By Jimmy Carlton Sportswriter Published Mar 07, 2018 at 7:01 PM

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.

You mentioned this is the smallest market you've been in, and you also alluded to things like traffic compared to a city like Chicago. What sort of inherent challenges and advantages have you found in Milwaukee and what have you taken from other projects and experiences that you're trying to implement here?

Listen, I think the first challenge, and the challenge that people told me about coming in here, is that no tours stop in Milwaukee. Shows will play Summerfest, but tours aren't hitting the Bradley Center, tours are not hitting Panther Arena. They're just driving past, Chicago to Minneapolis, right past us on I-94 – just wave at the building around 3 a.m. when you're on the road, and so that was the first item that we had to combat.

We're very capable of hosting these shows, and I think, obviously, the lineup has shown that. I think the marketplace has shown that and, not to give too much away, but we thought there was gonna be a reliance on people from Northern Illinois having to come up and buy and support us in the ticket sales, but 95 percent of our ticket buyers are coming from the counties around Milwaukee, which is huge. So it's shown that there's an appetite for live music on the arena-touring side.

And it's a buy-in to the project at large, too.

Right. And it's OK, it's good that people … you have your 10 days in the middle of the summer to go see Summerfest, but you also have the other 355 days that you wanna go out and have a meal Downtown and catch a gig, catch a show someplace, whatever it is. I think there's a lot of people that definitely understood that there's a new arena, so let's go out and test it. And there's a lot of quotes and a lot of articles saying we're gonna have a honeymoon period, but the market is totally supporting us and everything we've put on sale so far, so I think they're gonna be blown away in the next two to four months as we kind of finish out our 2018 calendar and roll into 2019.

I think on what have I learned globally, listen, it's a fight every day. And you have to go out and try to be the best every day. And I think Peter's done a great job of this. We don't need to compare ourselves to anyone else in Milwaukee. Let's not even compare ourselves to anybody else in the Midwest. Let's go out there and be the trendsetters for everything. Let's go out there and be the most successful and most respected sports-entertainment company in the world.

And a lot of that is going to take best practices, not just from the U.S., but from Europe, as well. We went over to Europe and we spent three and a half hours at Arsenal, understanding how they grew their business. How did Arsenal become the focal point of a kid in Cambodia? That's the team. That should be us with the Bucks too. Obviously it’s a lot easier said than done, but it's something where we're thinking globally every day and want to be the best.

You said in an interview recently that you love getting uncomfortable in your own skin. What's made you uncomfortable in Milwaukee and what about the project have you enjoyed in that way?

Milwaukee's a very close-knit community. Before I got here, people told me, ‘Oh, if you're not from Milwaukee, you're gonna kind of get looked at a little differently or people might not accept you,’ and that's been the complete opposite here. I think a lot of it is going in and having hard conversations. We love the Pabst Theater Group – Matt (Beringer) and Gary (Witt) are fantastic – but how do you get uncomfortable? You work with Matt and Gary and you do something that's unusual where you're taking Jim Gaffigan from a run of Pabst New Year’s Eve shows and putting him in an arena. That's crazy, but it's great and we've sold a lot of tickets for that right now.

So it's going in there and changing the status quo. And there's a few other things where it's like, OK there's money getting thrown at acts in the region and how do we go out there and convince the show to come to this building, and I think that is getting creative and part of it here internally is an education process. I'd like to say that we're going from a basketball team to a real estate team at the snap of a finger, drop of a hat, and I think that's been a challenge, and you have to go out there and do things differently, have those conversations and be a lot more flexible here.

What’s the sell to touring acts and their representatives to get them to come here?

Yeah, so what we did during the design process – and I came in late during that – but during the design process, we reached out to a bunch of production directors and production managers that are both touring or in a regional office. "Hey what do you wanna see in the loading docks? What do you wanna see backstage?"

And honestly, it's something that you would think is quite simple, such as, "We just wanna control the temperature in our own office or room," but it's unusual in a lot of buildings – it's centralized or it's done by quadrant. So, OK, we're gonna make sure that happens. "We just wanna be comfortable, we want to control the lighting level, where it's not just on and off, but we wanna be able to dim the lights." Well that's great too. "We don't wanna walk far to catering." OK, well then here's your catering right there. So getting the user input on non-basketball was very important to us.

Especially the backstage experience, and you know we talk about all the time that we've got six loading docks that are covered versus one that is outside, and that’s massive. That speeds up your loading time, that helps the show keep costs down in a new building and the fact that you can unload a truck really quickly, so when you start looking at these massive shows that we got – Metallica, Foo Fighters – where we're hanging 150,000 pounds above the stage and you're sitting there saying, oh yeah, we can get these up in a couple hours because we have the ability to do it.

Best practices on security is another thing and it's not really talked about, but obviously the world of security has changed in the last two years. The tragedy in Manchester, other shootings – fortunately for us, the NBA has stayed ahead of the game; it kind of is best practices – but what does it look like when we have 10,000 fans walking into the building at one time? What happens when you have 17,000 fans walking out at one time into a plaza? What are our camera locations?

We spent a lot of time on security. We hired a very high-level security executive who comes from the White House, from presidential detail, to actually run our security for us. But at the same time, we're out there talking to every security director in other arenas, on tours as well, and it's really ... 10 years ago, security would be the last thing ever discussed during a production meeting. But now, "OK, how do we get our artist offstage if something goes bad, show me where your backstage security is." Now they wanna make sure what the bag policy is, not just for ticket-holders, but for building staff and tour staff, too.

Yeah, it has to be front-of-mind, rightfully so. You guys have booked a lot of big-name acts, and sort of frenetically – Jim Gaffigan, Maroon 5, Foo Fighers, Kevin Hart, Justin Timberlake, the Eagles, Elton John, Metallica. Who are you personally most excited to see?

I’ve seen the Foo Fighters in seven different countries, I've seen Metallica in about 10 different countries – and I'm not saying that I'm sitting here booking based on my tastes (laughs). These were both agents that reached out to us directly.

Listen, I've never worked a Jim Gaffigan show. Seen him a lot on TV, and I'm excited to see him live. I think we've got some content that we're rolling out in the next month and a half, two months, that I'm really excited to see – content that probably would have never come to Milwaukee in the past, which is great for us.

It's hard for me to be a fan of the shows sometimes because you've got so much going on, and there's 17,000 people in the stands, there's production people all over the place, there's VIP's, you're trying to make sure everybody's getting in safe, getting out safe, your food and beverage is operating, so you're lucky to catch half of "Enter Sandman." But we're big on rock right now, as you see from our lineup, and I think we're really gonna diversify the calendar in the next two months.

Speaking of diversification, besides Bucks and Marquette basketball, what other sports programming are you guys looking at? You mentioned MMA, UFC, and recently the ice-making capabilities were installed at the WESC.

Yeah, we're having conversations about what college hockey looks like, probably more slated towards 2019 at this point than later on this year. We're working with a couple different agencies and promoters on that. We're looking at what different college basketball and doubleheaders and what are called multi-team event tournaments look like. We're looking to tennis too, different indoor cups and Master’s tennis and things like that. Listen, I was at the Garden when we did beach volleyball indoors, so maybe there's an opportunity for that as well.

So there's a lot of things that we're looking at right now. High school sports, obviously, we'll look at conference tournaments as they start popping up. We'll look at other NCAA events as well too, whether it's gymnastics, wrestling, different stuff. We didn't feel comfortable enough with the design of the building, where we were on our different seating systems for these events in the past, but now we have a better idea and we'll start making a push more towards NCAA content.

I think I know your answer to this, but is there any type of programming that you guys know already you cannot or will not do?

No. We look at every bit of content. Content is what drives the business at the end of the day.

Us too.

Yeah (laughs). And again, whether it is a USA versus Canada wrestling event, we'll look at WWE, but there's nothing that we have said that we don't want right now and there's actually nothing that has come up in conversation that just doesn't fit in the building either. Again, this goes back to design. We were very flexible with our seating system, where we can change the format of the event pretty quickly, like the footprint.

We’ve watched as the arena has gone up, we can see that progress, but there hasn’t been as much development with the Live Block entertainment district. Can you tell people what to expect with that?

Sure. So we'll start with the plaza. The plaza's gonna be a 75,000-square foot footprint when it's finally completed, which includes connectors to Third Street too, so we look at that as a venue in itself. We are in the process of actually hiring someone to come onto our team to focus on the plaza, and that is going to be everything from your Monday morning yoga sessions to your Tuesday night movies on the plaza to farmers markets to night markets to discos to live concerts to public dinner events like Dîner en Blanc.

We're going to have activations in a play zone, as well. When you start looking at what we're calling the entertainment district, there's gonna be some announcements coming out, probably in the next 30 to 60 days, of who our tenant partners are gonna be. And there's some concepts coming in which you have to use your imagination, but I really think a lot of people, especially people that live Downtown, are really gonna get into.

This is really work, play, live, is what we're trying to develop over the next few years here. We have 28 acres to do this, so the first part has been the play part, which is the arena, the plaza, the live block, then obviously we're building some apartments next to our apartment garage too. We've opened up our practice facility, Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center building is in full operation, the parking garage is in full operation, people will be able to walk directly from the parking garage into the arena.

We've actually sold out all of our parking for the Metallica show right now, which is great. We're starting to look at what do ticketed concerts on the plaza look like? Can we do X number of shows every year on the plaza for 4,000 to 5,000 people? What does kids entertainment look like? What does a beach volleyball pit – not to take it away from Bradford Beach – look like out there? What does a tennis court look like out there? So we're gonna get creative and I think, again, people that live Downtown are really gonna enjoy what this space looks like about a year from now.

So a year from now, what does it look like?

I would say probably two to three. Part of what we need to do is wind down the Bradley Center and eventually start working on the deconstruction of the Bradley Center. There's a lot of questions, a lot of balls in the air, as to what these pieces of land are gonna be too, but again I think our owners are very committed to everything that they've built so far in Milwaukee and I think there's a lot of opportunities for various sorts of design and different buildings to go in there.

OK, well let’s say three years then. Three years from now, a family goes in for a game or a show, comes to the plaza and then the arena, and you happen to be sitting nearby, taking a rare break. What do you hope to overhear them saying about this whole thing?

"Wow I can't believe it, this is fantastic. I can't wait to move to Milwaukee because they have this." You start looking at dwell times and people are currently coming downtown, going into the arena, leaving the arena, some will go to Third Street, some will go to Water, some will go up on to Brady. I think people are gonna be like, "This is a great; no matter if I'm 2 or 92, I'm having a lot of fun here." For anyone that's ever been to 4th Street Live in Louisville, LA live next to Staples Center in Los Angeles, KC Live in the Power and Light District in in Kansas City, this is gonna be very similar to that, where you're gonna come Downtown, you're gonna come to our district and there's just so much to do.

There's gonna be a lot of things to do that won't cost you money, as well. You'll park your car, you can park on the street, you can park in any of the garages or lots and spend a lot of time down here too. And, actually, what we also have to do is define what the plaza and what the entertainment district next phase of growth looks like three years from now.

Well, we can't wait to hear the next 10,000 announcements you're bound to make in the next few weeks.

Stay tuned.

Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.

After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.

Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.