The arena has the highest seating capacity of any indoor venue in the United Kingdom, and second largest in the European Union with a capacity of 21,000 and is one of the world's busiest indoor arenas, hosting music and sporting events such as boxing and swimming. The arena was a key part of Manchester's bids to host the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000 and was eventually used for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
The arena was temporarily closed following a terrorist attack by a suicide bomber on 22 May 2017, in which a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured 500 more at the end of Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman Tour. Shows that were scheduled to be at the arena were either moved to alternative venues, or cancelled completely. The arena reopened on 9 September for a special benefit concert headlined by Manchester-born singer Noel Gallagher.
First proposed during the regeneration of Manchester city centre during the 1980s, the structure was designed by DLA Ellerbe Beckett, Ove Arup & Partners, and Austin-Smith:Lord. The arena is sited in air rights space over the station and was constructed without disrupting use of the station. The original plans included a glass tower which was not built. It originally hosted a seven-screen multiplex cinema, a multi-purpose arena and multi-storey parking. The former multiplex cinema, which opened in 1996, closed after just four years and is now a call centre. Following the bombing, the foyer has undergone renovation which still remains in progress during 2017, although it has been reopened to the public.
A large truss measuring 105 metres (344 ft) spans the roof. Reinforced concrete is used to increase sound insulation. The upper parts of the building are clad in purple-grey with green glass. The arena was opened on 15 July 1995.
The arena was one of the first indoor venues in Europe to be built following layout of 360-degree seating, and is the only arena in the UK to have this feature (London's The O2, formerly the Millennium Dome, also has 360-degree seating, but only on its lower tier, whereas Manchester's arena features it on both tiers). Other European indoor venues built to the same concept include the Lanxess Arena (Cologne, Germany), Arena Zagreb (Zagreb, Croatia), Spaladium Arena (Split, Croatia), Kombank Arena (Belgrade, Serbia), O2 Arena (Prague, Czech Republic), and the Barclaycard Arena (Hamburg, Germany).
The arena was constructed as part of the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Construction cost £52 million of which £35.5m was provided by government grants and £2.5m from the European Regional Development Fund. Although built as an American style sports arena it has been more successful hosting large music events.