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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 15:25 GMT
Dome to host 'top-class' one-offs
By Matt Slater

The interior of The O2 arena
When finished, the state-of-the-art arena's capacity will be 23,000
The Millennium Dome will become a world-class indoor sports venue, according to its new owners.

Renamed The O2 arena, it has been given a 600m refit and will be "comfortably ready" for its planned opening in July.

Already chosen to stage basketball and gymnastics at the 2012 Olympics, "The O2" will host a series of big sporting events over the next five years.

Venue boss Philip Beard said: "We will bring the best international sport to London's most exciting indoor space."

The North Greenwich site's chances of success as a sports venue will be helped by the fact its proprietor, the Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), is the world's largest owner of sports teams and sports events.

The company, part of US billionaire Philip Anschutz's business empire, owns five ice hockey teams in the US and Europe, three US football teams and an American lacrosse team.

It also has stakes in a number of other sports franchises, including the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.

I think the terrible preconceived ideas that many people used to have about the Dome are going

Philip Beard
Chief executive, The O2
And The O2 is not AEG's only high-profile British sporting investment. The company recently bought former England captain David Beckham for its Major Soccer League franchise the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The first sports events scheduled for The O2 are two games to open next season's National Hockey League campaign and a National Basketball Association pre-season match.

On 29 and 30 September, the Los Angeles Kings meet local rivals the Anaheim Ducks in the first two regular-season NHL games to be played in Europe.

The basketball clash, on 10 October, pits the Boston Celtics against the Minnesota Timberwolves. That game is part of NBA Europe Live, a four-team tour that incorporates training camps and seven games in six European cities.

606: DEBATE
Matt Slater
Venue chief executive Beard told BBC Sport: "The beauty of this building is its versatility. It can be converted from an ice hockey set-up to basketball in a matter of hours.

"And while the initial focus is going to be more on music and family-type events, world-class sport will be a key component. We are hosting the 2009 World Gymnastic Championships and we are speaking to sports like tennis, cycling, boxing, football and many others."

Beard confirmed that AEG was in talks with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) about the possibility of staging the Masters Cup. The ATP season finale is currently held in Shanghai but that contract runs out in 2008.

He also said he was confident, given the evidence of the early ticket sales for the NBA and NHL games, that there was an appetite for "the very best US sport" in the UK.

The Millennium Dome
An iconic London landmark or an expensive white elephant?
"I'm certain both will want to come back in the very near future," he added.

Beard admitted, however, that perhaps the biggest challenge he faces will be overcoming the negative connotations that have connected themselves to the venue since its inception in the mid-1990s.

The Dome, the largest single-roofed structure in the world, was built to hold a year-long exhibition to celebrate the beginning of the third millennium. But the project was dogged by controversy and cynicism.

That controversy grew as the exhibition came to its conclusion - having attracted just over half of its projected number of visitors - and a coherent plan for the building's future failed to materialise.

One year and considerable amounts of political finger-pointing and public money later, an "exclusive partner" for the 189-acre site was appointed in December 2001. That partner was Meridian Delta Ltd (MDL), with whom AEG and government agency English Partnerships entered into a joint venture to run the Dome and regenerate the area in a deal worth 5bn over 20 years.

AEG, who used to own Manchester's MEN Arena, later bought out MDL's share in the Dome and took sole responsibiliity for the venue.

I am confident (The O2) will compare with any venue of its type in north America

Andrew Messick
NBA senior vice president
The Dome was initially supposed to re-open in 2004 but deadlines were missed and the saga dragged on - the most recent chapter coming in January 2007 when the government handed a super-casino licence to Manchester and not, as was expected, the Greenwich venue.

That decision led to fears that "The O2" (AEG sold the building's naming rights in 2005) would be mothballed but they have not been realised, and Beard said "the finances were fine".

"I also think the terrible preconceived ideas that many people used to have about the Dome are going too," he said.

The new plan is for the arena, which can seat 23,000 people, to stage 150 events in its first year. There is also a permanent 2,200-capacity music venue, an exhibition space, an 11-screen cinema and 30 restaurants and bars. A 1,800-seat theatre is planned for later.

The business model for the venue is the AEG-owned Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Opened in 1999 at a cost of $375m (191m), the multi-purpose complex is home to five different LA sports franchises - the NBA's Clippers and Lakers, the NHL's Kings, the Women's National Basketball Association's Sparks and the Arena Football League's Avengers.

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett blocks Celtics star Paul Pierce's shot
Minnesota's Garnett and Celtics star Pierce will be big draws at The O2
It has also staged numerous entertainment and political events, such as the Grammys and the Democratic National Convention.

Unlike the Staples Center, however, Beard said there were no plans for The O2 to have a "permanent sporting tenant" in the near future.

American pop star Justin Timberlake is scheduled to open The O2 on 4 July, although Beard suggested, with building work set to be completed by early June, an earlier event could still be added.

Andrew Messick, the NBA's international development boss, was clearly impressed by what he saw of London's newest entertainment venue.

At The O2 earlier this month to help promote the Celtics v Timberwolves game, Messick told BBC Sport: "We've talked about bringing an NBA game to the UK before but there have always have been a few stumbling blocks.

"Cost is a big one but another has been that there hasn't really been the right venue in the UK.

"Well, that is about to change. I am really impressed by what I have seen and I am confident that when it is finished it will compare with any venue of its type in north America."



SEE ALSO
NHL rivals set to meet in London
01 Mar 07 |  Ice Hockey
London venue to host NBA teams
19 Feb 07 |  Basketball
Wembley to host Dolphins & Giants
02 Feb 07 |  American Football
Dome to reopen as concert arena
25 May 05 |  Entertainment
Dome doom or hockey history?
19 Dec 01 |  Other Sports
New life for Millennium Dome
18 Dec 01 |  UK News


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