Whether building political bridges or navigating the uncertainty of COVID, Mike McKenna has played his role as Optus Stadium’s chief with a straight bat.
HISTORY tells us that the construction of a new stadium is normally marred in controversy and often permeated by political posturing.
Even the most famous of all, Rome’s Colosseum, was created by one emperor wanting to garner popularity following the overindulgences of another.
“When all factors are taken into consideration, Burswood is the wrong site for the project,” Mr McGowan said in the lead up to the 2013 state election.
If Labor had won that year, the West Coast Eagles would be having their horror season on Kitchener Park and Subiaco locals would still be moaning about footy traffic clogging their streets.
Nine years on, and the man running the state’s biggest tourism magnet and hospitality money spinner, Mike McKenna, is fully aware of the political backstory to the stadium everyone now adores.
“Just months before the opening in 2018, we had to win over a government that had spent the past eight years opposing the stadium,” Mr McKenna said.
“The first job was convincing them that this was a place they could adopt and be proud of.”
Between mid-2017 and the community day grand opening the following January, either Mr McGowan or other ministers attended 15 feel-good photo opportunities at the stadium.
“We wanted to let them see how good it was and let them take ownership,” Mr McKenna told Business News.
A lot of water has gone under the stadium’s Matagarup Bridge since then, including the decision to build components of the Swan River pedestrian crossing in Western Australia because the previous government’s steel fabrication contract in Malaysia stalled.
In its first year of hosting concerts, AFL, cricket and soccer games, Optus Stadium attracted more than 23,000 visitors to Western Australia, who spent a total of $47 million.
There were 54,000 people at the opening one-day international cricket match between Australia and England. More than 52,000 items of hot food were sold.
Ed Sheeran’s audience of 62,622 in March 2018 still holds the stadium record for a single event.
A workforce of 3,300 people has been created and local businesses, such as brewer Gage Roads and Mrs Mac’s Pies, have won lucrative contracts to satisfy the 1.97 million people who attended events in the first 12 months.
As 2019 was ending, Mr McKenna was preparing for an even more successful year ahead.
“To lose it all so immediately [due to COVID] was just gutting,” he said.
“The biggest impact was the uncertainty. You couldn’t plan, and we have to operate on a 12-to-18- month timetable.”
The $1.6 billion stadium and entertainment precinct were all but mothballed as the pandemic became Mr McKenna’s greatest challenge.
A stadium without spectators is like a school without children.
“We stood down about 20 per cent of the staff, basically retrenched them,” Mr McKenna said.
“We put off all our casuals. There were mental health issues for some because what they did at the stadium meant so much to them.
“But while that was happening, we also had to have the capacity to run an event at any moment. For example, when we first shut down, we lost all the footy games and then suddenly the AFL came up with playing in hubs.”
The New Zealander had crossed the Tasman on a two-year contract with a building products company in the 1980s.
He liked the east coast so much he found a job in marketing for toolmakers Black+Decker.
Mr McKenna later landed a role with global accounting firm and Olympic Games sponsor Arthur Andersen, which opened doors to Melbourne’s sports industry establishment.
“I was approached by Essendon Football Club,” Mr McKenna told Business News.
“Peter Jackson recruited me in 1998. I had always had an interest in sport and I made the move pretty well. Essendon had a good run at that time and won the premiership in 2000.”
Mr McKenna was Essendon’s commercial operations manager and the idea of running a stadium was still not part of his grand plan.
However, his next move to Cricket Australia formed the link to Perth.
He was one of the architects of the hugely popular Big Bash League, and that required him to look to the future for venues able to host the full BBL experience.
“I’d been working on new contracts for cricket to be played in WA and I could see what the new stadium would mean for Perth,” Mr McKenna said.
“I knew this wasn’t going to be just another venue. It was going to be a very important asset and the job of managing it would be major.”
In early 2017, Mr McKenna became the stadium’s third employee.
As the boss, he had less than 12 months to transform an untested state-of-the art construction into a sports and events Mecca.
The former Black+Decker man was thrust into finalising 25 stadium operating plans, each valued at many millions of dollars.
He and his small team had to procure $11 million worth of knives, forks, plates, glasses, tables and chairs.
The list went on and on.
“My job was to start the process, but also find the right people to work with and keep them motivated,” Mr McKenna said.
“We had a year to go from nowhere to opening the doors. There was a lot of pressure.”
Mr McKenna moved into a property very close to the stadium he was charged with breathing life into and decided the best way to and from the office was by e-scooter.
He still wears his suit, a helmet and enjoys the seven-minute commute, which includes gliding over the Matagarup Bridge.
Over a coffee with Business News in the stadium cafe, Mr McKenna doesn’t come across as the type to panic.
He doesn’t boast about his achievements since taking on the stadium role, but he’s emphatic about his proudest day on the job.
“It has to be to be last year’s AFL grand final,” he said.
“It was a perfect day; apart from a couple of blokes from Melbourne getting through security, nothing went wrong. It was such a big event for WA and there was such a big focus on how we did it.”
He revealed that serious discussions had been under way with the AFL eight months before the unprecedented September bouncedown in Perth.
As the pandemic continued to rage on the east coast, Mr McGowan was publicly cool on the idea of a grand final occurring here.
He certainly wasn’t offering a wad of money to entice the AFL to the west, unlike the South Australian government.
“South Australia offered a lot of money, but they could only offer a crowd of 48,000 compared to our 60,000,” Mr McKenna said.
“We were close the year before when it went to Queensland. We knew our commercial offering was very good for the AFL. It was nerve-racking because a lot of work went into the 2021 proposal that not many people knew about. There were only four of us in the working group.”
The cherry on the cake, Mr McKenna said, was the quality of the game.
He watched the smile on the face of AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan become a permanent fixture during the day.
“People have done a fantastic job here under some real duress,” Mr McKenna said.
“We’ve shown what we can do.”
The arrival of COVID in WA has undermined crowd numbers as people remain wary of large gatherings.
Mr McKenna estimates a 15 per cent drop and believes the hesitancy could remain for another year.
But this winter the stadium will resemble 2019 all over again with the NRL State of Origin, international rugby union and four English Premier League teams arriving in July.
There’s also the prospect of the Fremantle Dockers going all the way.
“The stadium is the key to reinvigorating the city and the state,” Mr McKenna said.
“Other content is created around the events we have, and everyone can benefit from it.”
The stadium’s burgeoning story may have been interrupted by a once-in-a-century global event, but that well-worn adage – build it and they will come – is holding true.
And no-one is questioning the location, anymore.