Perhaps there was never much doubt as to which act would be the first to take the stage inside Sphere.
U2 has been willing to push the envelope of how live music can be experienced for more than 30 years. After spending most of the 1980s with austere and simple stage set-ups — a reaction to the excesses of the decade — they launched the “Zoo TV Tour” in 1992. For the tour, Bono said explicitly that the band wanted to overload the senses of their audience with flashing lights, dozens of video screens, interpolated audio clips, Eastern European Trabants and, for some reason, a belly dancer.
Derided by some as self-serious and bleak, U2 leaned hard into the other direction; at a time when grunge was on the rise and earnestness was returning, the world’s most earnest band went wacky.
The band continued to innovate — there was “PopMart Tour”’s expansive LED screen, “The Claw” from U2’s record-setting “360° Tour”, the venue-spanning stage of “Innocence + Experience Tour,” the augmented reality features of “Experience + Innocence.”
This isn’t a band afraid to take chances.
“U2 has always been on the forefront, been progressive, challenged all the lines, so what better act to open the venue that’s unlike anything else,” Josephine Vaccarello, MSG’s executive vice-president for live, says.
“They’ve always been on the forefront of new technology and they have this ability to merge the show with the music and create a connection with the fans,” long-time promoter Arthur Fogel, Live Nation’s president of global touring and chairman of concerts, tells Pollstar. “Over the course of their career, they’ve taken that approach successfully. Sphere presents the next generation of that. It’s a new unique building with cutting-edge technology — audio and visual — and the band embraced that challenge and opportunity.”
Because of that love of innovation, Vaccarello said it came together pretty quickly — the show is a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Achtung Baby, the band’s 1991 foray into postmodernism with the help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, which was postponed two years because of construction and pandemic-related delays.
“It started with Jim (Dolan) and the band,” she says. “They were quickly on board.”
No doubt, U2 had their eyes on their own history and the parallels at play. The then-techno-futurist-overload of the “Zoo TV Tour” was the band’s first tour after releasing Achtung Baby. It’s appropriate the album’s anniversary celebration will be staged at the most advanced venue available.
“Sometimes I’m not sure whether we picked them, or they picked us,” James Dolan, Executive Chairman & CEO, MSG Ent. Corp. and Sphere Entertainment Co., told Pollstar in May. “I would tell you that Bono is obsessed. He’s fully into it…We’re all excited about it, that’s for sure.”
And so are the multi-millions of U2 fans, who have helped make the band one of the greatest draws of all time. As Pollstar’s Artist of the Decade in 2019, U2 grossed $1.038 billion and sold 9,300,500 tickets on 255 shows. Their presence in Pollstar can be tracked back to November 1981 with a concert at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre, the first show in our archives headlined by the band. Since then, over $2.1 billion in box-office grosses have been reported from more than 800 performances at venues around the globe. Over 26 million tickets have been sold on 13 tours since that 1981 performance that came during the group’s “October Tour.” But perhaps the historical highlight of U2’s career came in 2011 when the band’s “360°” stadium tour set a record as the highest-grossing tour of all time – a record they held for more than eight years – based on a $735 million box-office haul from 7.3 million tickets during the tour’s almost two-year span.
Part of their continued appeal, certainly, is their ability to reinvent themselves both live and on record, which makes them the ideal act to debut Sphere, yes, but there’s something else, too. Bono et al. are also aware of the power of a symbol. And in addition to everything else it is, the sphere — and Sphere — is a powerful one. It is not a mere shape. The sphere is fundamental and elemental to the way human beings have understood the universe for millennia.
Plato — and generations of smarties after him — posited the entire universe was spherical, the shape the only one capable of containing and managing all of existence and rendering it beautiful.
If that’s not a weighty enough legacy to bear, Sphere adjacent to the Venetian Resort, set for its U2-marshaled debut Sept. 29 in Las Vegas, also carries the burden of James Dolan’s expansive vision which he had back in 2016, just after MSG sold Cablevision.
In his office, in the afterglow of the aforementioned sale, Dolan turned to David Dibble, who had been the chief technology officer at Cablevision, and said, something to the effect of, “Dibble, let’s reinvent live entertainment.”
Live entertainment having been part of the human experience nearly as long as spheres, this was no picayune pursuit.
Dibble, always up for a challenge, was game.
“I said, ‘Okay, well let’s talk about that nice thick idea.’ We were in there for probably four hours, just the two of us in a very animated conversation,” Dibble tells Pollstar.
As the Manhattan night stretched into the early morning, the inherent tension between Dolan — the starry-eyed ideas man, the effusive and visionary scion of a powerful New York family — and Dibble — a technological wiz who, nevertheless, can’t quite shake some aspects of his Kansas roots, like earthy practicality and keeping farmers’ hours — reared its head.
In short, the city-dwelling night owl had ensnared and outlasted the early-rising country mouse.
But Dibble was, nevertheless, ensorcelled. Dolan took out a pad, drew a perfect circle with a stick figure standing on its notional stage.
And Dolan had a name for it: “MSG Globe.”
Dibble wasn’t so keen on the name, advising Dolan that even an idea so different from anything that had ever come before, even one that would “reinvent live entertainment” had to have enough respect not to steal the name of Shakespeare’s joint.
So it became Sphere and the circle Dolan drew is now 366 feet high — 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty — and the little stick figure is Bono.
To put it mildly, that oversimplifies Sphere’s story just a skosh, because a lot happened between Dolan’s hand-drawn, half-formed, wee-small-hours stargazing proposal to Dibble and the grand opening of the world’s largest spherical building — a surrealist architectural icon dominating the western skyline of a city already chockablock with surrealist architectural icons and a new performance venue in a city that’s famous for them; indeed, Las Vegas was No. 2 in Pollstar’s most recent market rankings, and topped the chart the year before.
Sure, there are the big world-changing, economy-roiling events we all experienced together. When MSG broke ground in 2018, the idea was that the Populous-designed venue would open in 2021 at a projected cost of $1.2 billion.
Things were going well. The world’s fourth-largest crane arrived from Belgium in February 2020 and by mid-March, crews had reached Sphere’s widest point — 516 feet at the sixth level.
Of course, by April 2020, everything had stopped.
All construction ceased until August. The grand opening was pushed until 2023. Costs kept rising. Inflationary pressure and the supply-chain squeeze — exponentially taxing on a project with a 10,000-ton domed roof held up by 32 100-ton trusses and covered in 3,000 tons of steel and filled with 6,000 cubic yards of concrete — plus upgrades to the guest experience pushed the final cost to an estimated $2.3 billion, according to Sphere Entertainment corporate earnings reports.
It’s the most expensive construction project in Las Vegas history. It will be able to seat 17,600 people and up to 20,000 standing. Roughly two-thirds of the floor is seating with the rest taken up by the stage. There are 23 suites within Sphere.
Will it pay off?
It may take a while: the average ticket price for the Sept. 29 U2 debut at which tickets were priced $140.13 to $501.34 is around $390. At 20,000 capacity, a back-of-the-napkin estimate puts that gross at $7.8 million conservatively, without factoring in suites, premium packages and the effects of dynamic pricing, and later shows are already showing higher prices.
The size is staggering, but spherical buildings aren’t new and they aren’t an engineering challenge, per se.
“A spherical structure is incredibly efficient from a structural engineering standpoint,” Dibble says. “A sphere distributes load beautifully so they scale up and scale down. Where they are a nightmare is sound. Acoustically, I’d liken it to taking a laundry basket full of ping pong balls and dumping it on the kitchen floor.”
And that is a big deal given that Sphere is intended primarily as a live-music venue.
“We found a company in Berlin that was using wave-field synthesis and beamforming to try to pitch the Deutsche Bahn for a more efficient public address system for German train stations,” he says.
German train platforms have different sound demands than do U2 concerts and epic Darren Aronofsky films — “this wasn’t a concert-grade system,” Dibble understates — but Holoplot’s nascent technology was just what Sphere needed.
“So we took up a pretty sizable stake in Holoplot and worked hand-in-hand with them to build a concert-grade system the likes of which the world has never seen. It’s quite stunning,” Dibble said.
The Holoplot system doesn’t just fulfill the basic requirement of providing concert-grade sound in a previously acoustically impossible environment, it heralds a new era of sound design.
It’s possible for one section of the audience to hear, say, an English dub of a film, while a neighboring section hears Spanish, all without bleedover. Different parts of a song — think about all the oddball calls-and-response in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” opus — can be localized in different parts of the auditorium.
And it impressed no less an expert than U2’s long-time sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy. Dibble invited him to meet with the Holoplot team and a reluctant one-day trip turned into a week-long exploration of the system’s capabilities as the man, who Bono once described as the “alchemist of sound,” was yet another person who turned from skeptic to believer.
“Frankly, necessity is the mother of invention,” Dibble says, noting that some of what went into construction couldn’t be done with “just concrete and rebar.” “Right now, we have 60 patents and counting and I have no doubt we’ll bust 100. In some cases, it was finding new uses for existing technology, but in the vast majority of cases, it just didn’t exist.”
Another example: Dolan wanted to show film on the inside of the sphere. Film in the round has been toyed with nearly since the creation of motion pictures and IMAX is standard and fairly commonplace. But the inside of a sphere is film-in-the-round plus IMAX multiplied by, well, four, pi and the square of the radius, for the geometry nerds out there.
What’s in place now is the world’s largest super-high-resolution screen. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky — the filmmaker’s “Postcard from Earth” will be the first Sphere Experience, a repertory series that will constitute the bulk of Sphere’s content — posted the first look, sharing a brief snippet of a color test on Instagram. Even through an iPhone screen, the 16K, 160,000-square-foot screen is stunning.
Aronofsky, like U2, makes perfect sense as the first director for the Sphere Experience. “I see Sphere as a great opportunity to pluck people from the bling and thrum of the Vegas strip in all its human-constructed madness and immerse them as fully as possible in the wonder, awe, and beauty of the natural world,” Aronofsky said in June.
Appropriately, Aronofsky was lauded in 2018 with a Best Virtual Reality award at the Venice Film Festival for “SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime.”
“Postcard from Earth” will “offer a unique perspective on the magnificent beauty of life on Earth.”
Originally, they thought it’d be projected. But that won’t work, as Dibble explained. Even the slightest vibration would, exaggerated exponentially on such a big screen, render the film unwatchable. Seams in the picture would be inevitable — and Dolan proclaimed that unacceptable. Even the advanced RGB laser projection system used at Radio City Music Hall wouldn’t work.
“So Jim said, ‘Let’s go LED,’” Dibble says. “We actually figured out how to do that. I got a 160,000-square-feet area with 254 million diodes and you cannot find a seam line, you cannot find a grout line with 64,000 tiles, 780 different geometrical shapes and the edge-to-edge tolerance is 0.8 millimeters.”
And even that required finding a company with the right machinery to install this mosaic just right. Once again, looking to the Germanosphere, they found an Austrian company to do it.
Having cracked the code for displaying the content, someone then had to invent the camera that could shoot the footage — and, well, you get the idea.
It’s not just the building itself or the content or the technology for which there was no pre-existing playbook. Sphere is a unique beast. There was no playbook of who to hire or how to build a team to build, operate and maintain it.
Rich Claffey, Sphere’s executive vice president and chief operations officer, has worked for Madison Square Garden in its various venues and properties for more than four decades. In fact, he worked load-in for U2’s first show at The Garden, in 1987 — a serendipitous aside that illustrates just how far artists, venues and executives have come.
Much of Claffey’s bailiwick on Sphere involved bringing in the right people, but staffing it meant looking beyond the traditional venue and arena operations world.
Sphere, after all, is “Radio City Music Hall, 90 years later and on steroids,” as Claffey describes it, a reminder that RCMH was, when it opened in 1932, a marvel technologically.
“So I’ve had to bring in broadcast people, I’ve had to bring in LED people, I’ve had to bring in sound technology people,” he says. He emphasizes that the “sound technology people” aren’t the standard venue sound people, though he’s had to hire them, too.
And, naturally, Claffey hired three high-ropes teams. Claffey was used to hiring riggers for Madison Square Garden and the theaters, but this is a different ball of wax, or steel.
“We have three teams and they go up 360-odd feet, inside and outside,” he says.
Primarily, the crews are replacing or maintaining the “hockey pucks,” as they’ve invariably become known: the 1.2 million discs on the outside of the sphere that display the stunning visuals that are already social media sensations. It’s advanced, high-end technology, but with 1.2 million of anything, something’s going to go bad with some frequency.
“When I first did budgets for this stuff, we weren’t thinking about stuff like that because it wasn’t traditional,” he says. “But you have to change it up and change the way you think. When you see this thing go up, it’s like ‘Holy cow, how am I going to do that?’”
You do it by mining the best minds and hiring the best people.
And when it’s all said and done: there’s still got to be a show inside.
Vaccarello admits much like her colleagues that there were aspects of her accomplished career she could call upon to book Sphere, but she had to invent new processes and pitches as well.
Beyond live music and film, Sphere is capable of hosting ring-based sports — boxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling — as well as esports (imagine a “League Of Legends” match playing out on a 160,000 square-foot screen), but really the only constraints are imagination.
“I’ve been doing this over 25 years and I know the answers about all the other venues.
This, I’m just figuring out,” Vaccarello says. “It’s up to the act and their creativity. The Sphere allows for a canvas, a box of crayons. It’s up to the act how they want to use it. … When they see what it can do, eyes pop open with excitement.”
“It will change the way people ingest entertainment,” she says.
“Ingest,” an interesting word choice, implies a taking-in rather than sitting astride and experiencing externalities.
Vaccarello says Sphere will be announcing post-U2 bookings that take it well into 2025, with a mix of residencies — at first, similarly structured around weekends over several months, though she didn’t rule out long-term, long-running residencies in the future — and tour stops. While booking Sphere might seem intimidating on tour routing, it’s plug-and-play with an act’s on-the-road production, with all the sound and visuals part of the venue itself, load-in and set-up for an act on tour would be relatively straightforward, though artists could still plus-up their regular show with Sphere’s capabilities.
Future acts will certainly be watching how U2 uses Sphere’s capabilities; it’s a responsibility the band is prepared for, Fogel says.
“Over the course of months and months, U2’s creative team and the band have dedicated the time and effort to really create something special and to understand the venue and technology,” he says. “It is a unique situation and with that comes tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunity. There’s no half-measures, it’s a full commitment to excellence.”
Beyond the new-fangled whizbangery of the Holoplot system, the ginormous immersive screen, the 10,000 seats fitted with rumbly haptic technology and the ability to fly drones inside the dome (a flair borrowed — and aggrandized — from the Christmas show at Radio City, where drones played the part of little winter fairies flitting around the auditorium), Sphere’s 4D features are also a little bit old school.
Wind will rush at viewers, scents will dazzle the nostrils, mist may spritz across faces. These are gags as old as motion pictures themselves, prominent in the high era of Roger Corman B-movies and carnival show gimmickry.
But Corman never had NASA come calling to borrow technology from one of his gags. The Sphere team figured out a new way to handle vibration dampening on a nozzle that shoots air as part of the 4D experience. NASA “caught wind of it,” if you’ll forgive Dibble’s pun, and expanded the technology to use for noise-dampening on rocket engines.
“It’s all these old gags but with an interesting way of delivering it,” Dibble says. “The physics is a challenge, being brought into a ball that’s 13 million cubic feet in volume.”
So they took the old gags and a lot of well-known equations, calculated things like relative humidity, hooked up processors and made 4D not just a reality, but steps beyond what was possible even a few years ago, with timing perfected for the gags to hit every audience member at exactly the right time.
All the technological wonders under the dome will make their debut with U2 and “Postcard,” but the dome itself has already made plenty of headlines and plenty of eyes pop.
On July 4, “Hello World” stretched across the 580,000 square-foot Exosphere — the largest LED display on earth, though considerably lower in resolution than the interior display. Since then, the sphere has been a jack o’ lantern, a basketball, a tennis ball, all 32 NFL helmets, a surrealist eyeball peeping across the strip and more.
Earlier this month, Madison Square Garden Ent. and Sphere Ent Co. with Oak View Group (Pollstar’s parent company) announced Crown Properties Collection, a new entity to
manage marquee partnerships with sports and entertainment brands and their venues worldwide, including Sphere, Madison Square Garden, Radio City
Music Hall, New York Knicks, New York Rangers, MSG Networks, the Radio City Rockettes and other MSG properties. CPW will be headed by Jay Voelker.
OVG chairman and CEO Tim Leiweke called Sphere a groundbreaking global landmark that will instantly take its place among others like the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids at Giza and the Eiffel Tower, but with brand activation potential that tops them all.
“The difference between this one and all the others is the ability to activate this structure and the uniqueness and the social media reach that this building is going to have, “ he said. “It’s going to be one of the 10 most photographed, talked about, and driven items of discussion on social media in the world. There are moments in time where in our industry, we have these revolutions, and this is one of them. This is going to change our business forever.”
In early September, groundbreaking generative AI artist Refik Anadol “painted” Sphere as part of his project “Machine Hallucinations: Sphere.”
Guy Barnett, senior vice president of brand strategy and creative development at Sphere, is behind this elegant intertwining of art and commerce. Sphere is, yes, the world’s largest billboard but it’s also the world’s largest canvas. Why can’t it be both at the same time?
The basketball was, after all, an ad for the NBA’s summer league in Sin City, but still rendered beautifully and a captivating eye-catcher.
“It came off so well and the jack o’ lantern came across so well on social and people are sharing these things,” Barnett said. “And then the Refik Anadol piece was just breathtaking to me.”
Barnett rightly notes there’s an audience within Sphere sometimes, but the building itself and its “living architecture” have an audience all the time. There will be constant interplay — and sometimes overlap — between art and commerce, and Sphere will never stop captivating.
“We’ve got some things coming up which I think will be my favorite,” he says. “But then again, I say that every week. In another week, it’ll be another thing. The next thing is always my favorite.”
Whatever the next thing is will be the culmination — another culmination in a series — of that meeting Dibble and Dolan had in 2016.
“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,” Dolan told Pollstar in May. “It’s a vision that goes on and may never stop evolving.”
“We learn things literally every day,” Dibble says. “Whether it’s on the live performance side with the band or whether it’s with our own homegrown attractions — we learn things that we never thought we were going to need to learn and we’ve gathered like-minded people together that are just relentlessly curious.”