Executive Profile: Sean Saadeh

Even though the Barclays Center in Brooklyn is less than three years old, it’s made itself one of the highest-profile venues in the country, garnering national press, international television exposure, landmark performances and several awards.

Being on the cover of Pollstar’s latest Venue Directory is almost an afterthought compared with so much attention, but it does have two awards from Pollstar it can add to its shelf: Best New Venue followed by Arena of the Year.

The $5 billion arena was conceived by developer Bruce Ratner in 2004. When it came to fruition it was principally to be the home of the New Jersey Nets, which then had a high-profile co-owner in Jay Z.  The 19,000-capacity building, near the Atlantic Yards subway station, is owned by Mikhail Prokhorov’s American holdings, as is the Brooklyn Nets.  The principal word was sports – music and conventions would fill up the nights when the Nets didn’t play. Filling an arena that doesn’t have an anchor sports team is hard enough, and it’s even tougher to book around one. Imagine booking it in the nation’s most competitive market, with four similar-sized arenas in the same area.

Yet, as the new-car smell has wafted away from the venue, Barclays has proved to be a music home for New Yorkers, either from Brooklyn or visiting via the subway. It has made local food a staple of its concessions and covered the building in WiFi access. Plus, the staff has been trained by Disney for customer service. 

The building kicked off with sold-out performances by Jay Z and will soon see multiple nights by “Walking With Dinosaurs,” Katy Perry, “Marvel Universe Live” and Arcade Fire.  The promised “Atlantic Yards” project that is to surround it – and what caused local dissonance – is still in the planning stages.

Sean Saadeh has been senior VP of programming since February 2011, before the building had a roof. Saadeh was brought in from Phoenix, where he was executive director of booking at Jobing.com Arena and, before that, director of booking at the San Diego Sports Arena. Saadeh talked to us about his background, Barclays’ amenities and its future.

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How did you get involved in the business?  A lot of people go all the way back to their high school days to answer this question.

It kind of did start back in high school. I wasn’t much of a concertgoer but I did enjoy music back in my day. I started getting into it back in the fourth or fifth grade and all through junior high but I didn’t go to many concerts. In fact I think my first concert was in high school and it was Billy Joel at the San Diego Sports Arena.

I went with some friends from high school. I just remember going to that show and being so inspired by the live music experience. I loved it.  But I always had a great interest in sports. I played sports through my younger years, back to 5 years old playing soccer. In high school I played football, basketball and golf. I went to Chargers and Padres games, and San Diego soccer games at the sports arena.

I want to say it was around 1989 or 1990.

 But you went to Billy Joel in the late ’80s, in high school. Weren’t you supposed to be into Nirvana or something? Your friends didn’t tease you?

No! Because I went with my friends. We were all into it. We were into a lot of different music. My taste in music was wide. I loved everything from classic rock to grunge to some heavy metal to some of the pop stuff. And my dad used to listen to oldies in the car. I have a very diverse taste palate.

I think that’s what drew me into the facilities business – there is so much variety at the arena level. It’s not just a particular genre of music or particular type of event. My job changes day to day. One day it’s a concert and the next day a sporting event to a family show. 

So how does that translate to a job?

From my first experience there was this underlying interest but I didn’t really do anything with it. I went to Santa Clara University where I was a marketing major and communications minor.

After graduation I went to work for a nonprofit in marketing. I felt great about it because a lot of my friends didn’t have jobs. I did that for about a year and realized, boy, this was not something I would want to do long term. So I picked up the phone and talked to Ernie Hahn, who was GM at the San Diego Sports Arena.

We had gone through similar pasts. Ernie had gone to my high school. He was a few years older than I was so we hadn’t come into contact. And we went to Santa Clara, too. But we were family friends. Our fathers knew each other better but there was a connection there. In fact we had a conversation about working at the San Diego Sports Arena when we did a father/son golf trip in Scotland. We were walking down the fairway and I said, “Look, I’ll do whatever I need to do to come work for you. I’ll be an usher, I’ll be a ticket taker. I’ll clean the bathrooms if you need me. I just want to get into the business.”

At the time he didn’t have anything for me but we kept in touch. He knew I’d come and work hard for him and that was a key in him deciding. It worked out really well for both of us.

Not too long afterward he invited me and said, “Look, I would love for you to come in and be a booking assistant.”

 What does that mean?

At the time it was about placing holds on the calendar, following up on phone calls, making sure Ernie got on the phone with the right people, making sure contracts got out on booked shows. It was really sort of organizing the programming department.

But, also, my job was to be a sponge. And 18 years later I still feel that way. I feel like I need to be a student of my craft. I’ve learned a lot from the nine years at the San Diego Sports Arena because I knew from day one that I had to learn as much as I could. So I got to give props to Ernie. He introduced me to people. I went to conferences with him. He let me sit in on calls with clients, and I quickly learned who the players were, whom I needed to speak with, and I developed my own relationships over time.

Today, those relationships still resonate in my business. What we do day-in and day-out is about relationships.

As I grew my title grew. I became a coordinator, then a manager, then a director. Duties started to grow as well. I was able to learn the programming side, howto get the shows into the building, ticketing, production. I learned about ushers, ticket takers, the management, staffing. That was a prerequisite for when I was going to work for the Coyotes in Phoenix and then, obviously, here in Brooklyn.

So you went to Phoenix

I came there in 2006, right after the hockey lockout. The team had moved to Glendale and I worked for Glendale Arena. It became Jobing.com Arena. I was there until March of 2011.

 What came first – the opportunity in Brooklyn or a desire to be on the East Coast?

My career was always about growth, about the next steps. This is only my third job in the facility business. A lot of people have had five or six jobs at my point. It tends to be that way.

I always like completing my personal journey at each of the places I’ve worked. In San Diego it was about learning as much as I could. Phoenix was a great step for me because I could develop my own programming department from scratch, and since the building was only a year old and the team was coming out of a lockout. It was a blank slate. My goal was to set forth the programming strategy for that facility in a really competitive market. There are two arenas, two stadiums. There were the Suns and the Diamondbacks downtown, and the Cardinals and Coyotes were out in Glendale. I needed to come up with the right strategy to keep us busy.

And our strategy in Phoenix was to be a concert venue. I focused on that and we had some great successes. After Phoenix I started to get the itch to do something different. And the next step was, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great to open up a building? I’ve never done that before.’  

I worked with minor sports in San Diego, with the NHL in Phoenix and now there’s this great team moving from New Jersey into Brooklyn, with a great facility. I thought that was very intriguing. I. My family was behind me. They were supportive of the move and I was lucky enough to get the job.

What do you think got you the job?

I think what they liked most about me was my competitive nature. I’ve always worked in a competitive market, even in San Diego. We had the venue out at San Diego State, Cox Arena – called Viejas Arena now. We competed with them. We competed with an amphitheatre. In Phoenix there were two major arenas in the marketplace. And New York is obviously the most competitive market in the U.S. with five arenas including Barclays. I think it was the competitive nature that I have. I like to win!

  But you have said that there is enough populace in Brooklyn, and enough transportation through the subway, that you can draw from the neighborhood.

No doubt about that. But when you have five venues of similar size and the artists are deciding where they’re going to go, you want to make sure you get a date! So you have to be aggressive and continue to be relevant and that you continue to communicate with your relationships so that you’re in a good position to get a date.

Let’s face it: There are only a few artists that can play all five buildings. There’s an expectation that I have to continue to push Brooklyn and what we have to offer and then, when we get the show, it’s about making sure the artists and their people have a great experience here.

  So what do you push to draw an artist and what do artists like that make them come back?

I think the experience at Barclays Center is unique. I think our building has a great feel. It’s a large facility but it feels intimate. We get a lot of comments about that. “Boy, I feel like I’m in a theatre but I’m not.”

But it’s also the little things. It’s our back of house experience. We have a specific person that we work with that provides a great back of house experience, whether it be gifting for the artist or a point person for the friends of family/hospitality area, whether it be a point person for the dressing room experience for the artist. It’s about making sure that our back of house clientele is happy as soon as they walk off that bus and enter our building.

For one day, it’s their home away from home, and we provide them the best customer service from security to our point person. I think that’s the difference. We spend a lot of time making sure that experience is done properly. I’m happy the artist enjoys the intimacy of the building but it’s other things too.

And then I think a bit of it is Brooklyn. It’s a very cool place and it resonates with artists. I think they get excited to play to a Brooklyn crowd. A lot of times it’s a special night: It’s New York. It’s Brooklyn. It’s friends and family. It’s a big moment.

  Some back-of-house areas have things like, oh, a bar or a massage room or a game room.

I think our focus is a little different. I think it’s about making sure they feel special and it’s more from the personnel standpoint.

For example, our security. They’re very friendly when you walk in. We take pride in that. All of them have gone through Disney training.

It’s our food offerings. We like to have the best quality food. We don’t really have a game room but we do have great customer service, great food, a point person who can talk to them and make sure the dressing room experience is the right one.

An artist is in the dressing room and not venturing around the arena. It’s not about providing them with a room that has a cool game room feel. I love that but it doesn’t necessarily give them the best experience.

So you’re working harder to get country music to Barclays?

We’ve had some amazing shows come through but we haven’t had a country show yet. It’s something we’re really focused on right now. I think it’s going to be a huge hit. You don’t necessarily correlate Brooklyn and country, but the reality is New York is a huge country market and we think Brooklyn has great potential. We just need to get one under our belt.

And since we’ve been in Nashville (at Pollstar Live) I think we’ve made some great headway. We’re going to be on par to hopefully land a couple of these country shows toward the end of 2014 and into 2015.

  So why would you say Brooklyn would be a country music destination?

We have 385 country bars in Brooklyn. The country fan doesn’t have to look stereotypical. There are fans everywhere. We just did the Avett Brothers. It’s not country but it has some crossover and we sold out the show, so I say country music has legs here. And now that we have a country music station in New York, it only adds to our ability to be successful.

  How do you know there are 385 country bars? Did somebody just drive around and count them?

We have a research department that researched how many country bars are here. That might mean country programming on a particular night or something like that, but that’s what our research came back with.

  Can you discuss your Cushman & Wakefield Theatre configuration?

It’s a curtaining system that basically gets you to 5,000 capacity. You take an intimate venue like Barclays Center and you make it more intimate. There is nothing like its size in any part of Brooklyn. It satisfies an underserved capacity. It also fulfills an option for artists that may not necessarily want to play Radio City or Theatre at the Garden or other larger theatres in the area.

We’ve done Kid Cudi in that setup. We have an artist called Ennio Morricone and Yanni coming up. We’ve had some Caribbean and Latin shows that way.

  What about boxing events?

We’re able to drop a curtain, put a ring on the floor and achieve a more intimate feel.

  You’ve hosted awards shows.

We did the VMAs in our first year. That was an amazing event for us and I think we had great ratings. It was an amazing moment because it kicked us off with an awards show, which I think will be a big part of our platform, and we were also aired in 80-plus countries and even to this day they’re talking about some of the performances. We landed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, which will be here April 10 and aired on HBO, and our focus is on adding more. It’s hard to do multiples in one year. We’re looking for one a year. 

  Any favorite moments?

There are so many.  The VMAs were great. Jay Z is our local guy, and for him to open the building with eight sold-out shows was a great moment. Barbra Streisand coming back home, playing for the first time since a little girl in Brooklyn. Billy Joel on this last New Year’s Eve after not playing a full-fledged show since 2006. Five sold-out Beyoncé shows last August and September. Two sold-out shows of Pearl Jam, of Mumford & Sons. In general, our indie show success has been amazing. Two shows of Postal Service, and like The National and MGMT doing great business.

  What went beyond even your expectations?

I hate to say it this way but we’ve had so much success it’s hard to say I was surprised by one. But I will say I am so surprised by how wide we can go with music today. Acts that are really playing theatre-level rooms are able to play Brooklyn and do arena business. To me that was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t think we’d have that many artists out there that would literally be playing 2,500-seat rooms jumping into Barclays Center a short time later.

  What’s coming up for 2014?

I’m excited about Black Sabbath (March 31) and the Miley Cyrus show in April. Cher’s coming through. We have Morrissey and Avicii, and two sold-out Katy Perry shows. I’m equally excited about three Arcade Fire shows in August. And we’ve got more to announce as we look into fall, the busiest time of our year. 

  Of all of the shows, which one had the most people calling you for tickets?

Pearl Jam. I got so many calls from people saying, “Hey! I haven’t heard from you for a while. And can I get some tickets?”  But who knows? Maybe people refrained from calling about the VMAs because they knew I couldn’t help out with that. Pearl Jam doesn’t surprise me though. They’re an amazing band and all my friends are still fans.

  So what’s this “sound concierge” feature at Barclays?

Much like the back-of-house experience, we have a sound concierge that focuses on making sure that the sound within the building is top notch. The gentleman focuses on that before the show comes in. We do a bit of advance with the tour so we’re using optimal levels. We think it’s important for the bands but also so the fans know a Barclays show will be the best.

  How did this happen?

We just decided we want to provide a premium brand to our clientele. Why not sound? It’s not farfetched to have a great sound experience, right? If we make sure everybody gets greeted, why not make sure everything is great with acoustics?

  Can you elaborate on the Disney training program?

We made an investment prior to opening that we would have all of our staff trained by Disney. We came up with our own mission statement and followed it to a T.  Seventy-five percent of our part-time staff come from Brooklyn and, along with the Disney Institute, it makes for a nice mix. Again, it’s a bunch of little things that make for a great experience. It’s ease of getting to the venue, being greeted, having great food, having great sound. There’s a pattern here, right? That’s what makes them want to come back. And in the end we fill more seats and the artists are more successful. 

  Anything else?

We made sure we had the right technology. Web access so patrons can research the artist while sitting in their seats waiting for the show to start. And it’s high-speed, with enough bandwidth to cover 15,000 people. We have the mobile app so they can see who’s coming to the building.

  One last thing. Tyler Bates is in a lot of the photos we’re running. Can you speak to him?

Tyler Bates is my director of booking and he came in a few months before we opened. He’s my right-hand guy as it relates to programming the building. He really handles the day-to-day booking of the facility where I’m focused more on our “big moments” annually, whether it be New Year’s Eve or our Sept. 28 anniversary event, and I may have some relations that he may not have. But on the day-to-day, he’s really focused on the booking and he’s a big part of our success here at Barclays.

See Also: Executive Profiles Archive