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Barclays Center Turns Three: CEO Brett Yormark on Staying Aggressive, Navigating the Islanders’ Schedule & What’s to Come

In a recent interview, Brett Yormark, who remains predictably bullish on the prospects of Barclays Center, takes stock of the arena's first three years, and weighs in on what's to come.

In its first three years of operation, Barclays Center has established itself as an elite arena and made a statement that Brooklyn can be a distinct market capable of supporting shows of all levels. The $1 billion arena, located in the heart of Brooklyn, opened on Sept. 28 of 2012, and in its first three months of operation, hosted a remarkable 29 concerts, drawing 360,905 fans and grossing $55 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. The honeymoon continued into 2013 (a year, it is worth noting, that Madison Square Garden was mostly offline undergoing a $1 billion renovation), with the arena bringing in 62 shows that drew 707,124 and grossed $62.3 million. But, by 2014, the honeymoon was over, the Garden was back in business, and Barclays Center’s show count, attendance, and concert grosses reported to Boxscore all declined by nearly half.

That said, as the home of the NBA’ Nets and, now, the NHL’s Islanders (relocated from the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island), Barclays Center has been an extremely busy building, hosting more than 5.4 million visitors to concerts, boxing, basketball, and family shows in its first three years.  Never known for complacency, Barclays Center and Brooklyn Nets CEO Brett Yormark has steered a whirlwind of strategic maneuverings, and has been especially aggressive in the live music sector. Among the Barclay Center’s team’s moves under Yormark: winning a hard-fought bid to operate the new Nassau Vets Memorial Coliseum with a $250 million arena project currently under way; resurrecting Brooklyn’s historic, 1,500-cap Paramount Theatre in partnership with Long Island University; forming the Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Advisory Board, a group of more than 30 top sports, entertainment, and media industry executives, and entertainment personalities, to provide input for the strategy and direction of Barclays Center; creating a head-turning West Coast presence by hiring respected talent buyer/live music exec Paola Palazzo as vp of entertainment industry relations and event development, based in Los Angeles’ Century City; shaking up its management staff and bringing in Keith Sheldon as vp of booking; partnering with Billboard to open the Billboard Lounge Amplified by Lightpath, an intimate event-level club within the arena; and launching Brooklyn Direct, a programming division geared to work directly with agents and managers to book exclusive non-touring artists and to curate live content.

The moves seem to be paying off. So far this year, Barclays Center is ahead of last year’s pace, reporting 20 concerts to Boxscore that have grossed nearly $20 million and moved almost 220,000 tickets. And the building is finishing the year strong, marking its third anniversary with concerts from Ariana Grande and R. Kelly Sept. 25-26, respectively; major shows yet to come in Powerhouse 2015 featuring Kendrick Lamar; back-to-back shows from The Weeknd, Marc Anthony, and Janet Jackson; and a New Year’s Eve performance by Jimmy Buffett with Huey Lewis (joining previous A-list New Year’s Eve performers Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Elton John and Coldplay).

Jay Z and Justin Timberlake
Jay Z and Justin Timberlake perform on stage at Barclays Center on Dec. 14, 2014 in Brooklyn, New York.  Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for M2M Construction

In a recent interview, Yormark, who remains predictably bullish on the prospects of Barclays Center, takes stock of the arena’s first three years, and weighs in on what’s to come.

Billboard: So did the first three years of Barclays Center meet expectations?

Brett Yormark: In general, it has been terrific, exceeding our expectations in many ways. Now, when they talk about one of the three or four premier venues in America, if not globally, Barclays Center is in that conversation. It didn’t take us long to get there and establish our identity and brand, so, from that respect, that happened a lot faster than I thought it would. The challenge that comes along with that is, once you take the bar so high, you’ve got to maintain it. That’s what I’m working at: how do we maintain, if not grow, the momentum, and how do we refine what we do, and do it better and more effectively.

Barclays Center’s New Billboard Lounge Welcomes VIP Guests at Grand Opening

Talk about your strategic moves in the live music space.

We formed the Advisory Board to tap into some of the great minds of the industry, which has been incredibly effective. Thankfully, I was able to attract some great executives that provide guidance, but, in some respects, are also steering content here. I felt we needed to reboot our business with respect to our programming department. I wanted a more “outbound” mindset, a more aggressive approach to the business. That was twofold; one I changed personnel, and, two, I decided to do more direct business [with agents], or at least explore more direct business. Another significant play was to open an L.A. office, because I felt that, with the decision-making that’s out there, having someone to represent our voice and brand was critical. We hired Paola Palazzo to do that, and she has been extremely effective since she came on board in July. Those are some of the things that we have done over the last eight or nine months that I think will help us grow and maintain the business.

What will be the impact of the Islanders moving to Barclays Center?

Hockey adds another dynamic. Having fewer dates to work with forced us to look at our calendar and say, “what do we want to be?” Versus finding a variety [of events], which was our positioning early on when we opened the building, it’s now about being in the “big event” business. It’s not about doing every concert, but only the ones that matter the most, the ones that truly help to define the building. It’s not about doing every boxing event, it’s “how do we bring the best boxing to Brooklyn?” It’s not dong a volume of college basketball, it’s bringing the best games and tournaments that truly make a difference. That’s been my mindset and strategy.

Alice Cooper 2015
Alice Cooper performs onstage during Motley Crue: The Final Tour "All Good Things Must Come To An End" at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on Aug. 12, 2015 in New York City. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

How are you engaging with the live entertainment industry to help make this happen?

It’s through customer relationships, marketing, engaging with agents and managers more effectively than ever before. We just took a road show to L.A., where we collectively brought in our marketing team, our scheduling team, our creative team, our programming team. They had about 15 meetings with major agencies and promoters, just selling the merits of Barclays Center, “if you didn’t already know, this is how we support an act or artist, this is how we go into the marketplace as it relates to marketing and the resources we have.” A lot of people didn’t know the breadth and depth of our operation. It’s just being more aggressive, more informative, staying connected in ways that we weren’t before that I think will continue the momentum for Barclays Center. On top of all that, the question becomes how do we create some scale and leverage through some of the things we’re doing, obviously the [Nassau] Coliseum, the Paramount, and we’re looking at some real estate in Manhattan that could get our feet wet and broaden our reach there, too. It has been a busy last eight or nine months, but I’m motivated, because I see the potential, the upside, and I believe we can grow this thing to a level that we haven’t even seen before, despite the success.

I recall sitting in your office in the summer of 2012 discussing how one of your goals was to prove Brooklyn could be a distinct, stand-alone market in the New York metropolitan area. How far has Barclay Center come in making that happen?

I think we’ve come a long way. I think we’ve convinced the market that we can sell tickets, whether it’s for emerging bands, new hip, young artists, or, for that matter, even the legendary acts. All of them have called Brooklyn home at some point in time since we opened. Madonna plays [Sept. 16-17] at the Garden, and then comes into Brooklyn, which we’ve positioned as significantly different market, and sells out Barclays Center. There’s that Brooklyn play, and we’re finding that with a lot of artist that can play Madison Square Garden and play Brooklyn, and both can sell out. And there are other times when artists just want to play Brooklyn, maybe they’re looking for that hip, cool play and they certainly find it in our Borough. I think we’ve proven to all the major promoters that [Brooklyn] can be a market that they play in addition to Manhattan, or that they play as a stand-alone, and we’re OK with either one.

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You’ll be taking that concept even further when Nassau Coliseum comes back online as a venue option in the New York metropolitan area.

That’s exactly right. We think that Long Island is a totally distinct market from Brooklyn. We only get 12 percent of the non-Nets buyers from Long Island. Obviously, that will change, because we think Long Islanders will make their way to our venue for hockey games, will love the venue, and will keep coming back for concerts now that the Coliseum is closed. But, we know [Long Island] is a different market, we know it’s a market of over 7 million people when you think of Nassau and Suffolk Counties and the neighboring areas within Long Island. We feel that if we bring the right content out there and give people the right experience, it will be a separate play, and one that fans are going to support. Our plan, in some respects, not always, is to cross-book when we can, so if Jay-Z or Beyonce plays in Brooklyn, they’ll play in Long Island. That’s one of the ways we’re going to activate that market and that building, by really creating synergies with Barclays Center.

Barclays Center enjoyed a honeymoon period, but then business did level out a bit. That said, you’ve done a nice job of creating your own events and keeping the lights on when a tour wasn’t coming to town. Your avails now decrease significantly with hockey coming in, are you finding ways to increase revenues for the shows that you are able to bring in?

The way you do that is you concentrate on the big shows, the big events, the ones that matter most, because each available date is really meaningful. You wake up and close to 100 dates are taken up between Nets and Islanders, then our college basketball business, our music business, and family business, and that throws off quite a few dates. There’s not a ton left, so we’re working with promoters focusing on artists that will make a difference, that will continue to enhance the brand and our business. That’s going to be what we’re focused on, not the smaller acts or acts that aren’t going to be meaningful. The acts that really matter and the ones that the fans are going to support are the ones we want to bring to Brooklyn.

That said, you’ve previously stated that you want to support artist development.

We want to have an emerging artist platform, we have the Billboard Lounge, an emerging artist platform at Barclays Center, we have a cut-down theater [configuration], the Paramount, for emerging acts that can aspire to one day play the big room. So, as much as we’re in the big event business, we’ll also have some platforms that will enable us to connect to emerging artists when they get started and their goal is to one day play Barclays Center. Connecting with them early is a part of our strategy, also.

Billboard Lounge Barclay's Center
Michelle Farsi/Barclays Center

Hiring Paola Palazzo and creating a West Coast presence was an interesting strategic move, and she has a very specific and proven skill set in regard to concert promotion and talent buying. Do you have designs on operating a venue in that market?

We could, and are certainly open to that opportunity. She’s doing a lot right now, she’s cultivating a lot of relationships in all the right places out there. She’s looking at diversifying her role, how do we get product placement deals done when you think about the Barclays Center in movies and things of that nature. For us, she’s become the voice and face on the West Coast for lots of our businesses, first and foremost the music business, but there’s other things she’s doing out there for us, which is great. To the extent that one day we branch out there from a venue perspective, we’re going to consider everything. But, right now, her primary role is to deepen our relationships in the places that truly matter and help us get what we call “jump balls.” When [agents or promoters] are deciding between us and maybe another venue, she’s out there now at the forefront saying, “why not Barclays Center?” and that’s critical, and she’s done a great job to date.

Certainly the live industry at large has noticed how aggressive you’re being in this space.

We think we’ve got a nice runway in front of us. We’re a mature startup, it’s only been three years and we’ve received a lot of accolades for the work we’ve done, but I live by the mantra, “be happy, but never satisfied.” You want to do more, you want to get better, you want to create a point of difference, and I truly believe we have a chance to do that moving forward, so everyone’s working towards that.