Sheffield's FlyDSA Arena on course for one of best years ever
Sheffield's FlyDSA Arena is on course for its busiest year since 2013, say the venue's managers, despite fresh grumbles about it missing out on another big act.
Around 800,000 visitors will have taken in shows there by the end of the financial year later this month, it is projected.
And Sheffield International Venues (SIV), which operates the arena for owner Sheffield City Trust, says 2018 is set to be another 'good' year - with 2019 shaping up to be a 'phenomenal' one.
Sam Smith is set to rock the venue next Tuesday, with the gig close to selling out, tickets for Def Leppard's homecoming this December were gone within days, and Katy Perry's show this June is 'selling well'.
But the recent news that Kylie Minogue is skipping the city on her latest tour, despite playing at Leeds' First Direct Arena and Motorpoint Arena Nottingham, has not for the first time prompted gripes that perhaps Sheffield is struggling to pull in the bigger names.
A quick glance at the latest ratings from Pollstar, the music industry bible, appears to confirm all is not rosy.
In 2013, Sheffield finished 18th on the global list of biggest arenas by ticket sales, and was the fourth busiest in the UK behind only The 02 in London, and Manchester and Birmingham.
By 2015, it had fallen to 32nd place and eighth in the UK, behind Leeds, and last year it slid further down the table to 38th spot globally and seventh in the UK.
Leeds was 13th in 2017, having sold 679,000 tickets compared with 466,000 for Sheffield, though Nottingham was a lowly 80th with 244,000 tickets sold.
It is important to remember these figures only take into account live shows, so do not include the Sheffield Steelers games which pull in around 150,000 punters a year or the popular conventions hosted by the city.
Dom Stokes, SIV's head of entertainments and events, insists he is not worried by the stats, which he claims fail to tell the whole picture.
He describes 2013 as an 'exceptional' year, with more than 500,000 visitors watching shows at the arena despite the venue closing for two months for a major renovation, but points out that annual ticket sales rose by more than 25,000 between 2015 and 2017.
And he is confident this year's line-up at the FlyDSA Arena compares well with those at its rivals in Nottingham and Leeds, the latter of which only opened in July 2013.
"In 2013 we had an exceptional year, and although it looks like the slide has come since Leeds opened halfway through that year, looking back we've generally been anywhere between 25th and 50th on the Pollstar list," he said.
"When I took over in July, I got hung up on Leeds v Sheffield and commissioned some research.
"But if you look at the acts playing Leeds, almost all of them are playing Sheffield too, whether that's at the arena or one of the city's other venues.
"We have to recognise that Sheffield probably hosts more gigs than Leeds because of the amount of spaces we have.
"When Sheffield Arena opened nearly 30 years ago it was trailblazing, and we were always going to get more product than anywhere else, but now there's a significant amount of competition.
"It's still one of the biggest arenas and it takes the biggest shows in terms of production. The floor at Leeds takes 1,500 people, compared with nearer 6,000 here."
The decision to build a Â£60m arena in Leeds sparked a war of words between politicians there and in Sheffield, over the Â£10m central government grant awarded for the project in 2009.
Critics in Sheffield branded the deal 'unfair', given the local authority had been left to saddle the financial burden of building its arena without any central government subsidy.
They argued that it was wrong for the then regional development agency Yorkshire Forward to push ahead with a project it was feared could drive down attendances in Sheffield by up to a quarter.
But Leeds Council claimed South Yorkshire had benefited from more government investment than authorities in West Yorkshire, and said the deal would help redress the balance.
Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts, who criticised the grant at the time, said he still considers it to be an 'outrageous' decision.
"It's reassuring the arena in Sheffield has kept the vast majority of its audience but the fact there has been a slight reduction in visitors, in what's a growing market, shows the new arena in Leeds certainly has had an impact," he added.
Richard Caborn, who was then MP for Sheffield Central, said: "Our arena in Sheffield is doing very well but I still think it was unfair to subsidise the arena in Leeds when Sheffield had to cover the entire cost itself."
Last year, Sheffield only hosted three of the world's top 20 touring acts, according to Pollstar - but that number rises to five if you take into account that Justin Bieber visited the city in Ocotober 2016 as part of his tour and World Wrestling Entertainment is coming to Sheffield this year.
Of those three, Disney on Ice - the third biggest show globally behind U2 and Guns N' Roses - appeared or is due to appear at both Nottingham and Leeds, as did Bruno Mars.
Green Day, in 13th spot, also played at Leeds but not Nottingham, while Justin Bieber played at neither of the rival venues.
Of the top-20 acts not to appear in Sheffield, several only played US dates or only stopped in London, Manchester or Birmingham during their UK legs.
Ed Sheeran, in seventh spot, played at Nottingham but not Sheffield or Leeds, and 17th-placed The Weekend played at Leeds but not Sheffield or Nottingham.
Queen, The Who, Take That and The Killers were among the other big names to grace Sheffield's arena last year, but none of those made Pollstar's top 20.
The FlyDSA Arena is of course a legacy of the World Student Games, the debt from which the Sheffield is still paying off, and it is considerably older than its rivals in Leeds and Nottingham, the latter of which opened in 2000 and expanded in 2011.
Andrew Snelling, chief executive of Sheffield City Trust, said: "I still look at the arena and other venues from those games and think 'wow, future proof'. Whoeever thought of those was a trailblazer because they've really stood the test of time.
"The arena was built nearly 30 years ago and it's a different design to Leeds and to Nottingham, which is a smaller venue. There are advantages and disadvantages.
"One advantage is having a resident ice hockey team and another is about how easy it is for the acts to get in and get out, which is a big selling point for promoters."
Scrolling through reviews on TripAdvisor, where the FlyDSA Arena scores four out of five, the most common complaints tend to be about parking, the cost and choice of refreshments, and facilities at the venue - though the same is true for most arenas.
Sheffield has its own dedicated car park unlike the arenas in Leeds and Nottingham, and SIV has also recently come to a reciprocal arrangement with bosses at Meadowhall enabling visitors to use its parking spaces.
Parking charges are at the 'lower end of arena pricing', says Mr Stokes, who claims the arena is 'fortunate' to have 1,200 spaces of its own.
But while access from the M1 is easy for customers travelling from further afield, and the arena is served by the tram, there are disadvantages to being outside the city centre.
Steve Brailey, SIV's former chief executive, spoke last year about how moving the arena to a more central location could prove a boon for restaurants and other businesses in the city centre and was something that would 'need investigating properly'.
Mr Snelling, however, said there were no plans to do so at present, but added 'we hear the same rumours you do'.
As for facilities, he said investment is planned in coming years but no major overhaul is envisaged in the 'foreseeable future', following the 2013 refurb.
Sheffield Arena, as it was then known, was run by the promoter Live Nation until 2015, when the owners decided to bring the operation in-house.
But Mr Stokes dismissed any suggestion this had made it harder to book big acts, pointing out that it continues to have a good relationship with the company, for which he previously worked.
He said many promoters enjoy working with an independent firm that is 'part of the community' and can react quickly to the needs of the city it serves.
One challenge is that while shows in Sheffield tend to sell well, Sheffielders apparently tend to leave it later than customers in other cities to buy tickets - not ideal for promoters seeking to recoup the cost of their shows as soon as possible.
But when acts do visit the city, Mr Stokes says it's 'generally known' audiences are among the 'most appreciative' you will find.
"Bands love playing to a Sheffield audience," he adds.
The ever-expanding festival scene is another factor making it harder for all arenas to attract the top acts, but SIV has responded by booking a string of family friendly shows this summer including Cirque du Soleil, PAW Patrol Live! and Walking With Dinosaurs.
Future acts are being planned as far ahead as 2022, though shows have been arranged as little as four weeks before of the performance, and Mr Stokes is confident there are exciting times ahead.
"Based on the known variables, I think we've a good year ahead in store," he said.
"If everything we're talking about for 2019 comes off then it will be a phenomenal year, but there will always be something which somebody wants to see which isn't coming."
HOW THE ARENAS COMPARE
FlyDSA Arena, Sheffield
Pollstar ranking 2017: 38 (456,700 tickets sold)
Big musical acts confirmed for 2018: Sam Smith, The Vamps, Katy Perry, The Human League, Def Leppard
Motorpoint Arena Nottingham
Opened: 2000 (expanded 2011)
Pollstar ranking 2017: 80 (244,462 tickets sold)
Big musical acts confirmed for 2018: Evanescence, Tears for Fears, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, The Vamps, Nickelback, Kylie Minogue, Jeff Lynne's ELO, The Four Tops and The Temptations, Def Leppard
First Direct Arena, Leeds
Pollstar ranking 2017: 13 (678,858 tickets sold)
Big musical acts confirmed for 2018: Gregory Porter, Tears for Fears, Manic Street Preachers, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, Bryan Adams, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Taylor, Kylie Minogue
* this is not a comprehensive list of musical acts and only includes those yet to play this year