The O2 GM Steve Sayer on Running the World’s Most Popular Music Venue, Sphere London Opposition & Co-op Live Opening

Steve Sayer recently celebrated his 10th anniversary at The O2, the AEG Europe-owned and operated London arena that consistently ranks among the world’s top-grossing concert venues. In 2023, the 21,000-capacity building grossed $220 million from 188 shows, placing it second only to Madison Square Garden (MSG), which grossed $223 million, on Billboard’s Top Venues chart (15,001-plus capacity). In terms of total attendance, The O2 is a global leader, welcoming a record 2.4 million people through its doors last year (600,000 more than MSG), according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore, justifying its claim to the title of “world’s most popular music venue.”


This year looks to be just as busy, with The O2 recently hosting sellout shows by Bring Me the Horizon, Take That, Depeche Mode and The 1975 as well as the three-day Country 2 Country (C2C) festival and 2024 Brit Awards. Upcoming bookings include J Balvin, Doja Cat, Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, four shows by Liam Gallagher and six shows by The Killers.    

“We’re grossing huge sums for the artists, selling an incredible number of tickets and we continue to invest and innovate to make sure the fans are having an amazing time,” says Sayer, who joined The O2 in 2014 as commercial director before being promoted to VP/GM of the arena four years later.

In addition to overseeing the day-to-day management of the venue, which first opened in 2007, Sayer is responsible for operations at the wider O2 complex, which also contains a second 2,800-capacity venue, a 210,000 square-foot designer shopping outlet, a 19-screen cinema and more than 30 bars and restaurants. “We’re certainly not resting on our laurels,” says Sayer. “We want to continue to be the front runner.”

Here, Sayer discusses dynamic ticketing, the rapidly-increasing costs of putting on shows, his opposition to a proposed Sphere venue in London and more.

The 02
Steve Sayer

This year marks your 10th anniversary at The O2. What have been some of the biggest highlights and challenges in that time? 

There have been so many highlights and quite a few challenges. It sounds cliched now, but a global pandemic and the shutting down of the live industry for 18 months was an incredible challenge for everybody. We’ve got nearly 200 [staff] that I’m responsible for and I guess what I’m most proud of is leading the team through that period, minimizing a very small number of redundancies and probably coming out stronger at the other end than we’ve ever been.

How has the pandemic changed the live and arena business?

Ticket-buying behavior has definitely changed in terms of late buying. There’s also been a definite shift in the number of shows that are getting booked within weeks and months of the show playing out. Pre-pandemic we would have really good visibility 12 to 18 months [ahead] in terms of what’s in the diary. We still have that to a large degree, but 20% of our shows are now short lead and that’s been a real shift.

What do you regard as some of the biggest issues facing the live music business?

One of them is sustainability. We’re acutely aware of our responsibilities and we collaborate with all our stakeholders right across the industry and we’re pushing hard on that. It would be remiss of me not to mention general cost inflation, which is impacting every part of the live ecosystem. Our energy costs are significantly higher than they were four years ago, and they are only going one way. Wage inflation has gone through the roof: double-digit growth in the last couple of years. The cost of putting on shows and running venues is significantly higher than it has ever been and that is a challenge to try and manage and mitigate that. Another challenge is the [health of] the broader live music ecosystem. While The O2 is having incredible success, we know the U.K. grassroots sector is having a tougher time. We’re cognizant of the importance of a vibrant live ecosystem that fuels sustained success for all of us.

Last month, a Parliamentary committee called for a new voluntary tax to be added to arena and stadium tickets sold in the United Kingdom to support struggling grassroots music venues. Is that something The O2 supports?

It’s something we’ve been talking within the industry about. One thing that we have got to understand as far as a levy [is concerned] is just what is legally permissible when you start thinking about competition rules and unilaterally adding levies to the price of a ticket. But it is certainly something that we’re actively exploring and it’s something that we’re talking about within our own business.

Unlike in the United States, the U.K. live music market has so far been generally resistant to the introduction of dynamic ticketing, whereby prices are set according to demand. Can you see that changing?

My sense is that you are going to see more dynamic pricing in the U.K. It will be an interesting challenge. It’s well understood in Europe that in travel and hotels, you pay a different price based on demand. We haven’t had that in the [U.K.] entertainment or the live sector or even really in sport, but obviously, it is commonplace in the U.S. and North America. My sense is that on certain shows and certain artists, it will start to come in. It’s just a question of over what time period and to what extent. Are we talking about a relatively small number of ringfenced tickets? Or are we talking about the entire manifest? That’s the big question.

AEG strongly opposed proposals by MSG to build a Sphere concert arena in East London, not far from where The O2 is based. Madison Square Garden Entertainment (MSGE), which is owned by James Dolan, withdrew those plans in January following opposition from London Mayor Sadiq Khan. Was that a big win for The O2?

The thing with the Sphere that we’ve always been quite open about is — it’s not about competition. Competition is healthy. We are constantly looking at what other venues, festivals and other industries are doing and what we can learn. There was a lot of local opposition to the Sphere [in London]. Local residents didn’t want the light pollution. Las Vegas is a very different city and a completely different environment to East London. All along we said, “We don’t oppose competition in the live music industry.” But that was the wrong scheme in the wrong location in our view and that was what the [London] Mayor also concluded.


Are there lessons to be learned from the high-profile teething problems at the Oak View Group-owned Co-op Live Arena in Manchester, the U.K.’s biggest concert venue, which finally opened last month after a series of costly delays and cancellations? And what impact do you think the arrival of a major new U.K. arena will have on the wider business?

Building and opening any venue of scale presents various challenges and only underpins the importance of meticulous planning, thorough preparation and engagement with key stakeholders throughout the process, right up to opening day. There’s lots that we can always learn from new venues but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re going to continue to invest in The O2. This year we’re upgrading our Wi-Fi. We’re starting a two-year program to renovate all our backstage. We’re continuing to look at what we can do on the sustainability front, so back-of-house we’re operating as efficiently as we can be. It’s a good time to be in the industry because while there are challenges, undoubtedly the market forecasts are strong.

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