co-Op Live (2023).

In every project, OVG looks for under-developed markets with pent-up demand for live entertainment, Nickler says.

"It's an incredible opportunity -- Austin does not have a world-class arena and the expectation is that the Moody Center will be one of the finest concert venues in the country," says Nickler. "It is obvious from looking at the data that a lot of major concert tours have skipped Austin and we believe that not only with the allure of playing in Austin, but with the relationships OVG has with Irving Azoff, his management company and Live Nation, this is going to be a top notch opportunity for touring shows and the Austin community."

Courtesy of Oak View Group
Casey Sparks
Courtesy of Oak View Group
Jeff Nickler

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