Why stadiums and theatres sweat their assets so poorly

Why do airlines use their expensive assets so much more efficiently than entertainment venues? And how do stadiums, arenas, theatres and cinemas compare?

A key driver of profitability in the airline industry is aircraft utilisation. The logic being that aircraft only make money when they are flying. Budget airlines like Ryanair have based their business model on minimizing the time the planes spend on the ground so that they can squeeze more or longer flights into a day and thereby generate more revenue without requiring more capital. Ryanair aims for a turnaround between flights of 25 minutes, whereas traditional carriers will plan for around 60 minutes. With short-haul aircraft such as an Airbus A319 costing $85 million, and long-haul ‘Superjumbo’ A380s costing over $400 million, sweating your assets is vital. According to Emirates, their aircraft utilisation is 13.7 hours per day, or 57%. In other words, the asset is being productive 57% of the time, and idle 43% of the time.


How does the entertainment world fare in optimising asset utilisation? This article will compare sports stadiums, music arenas, theatres and cinemas.


We start with a look at Emirates Stadium, the 60,000 seat home of Arsenal Football Club in North London. The Emirates opened in 2006 with construction costing £390 million. The interest cost on stadium debt represents around £13-14 million per annum[1]. Maximising revenue on such a costly asset is surely a priority. Matchday income – money raised through home fixtures and therefore directly related to the stadium – was £95.2 million in Financial year 2012. Of every £7 generated at the ticket office, therefore, £1 goes to service the debt used to pay construction of the asset.


To calculate asset utilisation for the Emirates Stadium, we need to make some assumptions. How often is the Stadium used? Arsenal FC play 19 home games in the Premier League each season. In the 2013/14 season they also played four home FA Cup games, 1 qualification match for the UEFA Champions League, three Group Stage matches and a second round match against Bayern Munich. They played a single home game in the Capital One Cup. This gives us a total of 29 home games.

A football match lasts 90 minutes (plus injury time) with a 15 minute half time break. If we allow for 45 minutes before a game and 30 minutes after, the stadium is effectively used for 3 hours on a match day.

29 matches at 3 hours per match gives us a basic stadium utilisation of 87 hours per year. There are 8,760 hours in a year. The effective utilisation of The Emirates asset is therefore less than 1%. A £390 million asset is essentially not being used more than 99% of the time.

Arsenal seek to improve the ratio slightly with a small number of other events, such as the Emirates Cup pre-season warm-up event, a 4-match round robin competition played over two days in August. There have also been concerts after the end of the season, with Coldplay selling out three gigs in 2012, for example.

Between 2006 and 2011, the Brazilian national football team chose to play one international friendly match per year in Europe, mainly to avoid long distance flights to Brazil for their star players, most of whom play in European leagues. The Emirates hosted one such match per year, although this source of revenue now appears to have stopped.

Even if we add fifteen hours for gigs, twelve hours for the Emirates Cup and three hours for an international friendly, we only reach 117 hours or 1.3%.

Wembley Stadium


Wembley Stadium, Europe’s second largest stadium is an even more expensive asset at £757 million when it opened in 2007.

In a typical year (September 2013- September 2014), there are eleven Club Football matches (The Play-offs – Championship, League 1, League 2 and Conference Premier – four matches, The FA Cup: two Semi-Finals and the Final, The FA Vase, Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, The FA Trophy Final, Capital One Cup Final).

The England Football team played seven games. The Danone Nations Cup (a tournament for children) brings the football total to 19 matches.

Rugby saw four games (Saracens vs Harlequins, The Challenge Cup Final and two Rugby League World Cup Semi Final).

2014 will see one bout of boxing at Wembley with the Carl Froch and George Groves fighting for the Super Middleweight crown.

Finally, three NFL matches are played in September to November.

This gives us a total for sporting events of 27. Assuming three hours per event, 81 hours’ utilisation.

Wembley hosts far more gigs than the Emirates, with eight in 2013 – the Capital FM Summertime Ball plus concerts by Roger Waters, The Killers, Bruce Springsteen and a four night residency by Robbie Williams. At five hours per gig, that’s 40 hours in 2013.

Total asset utilisation is broadly similar to the Emirates at 121 hours or 1.4%.

The 02 Arena


What about the 02? Following the conversion of the ill-fated Millenium Dome to a privately-owned venue operated by AEG, it hosts over 140 events per year – mostly pop and rock gigs, but also comedy, ATP tennis and other events such as Walking with Dinosaurs. Assuming 3 hours for a gig, the utilisation is around 5%, far more than Wembley or the Emirates.


A typical West End Theatre hosting a long-running musical will host 8 performances per week, 52 weeks a year. Assuming 2 ½ hours for the performance plus 45 minutes before and 15 minutes after for the audience to be inside the venue, gives us 3 ½ hours per show. 3.5 x 8 x 52 = 1,456 hours of effective use or 16.6%. Which compares exceptionally well to a football stadium.

Repertory theatres, such as the National, will have a lower utilisation, as productions will need time for technical rehearsals and get-ins, but will still comfortably exceed arenas and stadiums.

In Las Vegas, utilisation is a touch higher, as the schedule for musicals and Cirque Du Soleil shows is 2 performances, five days per week – ten shows compared with the eight in the West End or Broadway.

Capital costs for theatres, even major houses, are a small fraction of the cost of an arena or stadium. Andrew Lloyd Webber purchased ten theatres in 1999 for £85 million, including the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.



Cinemas are where the accountants will find pleasure: a typical cinema screen will usually screen three or four times per day, seven days per week. Assuming 2 ¼ hours per movie, including trailers and adverts, four times a day, would give 37.5% utilisation. Cinemas have an inbuilt advantage: they have very low marginal costs for additional performances. To screen a movie at lunchtime involves only a handful of staff and a small electricity bill (plus a share of box office revenue which goes to the film distributor), whereas a performance of a West End musical can require over 100 staff (actors, front of house and technical staff). Nonetheless, this utilisation puts other venue types to shame.

Perhaps ironically, the higher the capital cost of the venue, the lower its utilisation appears to be. The relatively cheap cinema screen has a utilisation at levels airlines would be happy with, whereas a Billion-dollar stadium is empty 99% of the time. How to fix that? That is a question for another time!


[1] The Swiss Rambler http://swissramble.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/arsenal-song-remains-same.html


Emirates aircraft http://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/nov/30/emirates-airline-collateral-dubai-debt

Emirates Stadium http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emirates_Stadium_Night_-_East_side_-_Composite.jpg

Wembley http://www.wembleystadium.com/TheStadium

The 02 cutaway http://www.e-architect.co.uk/london/o2-arena

Regal cinema http://archive.delawareonline.com/blogs/2008/01/10-movie-ticket.html



4 thoughts on “Why stadiums and theatres sweat their assets so poorly

  1. Interesting analysis, but arguably the O2 utilisation could be considered somewhat higher… Granted, the arena itself may be underutilised, but the O2 complex also houses a smaller venue (Indigo), a cinema (which you’ve shown are a good thing!), restaurants, the British Music Experience, and a climbing activity (Up at the O2) all of which are used outside core show times… So to be fair to the management, they do appear to be trying to at least partially address this utilisation concern…?

    • Absolutely correct! The same is also true, to a lesser extent for other venues – stadiums host conferences and have retail outlets, some theatres are rented out for conferences or offer backstage tours. I feared the post would be too long so I will come back to this off-setting another time. Thanks for your input!

  2. Pingback: The Old Vic transformed: CQS Space | showbusinessinsights

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