20 years of stars at Sheffield Arena

FIRST came the Queen, then Paul Simon.

The opening of the Sheffield Arena 20 years ago was marked by a royal visit before the crew of the American singer songwriter set up the stage for his Born At The Right Time tour.

With a capacity of 13,500, the £34m addition to the east end had certainly come at the right time in that it was up and running ready for the World Student Games.

It was the controversial games - council tax payers are still footing the bill - that was the impetus for construction, but the Arena also marked the city’s arrival on the nation’s entertainment map.

One of the country’s first all-singing, all-dancing purpose-built indoor arenas, it was designed for the type of sports events and concerts that were simply too big for traditional venues.

For some people, who feel far more comfortable in places such as the City Hall, the scale will always be an obstacle.

But some shows pull such large crowds or require such wide open spaces that arenas are the only realistic option.

Paul Simon was followed in the first year by the likes of Rod Stewart, Sting and five nights of Dire Straits. Activities such as gymnastics were staged as part of the World Student Games, the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team moved in and started to attract big crowds and Walt Disney’s World of Ice slipped in as the first of many ice spectaculars.

Over the years, the portfolio has grown to reflect changes in the market.

One of the significant successes in recent years has been the arrival of the comedians - performers such as Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay who can pack the place out night after night.

TV-based shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent have tapped into the family market.

The musical, Les Miserables, was staged over a record 35 performances over four weeks in 1999, the Arena converted into a 3,000 seater theatre.

Types of sports have been extended, too. Joe Calzaghe won his WBO world title, against Chris Eubank, in 1997. On the same bill, Naseem Hamed defended his title. Ice has been replaced by dirt for Supercross biking.

Memorably, the Sheffield Arena was the only place where Eric Cantona appeared in public in a Sheffield Wednesday shirt - as a trialist in a five-a-side tournament in 1992 , before he opted for Leeds.

Political ructions can be traced to Attercliffe. In the general election campaign of 1992, a Labour rally saw Neil Kinnock address 10,000 party members and the shadow cabinet in what was widely regarded as being too triumphalist and too much like an American political convention. John Major won a few days later.

Bollywood came in 2007 with the hosting of the International Indian Film Academy Awards. The TV cameras returned two years later for the high profile BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

As the going gets tougher, so Sheffield look for new ways of generating income. Car boot sales are now held in the car park on most Sundays.

Yet the early years were less than smooth.

Visitors complained about security checks to stop them taking drinks and sweets inside a place where food and drink could be bought at prices regarded as far too high.

Show promoter Harvey Goldsmith complained about a lack of signage to the Arena and that the sound quality was terrible, although it did not stop him bringing Pavarotti for his own English concert in 1992.

Big events often led to traffic jams.

Financially, too, the Arena started to look risky as it failed to meet targets under the guidance of its first specialist American management team.

Yet, gradually, it found its feet, and parent company Sheffield International Venues says it has gone “from strength to strength”, now generating between £1m and £2m a year to go back into the SIV budget. Two of the last three years have been the Arena’s best financially.

Its name has changed as a result of sponsorship deals. Once known as the Hallam FM Arena, it is now the Motorpoint Arena and run by Live Nation, the American based company that has the contract for at least another five years.

Many visitors come from outside the region, and the pulling power is still there. George Michael tickets sold out within a couple of days this month.

There is the coup of the European Figure Skating Championships early next year.

But times are tough for all arenas, which are at the mercy of the economic climate, too. Fewer big bands may decide it is not worth touring, and for Americans, the dollar rate is a factor.

Meanwhile competition in the UK is growing.

Since Sheffield Arena opened on May 30, 1991, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Liverpool have opened their own updated versions.

And now the challenge of Leeds is on the horizon.

“We have got a fantastic facility, we are well regarded within the industry and the Arena has been a boon to the city for 20 years,” said general manager Rob O’Shea.

“But if you are a business, you have got to always look forward. While it is nice to reach a milestone you can’t rest on your laurels.

“The obvious challenge is when Leeds opens in 2013. We need our business to be in as good a shape as possible.”