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Botched launch of UK’s largest indoor stadium is a failure for Manchester

In April, the co-owner of the UK’s largest indoor arena, Co-Op Live, boasted about the quality of the venue. “The best I’ve ever seen,” Tim Leiweke of Oak View Group told the Financial Times. On Wednesday, its launch was abruptly postponed for the third time when part of an air conditioning unit fell from the ceiling.

The £365m Manchester attraction is Denver-based OVG’s first foray outside the US. Since its chaotic launch night on April 23, Co-Op Live has been beset by last-minute cancellations, confusion , security concerns and the sudden resignation of the venue’s general manager.

The chaos has tarnished the brand of the state-of-the-art venue even before it opened and created thousands of angry fans of artists such as musician Olivia Rodrigo and comedian Peter Kay. It has also brought back uncomfortable memories in a city still scarred by a deadly terrorist attack at Manchester’s other indoor stadium seven years ago this month.

A senior local official said the saga threatened to “damage the ‘Manchester brand’” as the city seeks to continue its rapid growth and secure its status as a cultural counterweight to London.

“It’s a huge shame for the city,” they said of the problems at the stadium, which forms a key part of long-running measures to regenerate a former industrial area around football club Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.

“I think Co-Op is now thinking about how to repair its reputation,” they added.

Co-Op Live is a joint venture between stadium giants OVG and City Football Group, the owners of neighboring Manchester City FC. The musician Harry Styles is also an investor.

Originally announced in 2019, the 23,500-capacity stadium is set to attract large audiences from across the north of England and beyond.

Olivia Rodrigo
American artist Olivia Rodrigo’s performance, scheduled for Friday, has been cancelled. © Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking to the Financial Times a week before the trial launched on April 23, OVG chief executive Leiweke admitted that construction had not been straightforward and noted that its opening had been delayed from January.

“Brexit is real, inflation is real, interest rates are real. We also had the wettest winter in the history of Manchester,” Leiweke said. “All of that affected the construction schedule.”

But he stressed his confidence in both the project and its main construction contractors, BAM, the Dutch-owned construction giant.

“Big credit to BAM as they did a phenomenal job overcoming all the problems and distractions that were created,” Leiweke said. “They took a pretty good hit, but they maintained a level of quality and excellence in the building that is the best I’ve ever seen.”

Journalists had already gathered at the site, drinking champagne and listening to the speeches of international investors when, on the afternoon of April 23, the mock inauguration began.

The evening’s event, a private performance by 1980s singing star Rick Astley, could not go ahead at full capacity, the local fire service concluded, due to the safety implications of construction delays.

With two hours notice, more than half of the guests at the event had their tickets cancelled. Concertgoers in attendance noticed hanging wires and holes in the walls, while cash registers were not working and crowd organization felt chaotic.

One described being “squeezed” by security at the top of the venue’s escalator afterwards, as stewards tried to clear the crowd below.

“He felt unsafe,” he said.

Fans leave Co-op Live stadium after a scheduled Boogie Wit Da Hoodie concert was cancelled.
Fans leave Co-op Live stadium after a scheduled Boogie Wit Da Hoodie concert was cancelled. © Middle Men

Both OVG and regulators said appropriate risk mitigations were in place to ensure the reduced-capacity private event took place safely.

However, the venue’s general manager, Gary Roden, abruptly resigned a few days later, following a backlash against comments criticizing the professionalism of popular music venues. He had suggested that smaller venues were “poorly managed”.

Continued delays in the building’s electrical systems caused its full-capacity public launch, a performance by comedian Peter Kay, to be canceled twice in quick succession.

Central to those decisions was the communications system used by emergency services in the event of a major incident, which did not fully function due to the building’s electrical system being incomplete.

These issues are highly sensitive in the city, where a bomb at Manchester’s other indoor stadium, now known as the AO Arena, killed 22 people in May 2017. In the public inquiry into the attack, communication breakdowns between Emergency services were severely criticized.

OVG said the communications system used by Greater Manchester Police, Airwaves, “is not required in any stadium in the UK and was therefore not anticipated” before the venue opened.

GMP had conducted tests of its communications systems “in the days before” the launch, according to OVG, concluding that coverage was “poor.”

“At that time, Co-op Live was asked by Greater Manchester Police to install Airwaves as a means of increasing the coverage of their communications systems,” OVG added. The radio waves have already been launched.

However, several people with close knowledge of the Co-Op Live project said OVG had long been aware of the construction delays.

One of them said it had been clear for some time that the project would not be completed on time, adding that the latest effort to complete the stadium was hampered by labor shortages in the construction market. “It’s a real shame,” they said.

Once safety approvals were finally obtained, Co-Op Live rescheduled its opening for a second time to Wednesday of this week.

But as teenagers lined up outside to see rapper A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, a screw from the ventilation system fell to the floor of the main auditorium during sound check.

A view of the Co-op Live stadium and Etihad Stadium
The Co-op Live project is set to form a key part of long-running initiatives to regenerate a former industrial area around Manchester City football club’s Etihad Stadium. © Peter Byrne/PA

Two people familiar with the incident said a larger piece fell to the ground. The concert was quickly canceled via social media and attendees were asked to “leave the area.”

OVG said the problem was caused by a “factory defect” in a component that “was not assembled on site.” A spokesman described the piece that fell as a “nozzle.”

“We decided to cancel the show because we didn’t have enough time to physically check on everyone else before the show,” they added. “That testing is now being carried out by an external inspector.”

A BAM spokesperson said “the safety of fans and staff is our number one priority” and apologized for the inconvenience. City Football Group did not respond to requests for comment.

A concert by American artist Olivia Rodrigo, scheduled for Friday, has been cancelled, along with other upcoming shows by Keane and Take That.

Rival AO Arena, whose operators have argued Manchester could not sustain two such indoor venues, is expected to host several of the canceled concerts.

Additional reporting by Josh Noble