It has been almost 20 years since the Air Canada Centre opened in Toronto. The nearly 20,000-capacity arena has made improvements and upgrades throughout the years, but the heart of the Centre’s success comes from its welcoming and diverse city.
“We’re certainly one of the busiest entertainment venues in North America, and Toronto has demonstrated itself to be a real entertainment city,” SVP of Music and Live Events at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Wayne Zronik told Amplify. “We sell a lot of concert tickets. There’s a ton of music fans. Our sports teams are sold out for the most part. It’s really the fans in Toronto that support it all and their passion for both sports and music.”
Air Canada Centre is home to two professional sports teams: the NBA Raptors and the NHL Maple Leafs.
Last year, the Raptors went to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Maple Leafs are currently vying for a spot in the playoffs with a young and promising team.
“It has been 15 years since we had both of our teams in the playoffs,” Zronik said. “There’s lots of energy for the building. You have the combination of our very busy concert season with a ton of excitement around the teams and playoff runs.”
Last year, they saw their sports business overlap with their music business. When the Raptors made it to the playoffs, it forced Pearl Jam, who were playing two nights at the arena, to move their date. The members of Pearl Jam joined the energized city, stayed an extra night, and sat courtside to watch the game.
The arena’s other frequent court side guest is Toronto native Drake. The rapper curated Sher, Air Canada Centre’s members-only nightclub. The 4,000 square-foot space was a collaboration between Drake, Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, and architectural designer Ferris Rafauli.
“It has been fantastic and he has been fantastic for the Raptors,” said Zronik. “Drake has the ability to take that brand and our team, and make it known globally. He has a lot of pride in Toronto.”
The club is currently only open on evenings with sporting events, but given its success the arena is planning to use the intimate space for their huge concert calendar as well.
“For the concert season, we’re coming off our busiest year in the history of the building,” said Zronik. “You wonder how you’re going to top it, and as you look at the calendar for next year it looks like we might. The live business is thriving right now and we’re just happy to be part of it.”
The arena has recently seen shows from Adele, Ed Sheeran, Bob Dylan, Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull, and Andrea Bocelli. Canada’s Tragically Hip played three nights at the arena during their farewell tour after lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
As one of the most diverse cities in the world, Zronik explained that the arena can host a range of acts successfully in the Toronto market.
“I think Toronto is a world-class city. I think as more and more artists come through, we often do more than one show,” Zronik said. “We punch above our weight in our desire to go to live entertainment events and we take great pride in that.”
Zronik added “Selfishly, we think that we execute very well. We try to be world class when we have people in the building. Plus our ability to help them sell, our ability to execute their event in a world class way and I think we’ve been able to demonstrate that. That has people willing to come back or to bring big significant events like the NBA All-Star game or the World Cup of Hockey to the building.”
Beyond concerts, the arena has also seen a range of performances like Cirque du Soleil’s TORUK and the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience.
“Game of Thrones was great. We love those concepts for entertainment content. We think that they are really creative ways to program the arena. It’s not just a concert stage at the end of the bowl, but these immersive multi-media experiences that have been developing over the past few years,” Zronik said. “We think that there will be a lot more of that going forward. There is certainly a demand for the live experience.”
eSports has also taken off at the arena. This year MLSE hosted the League of Legends Summer Finals at the arena, selling out two days of the professional gaming competition. Each day, 15,000 fans packed the arena for one of live entertainment’s fastest growing experiences.
“I didn’t really get it and then those shows came through. I just didn’t know what to expect, frankly, and it was tremendous. By the end of it you want to know who is winning and what the score is, because you really get to know it,” Zronik admitted.
He added “It very much has the ebb and flow of a sporting event. Certainly eSports is a huge opportunity going forward that we will see more and more of in the building. We also own our NBA team, the Raptors, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and those leagues are exploring their own eSports initiatives. So our franchises may have eSports teams affiliated with them in the long run.”
To keep up with the developing needs of a marquee event arena, Air Canada has embarked on a revitalization process. They recently put in a new score clock with a new set of screens in the bowl, improved the back of house with more rooms, and have invested in new food and beverage concepts.
“We’ve been looking at best practices and seeing what we can do to the building as part of a revitalization process that not only includes the guts of the building, but also the areas fans want to experience that are different from when we first opened the building,” Zronik said. “We’ve had 20 very successful years, and the building has held up really well and we’ve continued to invest in it over time. But we know we need to set ourselves up for success for the next 20 years.”