The chaotic launch of the new £365 million Co-op Live arena in Manchester - dubbed Manchester’s own Fyre Festival - continued last night, with yet another cancelled show. This comes after all of its opening week events were pulled, with assurances that everything would be up and running for A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Olivia Rodrigo this week.

Five days ago Tim Leiweke, top dog at venue operator Oak View Group told the Manchester Evening News, “This is the most expensive arena ever built outside of North America. It is a technical marvel, but it’s also a big sas building. We’ll be ready to go for Olivia, for sure. We’ll be done.”

Last night Co-op Live pulled the plug on A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s show ten minutes after doors opened, and as fans were entering the venue. Shortly afterwards, two Olivia Rodrigo shows on 3-4 May were also cancelled.

This all came after what was described as “a steel bar” fell from a gantry into the bowl of the arena during a sound check earlier in the day. OVG later clarified that this was a nozzle from the air-conditioning equipment for the arena and tried to push responsibility off to the manufacturer of the equipment claiming that it was an “isolated incident caused by a factory defect”. 

What’s not clear is why it took nearly two hours for OVG to pull last night’s event. In its statement, OVG said that the decision was made “in conjunction with wider stakeholders”. 

It’s not clear whether Co-op Group, which reportedly spent nearly £100 million to secure a fifteen year naming rights deal for the arena, was consulted as part of the process. However, in its own statement Co-op Group said that it was “shocked at the incident” and that it would be seeking a “full explanation from Oak View Group” - implying that it had as little information as anyone else at the point it issued its statement.

OVG now says that the “installer, contractor and a third-party inspector will now test each nozzle to confirm they are free of defect”.

Tim Leiweke went on to say that OVG “could not and will not run any event until it is absolutely safe to do so”. 

With only three days to go until Keane are due to play Co-op Live, the string of cancellations has caused outrage amongst ticket holders for the cancelled shows, and nervousness for fans hoping to attend future shows. With many people travelling into Manchester by train, and in some cases plane, and many of those travel plans non-refundable, there’s an increasing volume of people taking to social media demanding compensation from OVG or Co-op.

Co-op’s own statement acknowledged this, saying, “We share the disappointment and frustration of ticket holders, many of whom are Co-op members, with the continuing delay to the opening of Co-op Live and the disruption that this is causing to everyone who has been looking forward to attending events”. 

However, dozens of ticket holders responded directly to a tweet from Co-op Live last night in which the company apologised “for the significant inconvenience this will cause for many” demanding compensation for travel and hotels that they’d booked for cancelled shows, with hundreds more making the same demand across social media. 

A number of fans have said that they want refunds for shows taking place in coming days, partly because they don’t trust that they will take place, but also because they are unwilling to act as “guinea pigs” for events in what two people called an “unsafe, dangerous, rush job arena” and a “major cowboy job”.

With Co-op Group publicly chastising OVG in its statement, there are suggestions that the company may be regretting its naming rights deal with the venue. While termination of naming rights agreements is possible, it’s relatively unusual. However, with potential for continuing negative publicity impacting Co-op Group’s brand, it's likely that Co-op Group will be investigating all options.

Co-op Group’s General Counsel is Dominic Kendall-Ward, who was previously Counsel at legal giant Linklaters, where he worked for “a wide variety of organisations on corporate advice and transactions”. 

In an interview he gave when he took the job he said, “The group secretary role at our Co-op is unique and fascinating, with some quite specific roles and responsibilities under our Co-op Rules”. 

It is those Co-op Rules - effectively the constitution of the Cooperative Society, which set out how it should operate, and set a framework for governance, that could be critical. 

Rule 43.3 of the Co-op’s rules that govern its operations says that the organisation’s board is responsible for “overseeing a risk and internal audit framework designed to provide adequate assurance as to the protection of the group’s assets; the health, safety and welfare of customers, members and staff; compliance with all relevant laws and regulations and the maintenance of the reputation of the society.”

Whether Co-op Live’s current actions are in accordance with the Co-op Group board’s responsibility in regards to the “maintenance of the reputation of the society” would be for the board - and potentially ultimately the Co-op’s Council, composed of members, employees and others, tasked with holding the board to account - to decide.

At the time the deal between Co-op Group and OVG was announced, Leiweke said, “Our partnership goes way beyond a normal naming rights agreement. The shared values will help define the ethos of the venue”, while Steve Murrels - then group CEO of Co-op Group said, “The entertainment arena brings to life the co-operative difference and our vision to co-operate for a fairer world, from its sustainable construction, support for communities, zero food waste and member only exclusive benefits”.

As a member-owned society that positions itself as a trustworthy and ethical brand, the potential for a major safety incident taking place could have catastrophic effects on its reputation. Even without a major incident, the continuing chaos at Co-op Live, which is at odds with the “co-operative difference” trumpeted by Murrels, will be causing concern amongst Co-op Group executives and Co-op members - not least because over the past decade, Co-op Group has faced a number of other significant reputational challenges.

These primarily related to its then subsidiary, the Co-operative Bank, after a series of disastrous ventures brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. This was compounded by the actions of the bank’s Chair Reverend Paul Flowers, a former Methodist church minister - dubbed the “crystal methodist” - who was banned from holding City positions for life after a Financial Conduct Authority investigation found he had used company phones to dial premium-rate sex lines, and used his work email to send and receive “sexually explicit and otherwise inappropriate messages, and to discuss illegal drugs”, and who was later charged with fraud. The financial collapse of the Co-operative Bank and ensuing rescue - and later scandal - meant the Co-op Group lost control and ownership of its banking brand, which is now fully owned by private equity groups. 

CMU contacted Co-op Group to ask whether the organisation would be seeking to terminate the naming rights agreement, with OVG; whether Co-op was consulted by OVG after the incident but prior to the show being cancelled; whether Co-op Group would push OVG to compensate fans who are out of pocket for travel and accommodation relating to cancelled shows; and whether Co-op Group was confident that the Keane show planned for this weekend would go ahead.

A spokesperson for Co-op Group told CMU, “We share the frustration and disappointment that so many people are experiencing. At this point, we have no update to our statement below. However, to reiterate, we are actively in talks with OVG as referenced below”.

With Co-op Live’s opening chaos seemingly likely to continue, you have to ask the question: how much chaos is too much chaos for the Co-op? 

Co-op Group’s statement in full:

As the naming rights sponsor for Co-op Live, we are shocked at the incident which has led to late cancellation of tonight’s show at the arena. We are relieved that no-one has been injured, but we share the disappointment and frustration of ticket holders, many of whom are Co-op members, with the continuing delay to the opening of Co-op Live and the disruption that this is causing to everyone who has been looking forward to attending events.

We will be seeking a full explanation from Oak View Group (OVG), who are responsible for the building, to the obvious questions arising from this, together with a clear plan from the Co-op Live venue management team at OVG for opening the venue and postponed and future events.

Safety is of course the number one priority and it is critical that Co-op members and other ticket holders can enjoy events in a venue with the very highest levels of security and safety measures in place. We are very grateful for Manchester City Council’s and the emergency services’ continued engagement with OVG to ensure that Co-op Live opens as soon as possible.

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