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Oprah & Michelle Obama Are in a League of Their Own With Blockbuster Speaking Tours

Before launching “Oprah Talks COVID-19” on her OWN Network, Oprah Winfrey went on a speaking tour to kick off the new decade. Oprah’s 2020 Vision played nine dates around the U.S., with more than 120,000 in attendance. And while she could not have possibly envisioned the reality that has befallen 2020, she was still able to impart some meaningful insight onto sold-out arena crowds alongside a different celebrity moderator in each city.

One of those moderators was former first lady Michelle Obama, who staged her own sold-out speaking tour in 2019 in support of her memoir Becoming, playing more than 30 cities in North America and Europe.

Winfrey’s trek kicked off Jan. 4 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., and wrapped at Denver’s Pepsi Center on March 7. According to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore, the full tour earned $18.8 million and sold 120,379 tickets.

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With only nine shows, the tour mainly hit major markets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest grosses came from the biggest cities, playing best in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Winfrey’s Feb. 8 show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center earned $2.7 million, followed by $2.5 million on Feb. 29 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and $2.4 million on Feb. 22 at San Francisco’s Chase Center.

Guest moderators included Super Bowl Halftime alumni Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, comedians Tina Fey and Amy Schumer, and Winfrey’s longtime pal Gayle King. At the Brooklyn date, Michelle Obama joined Oprah onstage.

Final figures for Obama’s 2019 tour were not reported in full, but based on the select submissions sent to Billboard Boxscore, she averaged $1.595 million and 13,176 tickets per night. That attendance figure is only 1.5% short of Winfrey’s, who paced 13,375 tickets per show. With a significantly higher average ticket, Oprah scaled to $2.1 million per show, leading Obama by 31% in nightly earnings. Obama’s tour was far more widespread, bringing her to 31 North American cities, plus six stops in Europe. Billboard estimates that the full tour finished in the range of $55 million to $60 million.

Outside of small differences in performance, Obama and Winfrey stand tall in a class of their own. Very few speaking acts or book tours can fill large clubs or theaters, much less the arenas that this pair of titans tackled. In 2018-19, Hillary and Bill Clinton toured together in theaters and scaled-down arenas, averaging 3,700 tickets per show — less than a third of what Winfrey and Obama sold. Other nontraditional tours, such as live podcasts or YouTube stars are often confined to clubs and small theaters stop short of theaters, in the range of 1,000-2,000 tickets per show. Without the proof of concept and tour history of an A-list band or singer, filling an arena remains an especially elusive achievement for speakers, rarely accomplished at the scale of Winfrey or Obama.