Milwaukee Talks: Raj Saha, WESC general manager and head of programming
Over the last couple of years, the new Milwaukee Bucks arena has arisen Downtown, and the world-class venue will open this September. But while the building itself has taken shape and gotten deserved attention, it's not the only aspect of the project that people like Raj Saha are working on.
As general manager and head of programming for the Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center, Saha oversees nearly every aspect of the new Downtown development. As the arena construction nears completion, Saha and his team have started to focus on booking the upcoming shows it will host and other operational elements, as well as planning for the surrounding Live Block area.
Saha was born in London, raised in New York City and has developed stadiums all over the world. Before joining the Bucks in October 2016, he was running his own consulting company in Chicago. Over the last few months – and no doubt for the next several – Saha has been announcing huge music and comedy performances for the WESC.
Recently, we sat down with Saha at the Milwaukee Bucks' Schlitz Park offices to discuss his background, the WESC's state-of-the-art features and amenities, the arena-going experience, attracting major headlining acts, the forthcoming entertainment district and more.
OnMilwaukee: Your background is peripatetic, which is a word I looked up to make sure I was using it correctly. You were born in London, grew up in New York, worked in venues all over the world. How'd you get into this line of work?
Raj Saha: It's funny, I was a freshman at Syracuse University in the early 1990s and I was a rower. I was on the men's crew team, and we didn't have the scholarship money that our football and basketball players had, so for 42-43 rowers, we had a total of three scholarships divvied up. If you were lucky enough to get a thousand dollars from the program, you were high-fiving everyone.
So I had to find a job when I got to campus, and I got a job working at the Carrier Dome. I was 17 years old in the fall of 1993 at Syracuse and was selling hot dogs and hawking beer at the games, back when Syracuse was a top-25 team in basketball and football. From there, I started working security at concerts, and I worked a Rolling Stones show in 1994 and ended up with a purple shirt for security. I was making $6 and hour then, but you're there and you're feeling all the excitement of 45,000 people in front of you and Mick Jagger behind you, and from there I always felt like I wanted to work events.
When I graduated, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but the thing I knew I didn't want to do was work in an office and get on that treadmill early in my life. So I ended up working at the Jacob Javits Center doing staffing and front-of-house stuff in late-97 early-98. Around the same time, I picked up a second job as an event presentation assistant at Madison Square Garden. And if you want to know what that job description is like in the late 1990s, it was basically make sure every toilet is flushed and every sink basin is cleaned and every concession stand is ready to go, because we couldn't open doors until all that was checked off the box.
So, typical squeaky-clean New York City stuff?
Yeah (laughs), the Garden was a great place. I spent nine years there, and during that time I did everything – communications, worked in our arena broadcast room, the fan cam, did guest services, theatrical production. And then in early 2006, I got a phone call from what was an unknown company at the time called AEG to go move to Chicago and basically run the MLS stadium that was being developed for the Chicago Fire. This was before David Beckham was in MLS; none of these global superstars were in the league at the time. I ended up wearing a lot of hats there – I was stadium director, I was human resources, I was premium services, I was cleanup crew after Dave Matthews Band concerts – and the one thing that I really enjoyed in my time there was opening buildings.
That kind of became the theme for me for the next 10 years and what it is today in my career. After I spent a year and a half at Toyota Park, I went back to the East Coast, was at the New Jersey Devils arena for two years, Prudential Center, opened up that place, ended up being pretty successful in the music scene. I think this was around the time when AEG was really going through a big expansion, and I probably wasn't smart enough not to raise my hand in certain situations. I had an EU passport and citizenship, so I got a phone call saying do you want to go help in Berlin and Stockholm? AEG was taking over facilities and building facilities, so I did that.
Then I got a phone call asking, Do you want to work the 50 Michael Jackson shows that are coming up in Europe? I said absolutely. And if you ever want to have a lesson in not burning bridges, my last day in Newark was the day Michael Jackson passed away – two and a half weeks before our first Michael Jackson show at the O2 Arena, and I'm getting on a plane. But I got to Europe, loved Europe; we were only able to fill four of the 50 dates that Michael Jackson had on the calendar. It was hard, but while I was there I quickly shifted focus into a more regional role, and spent time developing arenas in Istanbul and Rotterdam and Paris.
And because I was living in Europe and everyone thought I spoke 12 different languages, which I didn't, I was asked to go down to Brazil and help during the Confederations Cup and World Cup. And, again, I raise my hand because I probably wasn't smart enough not to, and commuted between London and São Paulo for a year and a half – you know, that often replicated commute that people do. It got to the point where I loved doing international stuff, loved opening venues, but it does wear on you, especially when you're doing it in a language you have to learn and you're operating the building and working on the construction site.
I came back to the U.S., and I've known (Bucks President) Peter Feigin for 20 years – we were both with the Knicks in the late '90s – and Peter gave me this unbelievable opportunity to come up from Chicago, where I'd been living when I first returned to the U.S. in 2015, and start working on this amazing project, which is really just the tip of the iceberg with everything that is going on in the district.
What did you know about Milwaukee coming in and what was your understanding of the Bucks' plan and vision for the new arena development?
When Peter got hired, I kept close track of what was going on – and living in New York, you kind of understand how the owners are. Milwaukee is, far and away, the smallest market I've ever lived in in my life, save for my four years at Syracuse University. What drew me to the city is the fact that, OK, you can do this in a massive, global city, where you've got 25 million people, you're doing 25 live music shows at a very high-capacity level – and part of this was, hey, let's see if we can replicate or get close to doing what we've done in New York and London.
And probably what is showing in our building calendar now is this is a great market for music and live events. You can go out to a place like Mad Planet or the Pabst or The Rave, and there's a lot of great live music in the city every night, but it never really translated to the arena level. So, for me, it was a great opportunity to come in at a great time with the Bucks. And, really, the way we look at it here, it's not just about the arena, it's about the entire district and how do you shape 28 acres in a Downtown setting?
I think that was so attractive to many of us in the office and in the organization. We have a lot of people from New York, southern states, Minnesota, Milwaukee and other parts of Wisconsin. What's really exciting is we've attracted a national, even global level of talent. Our head of ticketing is from the United Kingdom and has come here to join our team. It's a think globally, act locally situation here.
This is going to be a state-of-the-art new arena. What is it going to look like, sound like, feel like for people?
I'll take you through the customer journey. You're going to come in through an events plaza. The minute you park your car anywhere near the district, you're going to know what the event is that's going on that night; we're going to blow out more than just the four walls of the arena, targeted messaging, the LED board that's on the 5th Street garage. It's part of the experience; the arena is the centerpiece, but the whole district is the experience.
You're gonna come in, beautiful glass on the front of the building, the east side of the building, which is coming off our plaza. That's our main entrance. And we have glass from the floor to the ceiling, so you're gonna come in, and especially in the spring and fall months, when a lot of natural light is coming into the building – you're not coming into this cavernous building, where you're just immediately shut off from natural light – and there's wide concourses, amazing artwork. We've done a partnership with an art curator and we got a ridiculous amount of locally sourced art products, local artists are doing paintings for us, photography too. You're definitely gonna know you're in the Bucks arena.
Our food program is going to be unbelievable. We partnered with a lot of local food brick-and-mortars here in Milwaukee, which is gonna be fantastic. You'll see foods that you're probably not even expecting to see in an arena. We're going through the menu program right now. The seats are much wider with a lot more leg room than what people are used to at the Bradley Center or Panther Arena. The sight lines, again, we built this building from an architecture standpoint to be focused on basketball, which was not the design intent of where we're playing right now.
That's one of the biggest complaints about the Bradley Center, that it was built for hockey and just goes out and back and is so expansive. Having been in the new arena, even not yet being finished, it feels really intimate, like you're right on top of the action. How will the architecture and acoustics affect the experience at a basketball game or at a concert?
Imagine going to a beach volleyball game, and you've got bleachers on all four sides of the beach volleyball court. You're there, you know the ocean's right behind and beautiful sand, and that's us. The architecture's drawn everything closer to center, so it's closer to center court for basketball, closer to the stage, sight lines for shows, too, closer again to a boxing ring, to a mixed martial arts octagon. But at the same time, you can turn around and see what's going on in the concourse.
But it's even better when you're on the concourse looking out at the ocean and then turning around and watching the beach volleyball game. So you're gonna turn around and watch a Bucks game or a Marquette game. We don't want you walking around the building, waiting on line at concessions, waiting on line at merchandise, and not be able to understand what's going on in the game, so there's a lot of parts in the building where you can actually turn around and watch the game. We'll have over 700 televisions in the building, as well, so I don't think there's any part where you're gonna walk around and actually not be able to see what's going on live in the arena bowl or on television at the same time.
It's gonna be an amazing audio-visual experience. We've even worked with the audio company to make sure that the seating fabric was not gonna mess up the acoustics. We don't have a lot of glass anywhere inside the arena bowl. Even the suites don't have a lot of glass.
So these are micro-nuanced things you're paying attention to.
Yeah, hyper-micro nuanced, but it's one of those things you have to do it now, because you're not gonna go down and take glass out of a suite, you're not gonna start knocking down walls in the concourse so people can see the game because you're got infrastructure going through it. We had as many design meetings in one day that I think some projects have in a week, and it's everything.
Peter, especially, is very sunk into the type of fabric we have in clubs, what does every customer see, what does every worker see, and that's another part of it too – we are specifically working on a program for an employee customer journey. So it's not just come in, you go and you get your shirt, you get your pants, you get your tie and you go to your work spot. We have a very specific way of looking at how all the employees of the building are gonna be treated and what their experience is gonna be the minute they walk into the door, as well.
I know you go to a lot of games at the Bradley Center. What have you learned about Bucks fans as consumers, their tendencies and behavior, in this market?
It's amazing. It's almost unusual to see anyone leave the game before the final buzzer. And those are things you notice and, again, you don't have the traffic issues that you get in Chicago here. You definitely don't have the transportation issues you get in New York or London or Sao Paulo. The fans are very into it.
What amazes me, and again growing up in New York, you're always going, "The shoe's gonna drop eventually, the fans are gonna turn and boo," but the fans here are extremely supportive of their teams. Whether it's the Brewers, whether it's obviously the Packers, the Badgers, Marquette, us too – that has been a good, refreshing, eye-opening thing for me. Especially after working in European and South American soccer, you're lucky that the player gets off the field without being attacked.
So the tendencies are ... it's a great fan base, very into the team. And if Bucks fans have been to other arenas, they know what the experience is. You know Chicago, a Target Center, in New York – what we need to do is make sure that experience matches all the great buildings in the U.S. What amazes me, as well, and it's so different here than being in New York, is the amount of gear Bucks fans wear to games. And it's not even just here in Milwaukee.
I'll do one or two road trips per year just to see other buildings. Going to New York, going to Miami, the amount of Bucks gear that you see in our road games is quite impressive. I don't know if that is people that are from Wisconsin living in these different cities now and are proud to actually go to the game and watch the Bucks, or is it the Giannis effect where this is a great young player to watch – Jabari, Malcolm, Thon, all these great young players, so I wanna follow this team and I think they're really interesting. Obviously there's a huge Greek community that follows Giannis around, but just going to New York, we saw Middleton jerseys, Parker jerseys, and I think that's unusual. And we definitely have seen a lot more this year than I did last year on those road trips. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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