Setting The Stage

Raj Saha, general manager and head of programming for the new Fiserv Forum, on what to expect from the new venue, how his team is planning for its long-term success, and more.

BY JOSHUA M. MILLER 

Photo by Nick Monroe/Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Gary Dineen/Milwaukee Bucks
 

On Building From Experience

This is far from Raj Saha’s first rodeo in managing a venue. He’s been part of a dozen building openings, and his credits include being the manager of guest relations at both Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.

In fact, he’s been involved in events and building management for the last 20 years. It’s been in his blood since he first took a security and concessions position at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., in the mid-1990s.

Saha was first exposed to Milwaukee while living in Chicago in the mid-2000s. He became even more fascinated with Cream City after seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert at the Bradley Center in 2016. When he had the opportunity to manage the new arena, he jumped at it.

“With this position (being) in Milwaukee in particular, it was an exciting opportunity to come here and work in an NBA world-class facility,” he says. “... It was great to see the Bucks going through a reinvention and building over acres of land — rebuilding a team. To do it in a downtown setting was a great opportunity.”

Hart of the Moment

One of Saha’s most eventful booking memories so far was securing the Kevin Hart show.

“It was not something we thought we’d be able to achieve — to get a Kevin Hart show on the date that we got it on,” Saha says, adding that the confirmation came in during weekend hours. “We had to turn everything around and get ready because the announcement was at 7 a.m. on Monday. 

“That was a good one because it was unexpected,” he continues. “We literally found out about it at the 11th hour, and had to work on our marketing plan and digital plan and ticketing plan throughout the weekend. ... When you work in live events and entertainment, your phone’s never off, (and) your computer’s never off. It’s something you’re working on around the clock. We were at (Milwaukee Bucks) President Peter Feigin’s birthday party, and I kept having to walk outside to send texts and e-mails and make phone calls that night in order to get the show.”

October Triple Threat

The arena will host three heavy-hitters between Oct. 16 and 18: Metallica (Oct. 16), Foo Fighters (Oct.17), and The Eagles (Oct. 18). 

“It was funny how it fell because there are three different agencies that are involved — three different management companies and two different promoters,” says Saha. 

He adds that it was important to ensure the team could pull of three consecutive nights of concerts, especially since each band has its own production setup.

“We wouldn’t do the show if we didn’t think we could pull it off,” Saha says. “We hired an operations team very early on in the process, which is great for us. Our event managers knew exactly what to do, (and) the president of our facilities knew what to do. Our marketing people were fully on board with it.

Photo by Jeff Phelps/Milwaukee Bucks

“Build the future.” That’s been a recurring motto of the Milwaukee Bucks as they’ve sought to improve with each season. With the opening of the Fiserv Forum next month, they’ll have a brand-new home to play in and be inspired by in their pursuit of greatness. 

However, the Bucks (as well as other Milwaukee sport teams) aren’t the only ones to reap the benefits. The opening of the arena also presents an exciting new chapter for Milwaukee music and entertainment.

In addition to featuring a marquee entertainment lineup that includes acts such as Kevin Hart, Metallica, Foo Fighters, The Eagles, Justin Timberlake and Elton John, the venue features a state-of-the-art design that builds and improves on the lessons learned from the BMO Harris Bradley Center, which stood for the past 30 years. 

Raj Saha, the venue’s general manager and head of programming, is excited for fans to see the venue’s enhancements when they venture into the arena’s bowl to catch a sporting or entertainment event. 

The biggest change? The opportunity to be closer to the action.

“The Bradley Center only had about 6,000 seats in its lower bowl. We have 10,000 seats in our lower bowl,” says Saha of the new area. “So automatically a lot of people are going to be closer.”

Supporters will also notice how open the building is — a feature that includes more natural light coming into the arena and open concourses. 

“If you’re at a concession stand or walking throughout the concourse, you’ll be able to see directly inside the arena from most places,” says Saha. “We removed the outer walls the Bradley Center had that were behind the 200 level and blocking the concourse. You can be ordering a beer or ordering a sausage from the concessions stand and turn around and have the basketball game happening directly behind you and still feel part of the environment.”

For Bucks ticket holders, Saha recommends checking out the Panorama Club, a lounge in the upper level of the building where they can get a bird’s eye view of the action.

“I think everyone that comes to Bucks games in the first year should go up there because you definitely get a very unique perspective on basketball and events,” he says. “You can look straight down at the action below.”

While fans won’t see the expanded production space for concerts, Saha says they’ll reap the benefits of the addition. While the Bradley Center had a single outside loading dock, the Fiserv Forum has six inside loading docks, which Saha says will “help build the show and scene faster.”

When the event starts, fans and performers should expect a quality sounding experience.

“We put a lot of attention in acoustics in both design and construction,” says Saha. “If you’ve been to the Bradley Center, a lot of the sound went straight back to concrete back walls. That’s not the case here.”

Acoustical treatment, such as using little glass inside the arena — think open suites and movable glass for the AV broadcast room, was added to the walls and ceiling inside the arena to improve sound quality.

“We added baffling and cloud-like material up there,” Saha adds. “It’ll be great for sporting events and make the sporting events louder. And make the acoustics better for anyone that’s on stage.”

Building a Game Plan

Before the lights go on, there’s a different kind of performance going on behind the scenes. Saha and his colleagues are busy at work contacting and booking entertainment for the arena.

Saha says it’s critical to think both short term and long term with their booking decisions. “The most important thing is to communicate, have a lot of patience, and really understand that the decisions you make now are decisions you’re going to live with for 25 to 30 years,” he explains. “For any building that you go into, you want to make sure what you’re doing sets you up for success not just day one or year one, but down the road.”

One of the first things Saha did when he joined in 2016 was to start contacting different events and entertainment partners, such as Live Nation, AEG, Pabst Theater Group, Frank Productions and Main Event Boxing. 

“Getting people in the knowledge and understanding that there was an arena coming to downtown Milwaukee was important,” he says. “We know how important diverse content is to the project and to us as arena owners.

“So, we wanted to make sure we were out there talking to not just the country music promoters and rock agents, but to Latin music partners and hip-hop partners,” Saha continues, noting Colombian singer J Balvin as an example.

It’s also important to think outside the box and find acts that might not traditionally be arena plays, he adds. One thing that helps in this regard is that the arena includes curtains that can be drawn out to reduce capacity, thus making the space appear smaller. 

“We look at everything, from things that can be a 5,000-capacity size to a 20,000-capacity size,” says Saha. “We’ll announce some shows in the later part of the year that come into our cut-down theater mode.”

Maintaining Momentum     

The opening of the new arena means a chance to draw in more performers that may have previously opted to tour in nearby cities. 

“For us, it’s adding the additional tour stop and chance to sell tickets to a market that would have to drive to Chicago or drive to Minneapolis/St. Paul,” says Saha. 

It’s important for Milwaukee to have an entertainment venue of this capacity that is year-round, he adds. 

“UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena is 10,000-11,000 (capacity). And then there’s a gap. There’s nothing after that until you get to a stadium show,” Saha says. “For us, having that 17,000-seat room, which can go up to 19,000 for Metallica or (down to) 5,000 for an intimate performance, is key for Milwaukee. It’s attracting people more into downtown that potentially wouldn’t come down here in the past.”

In addition to the arena, a 75,000-square-foot plaza will host various events, from yoga in the morning to movies in the summertime to concerts and kid shows. There also will be two buildings that house different bars and restaurants. 

There are no plans to ease up once the glimmer of the arena’s opening — or what’s typically called a “honeymoon period” — wears off. Saha says they’re continuing to book for both this year and for 2019.

“We have to continue to market all the shows that come here,” says Saha. “We have to give the artist the best experience possible, and (we) have to give the fans the best experience possible. They go hand in hand with each other.

“We want an artist waking up in their bed in Malibu or Miami Beach or New York or somewhere else saying, ‘OK, I’m going to go on tour, but I want to play Milwaukee because I’ve heard it’s a great place to play. The building’s great; the fans are really into it. My friend who just played a concert there had great things to say,’” he continues. “It’s making sure we’re always putting our best foot forward, and making sure people are waking up thinking about Milwaukee.”


“We have to give the artist the best experience possible, and (we) have to

give the fans the best experience possible. They go hand in hand with each

other.” — Raj Saha


 

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