East of the M60 asks, “Is Town not big enough for both of them?”
Manchester’s credentials as a musical centre of the universe is unimpeachable, though it is a claim that could be disputed by our friends in Liverpool. For many listeners, Liverpool is associated with The Beatles, the muse for Burnage’s finest musical export. Greater Manchester could also claim The Hallé Orchestra as well as Oasis, New Order and Stalybridge Old Band (the oldest brass band in the world, no less).
Both cities have nurtured its musicians in small venues – many of which under threat before the lockdown as well as during the lockdown. Music venues and theatres would be the last places to reopen as we try to contain the COVID-19 virus.
Before the lockdown begun, there was talk of Manchester having a second indoor arena. Since 1995, the Manchester Arena (née NYNEX Arena) took over from The G-MEX as Manchester’s premier live music venue. Its opening coincided with the Hallé Orchestra’s move to The Bridgewater Hall and the Free Trade Hall ceasing to be a live music venue. By 1995, the New Century Hall had ceased to attract chart-topping acts.
What the New Century Hall had was a decent location: easy to get to on public transport. The NYNEX Arena surpassed that – building over a sizeable chunk of Manchester Victoria station. There was two other things that made the indoor arena possible: an Olympic Bid, and the decline of Manchester Victoria railway station as a principal station.
As part of the 2000 Olympic Bid, it was envisaged that the NYNEX/MEN/Phones 4U/Manchester Arena would be an indoor sports venue. Another part of the plan, mercifully scrapped was Vector Arena Tower. Vector Arena Tower, a perpendicular Toblerone shaped structure, would have had 46 storeys. It would have been close to the Metrolink platforms with space for a hotel.
Prior to recent times (well into Arriva’s tenure of the Northern franchise!), a Regional Railways poster at Manchester Victoria station showed us how it may have looked in 2000. Platforms 1 and 2, and the Metrolink platforms would have been open to the elements. Vector Arena Tower would have been close to where today’s rail replacement buses pick up and drop off.
In the last 25 years, the Manchester Arena has brought many music lovers into the centre of Manchester. For a time, ice hockey could have been Manchester’s other favourite sport, when Manchester Storm used to get 15,000 gates. It was known as the Storm Shelter by its fans and the team’s biggest rivals was the Sheffield Steelers. The Manchester Giants also had an upturn in fortunes when they moved to the NYNEX Arena.
Completing the arena’s music and sport crossover to the picture is Mike Shaft. The BBC Radio Manchester presenter is known for his love of basketball as well as DJing. In the last few days, Manchester Giants have returned to their home city, at the National Basketball Performance Centre in Belle Vue. Which is a little ironic as prior to the opening of the G-MEX, Belle Vue’s King’s Hall was another notable venue for chart-topping acts.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the musical balance of power could be moving east. In the red corner, after 25 years in the city, we have the incumbent Manchester Arena. In the blue corner, we have a possible new arena, just off Alan Turing Way. ASM Global’s offensive is a comprehensive refurbishment of the Manchester Arena with improved access from Manchester Victoria station’s forecourt. As for the new arena, proposals submitted by Oak View Group would see a 23,500 seat venue with – in their words – superior acoustics.
So far, the following cities which have two arenas include Birmingham (Arena Birmingham and Resorts World Arena), Columbus (Nationwide and Value City arenas), Dubai (Coca Cola Arena and Hamdan Sports Complex), London (SSE Arena and O2 Arena) and Melbourne (Marvel Stadium and Rod Laver Arena). Beijing and Shanghai have three each.
At one time, London also had the Docklands Arena and Earls Court. Like Manchester, it isn’t short of comparatively smaller venues like the Royal Albert Hall. Two arenas in Manchester could mean a total seating capacity of 44,500: almost the same as Old Trafford in its all-seated form before the North Stand was extended upwards.
Supposing the Etihad Arena (for want of a working title) runs in tandem with the Manchester Arena, there are a few things that could sway concertgoers to any of the venues. One would be the kind of musical acts or sports event that each venue attracts. Another could be the acoustics, a quibble among some visitors to the Manchester Arena. A third one could be the ambience (legroom, concourse facilities, the price of a pint).
In the last decade, it hasn’t been unusual for there to be a major concert at the Manchester Arena and the Etihad Stadium over the same weekend. The cost of which is congestion to the two venues, though this has been far outweighed by economic benefits. That of tourism to Manchester city centre, vacancies (or lack of them) in hotel rooms, and increased patronage on our trams and trains.
A second arena and a third gig at the Etihad Stadium the very same weekend would be a game changer for music lovers with cash to burn. Imagine a scenario where Genesis could be doing the Manchester Arena at exactly the same weekend as an Ed Sheeran gig at the Etihad Stadium, and a Disney on Ice display at the new arena.
With two arenas, there’s half a chance that two competing arena operators will try and outdo each other. Unless the King’s Hall rises from the ashes, Manchester Arena could claim to be “The Original and the Best”, and boast about its transport links. Not least the unique selling point of actually being in ‘Town’.
The Etihad Arena could trumpet its improved acoustics. Its transport links wouldn’t be too shabby either, thanks to the Metrolink and 216 bus route. There may be a case for boosting the 53 route. If a concert takes place on the same weekend as a Manchester City home match, this allows for another entertainment option. More so than previous plans to have a super casino near the ground.
The case for…
The Etihad Arena
Etihad Arena would be part of the Etihad Campus’ wider vision to make SportCity a place to enjoy for more than two to three hours a fortnight. Over a given weekend, it could be possible to watch City, the City ladies’ team, do a bit of shopping and see your favourite singer.
The proposed site off Alan Turing Way would see the arena on one of the car parks off Joe Mercer Way. It would also be framed by the Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyne Canal and the East Manchester Metrolink line. There will also be shops, giving the arena some rental income between shows.
Some music lovers may be a little apprehensive about crossing the city centre, and the Etihad Arena could be a useful alternative to the Manchester Arena. If you are coming in from Tameside, the journey could be more affordable, whether you choose the 216 or the tram or a taxi. You could also break your journey in Droylsden before continuing to Etihad Campus or Velopark. Given the popularity of Manchester City Football Club in the borough, a logical step for its supporters.
Though the Etihad Arena might be better for Tameside music lovers, the journey on public transport may be a bit more finicky for Bolton and Wigan music lovers. The Manchester Arena serves them better due to its direct train links. Though not perfect, there is less hassle in transferring from a Clitheroe train to seeing Jeff Lynne sing Last Train to London.
One other thing that favours a case for the Etihad Arena is the state of Manchester Victoria station. Back in 1995, it was a different beast that had fallen from grace as a mainline station. Declining traffic levels justified the realignment of its through platforms which saw the closure of two through platforms and a westbound bay platform.
25 years on, before the lockdown began, increased patronage justified the means for increasing Victoria’s through platforms. Without expensive tunnelling work, the demolition of Manchester Arena could be inevitable. Should the latter happen, the Etihad Arena could become its replacement.
The Manchester Arena
Alongside the Bridgewater Hall, Palace and Opera House theatres, The Ritz, and The Apollo, the Manchester Arena has cemented its place as an iconic music venue. Its central position and public transport access makes it a winner among concertgoers. In its 25 years existence, it has had a fairly eventful history. It has seen several happier times with records broken for attendance figures with Manchester Giants and Manchester Storm. In the box office department, Peter Kay’s gigs have broken records.
As connections go, the Manchester Arena has better links with the rest of the North West of England than a possible arena in East Manchester. From Southport, Preston, Bolton and Wigan, there is no need to change modes to get to Manchester Arena. A train all the way would do. Anybody with a Key Stage 2 knowledge of Greater Manchester rail operations would know that Manchester Arena is the reason for Manchester Victoria’s dingy through platforms!
For some concertgoers, being able to shop in Manchester Arndale or eat in the city centre is part and parcel of the concert-going experience. The shops and restaurants being an easy walk away is a great selling point. It is this experience which you would lose with an out-of-town arena.
Its central position makes it a worthwhile proposition for continued investment. Any uplift in seating, concourses and acoustic tweaks would be attractive for returning visitors and the wider economy of city centre Manchester. Especially new converts as well as the converted (the music lovers who went to see Take That in their teens, who have taken their children to see a Disney spectacular).
The case against…
The Etihad Arena
Finickier bus, train and tram connections parts of Greater Manchester outside Tameside could stifle The Etihad Arena’s progress. If you are familiar with the state of Ashton New Road when Manchester City are at home, you would fully understand this yourself. Though the Etihad Arena would have good connections from Droylsden and Ashton-under-Lyne, the case is less so from Leigh and Ashton-in-Makerfield.
For The Etihad Arena to work, you would need to consider extensive infrastructure improvements for bus and train passengers. With the former, this is impossible under a deregulated system. With a franchised network (or even an Ambitious Partnership), you could consider running a network of concert buses. One along the same lines as the 2002 Commonwealth Games shuttle buses.
Another idea could be the building of an Etihad Campus railway station along the line from Ashburys to Park. This could come into its own on matchdays as well as concert nights. Subject to track access issues, you could have a shuttle service from Bolton to Rose Hill Marple (via Manchester Victoria). Additional stops could be created at Salford Crescent, Etihad Campus Interchange (train and tram), Ashburys, Bredbury, and Romiley.
Economically, the Etihad Arena could abstract revenue from Manchester Arena and both venues could lose out. From the Manchester Together website, ASM Events’ pro-Manchester Arena microsite, it rebuffs Oak View Group’s claims that two arenas could coexist in perfect harmony.
Oak View Group says there’s a case for Manchester having two arenas, citing Birmingham as a precedent. Both arenas in Birmingham have fewer seats than the Manchester Arena and are several miles apart. Its second arena, part of the Birmingham NEC is closer to Solihull than Birmingham city centre. In terms of equivalent distance in Greater Manchester, this would be like having a second 15,000 seat arena in Stalybridge.
The Manchester Together site disputes Oak View Group’s claims over capacity issues. In its infographic, Manchester has the highest number of arena seats per thousand people in the UK with the Manchester Arena alone. Better than London, Birmingham, Leeds and Cardiff.
The Manchester Arena
In spite of its convenience and central location, it could be argued that the Manchester Arena is a victim of its own success. Some may argue that it puts unnecessary pressure on the city’s congestion. Yet it is easy to get to on public and private transport from most parts of Greater Manchester.
When Manchester Arena came into being, its original blueprint was a multipurpose venue for sport and live music. High rents at the arena saw Manchester Giants move to the Velodrome before going bust and reforming in Urmston. For similar reasons, Manchester Storm moved to Altrincham. For most of its 25 years, Manchester Arena has been noted for live music and comedy gigs.
The Etihad Arena could be a suitable successor. According to an article in Sports Venue Business magazine Oak View Group’s proposals aims to boost the local economy by paying its employees the proper National Living Wage or better. It also states that 40% of journeys to the Etihad Stadium are made by public transport, bicycle and foot.
With 40% of journeys to the Etihad Stadium being taken on modes other than private cars, the need to build a new Etihad Campus railway station could be a good thing. As would boosting the 53 route’s frequencies and creating a network of concert buses.
On that note, if Manchester Arena was succeeded by the Etihad Arena, the perennial headache of increasing capacity at Manchester Victoria station could be resolved. Passengers using platforms 3 to 6 could, finally, see some daylight. A campaign for Manchester Piccadilly’s 15th and 16th platforms could be joined by one for Manchester Victoria’s 7th and 8th platforms (and a 9th westbound bay platform).
If Manchester Arena was to make way for enhancements at Manchester Victoria station, some music lovers wouldn’t mind a high quality successor. Whether in Bradford, Belle Vue or Bolton, the choice of arena might come a close second to the artist they have paid good money to see.
My ‘Manchester is the First City In The UK Above Sheffield And London’ head wouldn’t mind seeing two 20,000+ seat arenas in Greater Manchester. Wearing my Tameside hat, I would happily support the Etihad Arena due to its more convenient journey by tram and bus from Ashton-under-Lyne. If I need to take the train or lived a tram ride away in Oldham, I would prefer to keep the Manchester Arena.
Whether Greater Manchester has one, two (or even three!) 20,000+ seat arenas, the public and private transport offer needs to be good enough to win converts as well as regulars. If we wish to cut private car traffic levels and encourage cycling or public transport use, we need to make things easier for music lovers. Why can’t concert tickets include VIP access to your own cycle locker (possibly with a gold star on the locker)?
What about the waiving of booking fees in favour of a bus, train or tram add-on element to your concert ticket (as seen in mainland Europe with top flight football matches)? In today’s increasingly interconnected age, there should be some way of scanning your concert ticket onto a Metrolink card reader, whether on paper or through your smartphone.
If Oak View Group’s plans come to fruition, the two venues could coexist – albeit for a brief period. I could see the Etihad Arena outliving the Manchester Arena as it would form part of an important sports and leisure complex. A 21st century answer to Belle Vue, where the 23,500 indoor arena could come into its own for tennis tournaments as well as Ed Sheeran concerts or Britain’s Got Talent.
Before I go…
Do you think Manchester can support two 20,000+ seat arenas? Would you happily support a new second arena with improved acoustics, or is it a case of Kylie Minogue’s Number Two hit from 1990? Would you go to any of them? Feel free to comment.
S.V., 28 July 2020.
Manchester Arena image by Matthew Hartley, 2012. (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 2.0).