2023 Impact 50 Cover Honoree: James Dolan
Executive Chairman & CEO, Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp.; Sphere Entertainment Co.
As Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp., James Dolan is responsible for setting the company’s overall vision and growth strategy, as well as overseeing its operations and multiple venues. He also holds the same roles at Sphere Entertainment, a live entertainment and media company that includes the $2 billion, 20,000-capacity Sphere in Las Vegas, a multi-sensory game-changer that opens Sept. 29 with a U2 residency and the potential to change the course of live entertainment. A visionary and pathfinder in the live entertainment world, James Dolan is Pollstar’s 2023 Impact 50 Cover Q&A.
Venues and the content that fills them are Dolan’s obsession. On the content side, Billy Joel’s “franchise” designation at The Garden via one show per month began on Jan. 27, 2014, and, sidelined only by the pandemic shutdown, has continued selling out forthwith. On the venue side, Dolan spearheaded the restorations of Radio City Music Hall and Beacon Theatre, as well as the acquisition and renovation of the Forum arena in Inglewood, California, which MSG sold in May 2020. Other MSGE venues include the fully renovated Madison Square Garden arena, as well as The Theater at Madison Square Garden and The Chicago Theatre. MSG Entertainment also oversees the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes, a holiday tradition at Radio City Music Hall since 1933.
Dolan may leave his most lasting legacy via his role at Sphere Entertainment Co. The company includes MSG Networks, which operates two regional sports and entertainment networks that deliver a wide range of live sports content and other programming. Along with Sphere in Vegas, other Sphere projects are planned for London and elsewhere.
Dolan also serves as Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden Sports Corp., whose collection of properties includes the New York Knicks (NBA) and New York Rangers (NHL) franchises, both of which made this year’s playoffs.
From a philanthropic perspective, Dolan has led MSG Entertainment’s response to local and national tragedies, playing a principal role in organizing several benefit concerts, including “12-12-12,” which raised more than $50 million for the victims of Hurricane Sandy; “From The Big Apple to The Big Easy,” which raised nearly $9 million for Hurricane Katrina relief; and “The Concert for New York City,” which generated more than $35 million for 9/11 victims and heroes. He also supports the community through the Garden of Dreams Foundation to assist young people in need. Additionally, he is Vice Chairman of the board of the Lustgarten Foundation, an organization he helped found in 1998 and today is the nation’s largest private supporter of pancreatic cancer research.
As an artist himself, fronting the blues/rock band J.D. and the Straight Shot, Dolan understands the artist’s perspective and the enduring power of music. Regarding issues that impact the live sports and entertainment industry like ticketing and the use of technology in his venues, Dolan is fiercely outspoken. Known for a sometimes contentious relationship with the New York press and beyond, he rarely gives interviews. Even as he is charging forward at an intense pace in the ramp-up to Sphere’s fall opening, Dolan took time to speak with Pollstar regarding the state of the industry, the ticketing conundrum and how Sphere may change the world.
POLLSTAR: How is the Sphere project going?
JAMES DOLAN: It’s going well. We’re on schedule and opening at the end of September and planning on going full guns blazing by that point.
People talk a lot about immersive experiences, but nobody has attempted anything like this. Do you think the public has a firm grasp on what this is going to be?
No. Even I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like. I’m sitting here in Burbank where we have basically a one-quarter size version of it and looking at the content and putting the finishing touches. The screen’s getting finished up now. What we’ve seen here is already very impactful and the whole mission of the Sphere is to convince you that you’re not there, that you’re in the Amazon rainforest or on an iceberg in the Arctic, or in India. And we won’t know how good of a job it does until we actually start experiencing it in the Sphere in Vegas itself. But everything tells us that it’s going to be very impactful and that it’s going to create a never before experience for all of our customers. We expect it to become talked about quite a bit.
With U2, you have one of the most creative and visual bands who always push the envelope. With this kind of palette to paint on, it sounds like an unbelievable combination.
I would tell you that Bono is obsessed. He’s fully into it, and I expect they’ll have a long run at the Sphere. We’re all excited about it, that’s for sure.
It’s obviously one of the biggest things that’s happened in live music in a long time, if not ever. Seeing U2 play in a venue capped between 17,600 seated and 20,000 total would be amazing; but with this environment in Las Vegas and the newness of it, my guess is the concept sells itself as a venue.
Yes, that’s our hope. And, really, the Sphere is a very different notion when it comes to a venue. Madison Square Garden is, if not the busiest, one of the busiest venues in the world, and it’s still only busy about two-thirds of the time, about 220 days. We envision the Sphere being busy 360 days a year, and with more than one event a day, up to 500 different events in a year, maybe as many as 600. That completely changes the economic model for venues.
The venue itself is a show, as I understand it, and it takes a band with the balls of a U2 to say, “Bring it.”
Look, most artists are concerned with some of the visuals on their show, but the main event is the music itself, and it still really is. But the Sphere gives the artist a whole other palette to work with in creating the musical experience for their fans. They’ll know the artists by the music, but they’ll also know the artists by the content that they put up on the screen, and how they create emotion and art in a venue like this. It’s a lot different than just a laser show or something like that. For instance, if it was Pink Floyd, they could take you to Pompeii and recreate their Pompeii show right there in the Sphere.
In my view, artists should embrace it as the greatest sound possible and the greatest visuals possible, even if it’s just colors that change, as you say, with the mood.
We do think some artists will gravitate towards it, but as you said, it’s brand new and it takes more of an investment from both the artist and from us to create the show, which is why we’re doing primarily residencies, so we can amortize the content cost. But first and foremost, it’s an artistic challenge, and I can’t think of anybody better than U2 to be the first to undertake that challenge.
You literally couldn’t have picked a better band.
Sometimes I’m not sure whether we picked them, or they picked us.
You have other content that’s announced: “Postcard From Earth.” Is that similar to what you talked about earlier? Once you get it done, you can show that anytime you want.
Yes, that’s one of the pillars of the whole concept of the Sphere, to create this experience that takes advantage of the medium, not just the visual, but the audio, and even things like wind, scent and hot and cold to create an experience that people will come to. The Sphere will be that. It will be concerts; it will also be F1 [Formula 1 racing]; we have a bunch of others that we’re in talks with who are interested in doing things like product presentation. It’s a very versatile venue.
One of the keys is that here in Burbank we make the content. So, you basically come here and design and build your show, and then it plays in the Sphere. We’re constantly working on it to keep the Sphere busy 365 days a year.
I don’t know that everybody understands how big a part of it the production arm of the Sphere is. You’ve really built what looks like an expansive infrastructure on the production side.
Basically, it’s an immersive version of a Hollywood studio.
As far as the other Sphere concepts, anything to say about London or anywhere else?
Too early, still. The point we’re at with the business is we have got to get our product out, people have to see it, and then we’re going to be looking for investors and markets that want to have something like this. There are certainly a lot of candidates, and we are talking to a bunch of them, but our focus right now is to get the product out for people to see it, understand it, and then the investment will come and then we’ll be able to expand the industry.
When you have your proof of concept, the value’s going to explode, is my guess.
From your mouth to God’s ears.
I want to talk about ticketing. You’ve been outspoken on the topic of price gouging, including the panel you did at Pollstar Live! [in February] with you, Irving Azoff, Garth Brooks and Makan Delrahim.
I mean, look, we have an initiative with [fair ticketing] and the goal of the initiative is to put tickets in the hands of people who actually come to the concert, and to the supporting events at the price that either the artist or the team, etc., intended it to be.
We’re pretty religious about that. We’re in playoffs now with both teams [Knicks and Rangers], thank God. And we did an initiative called Fans First, where a fan comes and registers and gets verified as a real fan, not a reseller. They get moved to the front of the line to buy available tickets. We’re oversubscribed on it, and we eliminated about 25% of the applicants who turn out to be bots or resellers. We don’t think we have the problem licked by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re making progress. We have a lot of cooperation from Ticketmaster on this; we couldn’t do it without them. So far, it’s going pretty well.
On that panel, one of your more memorable quotes was, “It’s not a Ticketmaster problem, it’s a gouging problem and that’s what legislators ought to focus on.” It’s clearly what you’re focusing on.
Yes. I don’t think it’s a legislative solution. It’s an operational solution, like the one we’re engaging with now in the playoffs. It’s really ultimately going to be up to the artists, what they want to do. But if they want to put the tickets in the hands of their fans and not have them scalped and price gouged, we have a system they can use. It’s pretty effective. Then there won’t be any need for legislation.
I bet the atmosphere is just off the chain at The Garden with both teams in the playoffs.
I would say the teams have taken over the city. Now, we need them to get to the second round. That’s what we’re focused on now. We have a good shot.
And you have the third franchise, Billy Joel, he charges onward. Has that played out the way you guys had hoped?
It certainly exceeded everybody’s expectations. There’s never been a franchise like that before. He’s going on 10 years of straight run. It’s similar to what you have in Nashville, almost like the Grand Ole Opry of rock ’n’ roll, except there’s only one artist.
Seeing him in New York in that venue, it’s special.
I’ve been to a lot of them, and they’re always fun. Of course, the music is great, but it’s just unbelievable how the marketplace has latched on to that and continues to come and have a great time.
You are on the forward edge of a general trend toward residencies, beyond multiples, into extended runs. But you always had them at The Beacon with The Allman Brothers Band, of course, and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. But then you got the Billy thing, you got what Harry Styles did. Then look out west in Vegas and U2, and as you say, it’s basically a residency model for art and music. Do you think that’s a trend that will continue?
I do. The economics around a national or worldwide tour are pretty different than a residency. With the residency, the artist doesn’t have to get into a bus, or load up 16 trucks and keep going every day. If you’re the kind of artist that has that kind of demand in the marketplace, taking advantage of it with a residency makes all the sense in the world.
Do you think it’s just for markets like New York and Vegas?
No, no. I think actually Nashville is a great place to do residencies. I don’t own anything in Nashville, but that marketplace, if you’re in country music or close to that kind of genre, you should be able to play that market over and over, because it’s a big enough market and there’s enough fans there that you should be able to do multiple shows.
Any general thoughts on business at The Beacon, Radio City, The Chicago Theatre or the smaller venues?
Business is actually pretty healthy. When we were getting out of COVID, having two years of no shows, I think that it created a pent-up demand that we’re still working our way through. And it looks like it’s continuing to grow. I think the live business is a very healthy business. Just take a look at our culture. So much occurs through your phone and through your screen and virtually, but there is nothing like live. I think that the marketplace recognizes that, and demand is continuing to grow. So that’s good news.
You’re a music guy, what are your thoughts on the state of music and artist development and the talent rolling through your venues?
Well, it’s changing a little bit. There still is a very healthy fanbase for things like country and classic rock ’n’ roll, and all of that. But we are starting to see a lot more artists coming out of the social media area that are selling out places like The Garden, and I expect that to continue to grow.
As an artist, to be honest, it’s still tough to break in. It’s still tough to make it now, and it’s not a straight line, and the rules are changing.
Back in the old days, it was get on the radio, sell records, etc. Now, it’s how many clicks do you have? How many followers do you have? So that’s changed. But the love of music hasn’t changed. It’s just different music, and the way people are learning about it and becoming fans, etc., that’s changed. That’s more reflective of today’s culture, where so much is social media versus things like radio.
It’s created this weird dynamic where you had artists blow up during the shutdown and so they come out and they can sell a lot of tickets, but they’ve never even toured, so there’s a big learning curve right out the box. Sometimes maybe they shouldn’t play The Garden, even though they could sell it out.
Well, definitely in my experience, you just don’t go out and do a tour if you’ve never done it before. But there will be artists that will be good at it, and there’ll be artists that won’t be. I think it’s interesting, and how they relate to their fans, etc., is different too. But I think it’s all still healthy.
Anything going on with the band?
Nah. Until I get this thing open and going, we’re on hiatus. We stopped playing when COVID hit. But we’ll get back together again. I still have a desire to write, I just need to get this project done with.