Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2023


For the long term, there’s optimism about sports arena


Sam Morris

From left, Daren Libonati from the Thomas & Mack Center, former Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, Pat Christenson from Las Vegas Events and Don Logan from the Las Vegas 51s.

Major sports in Las Vegas?

Watch highlights of the roundtable discussion about the hopes and dreams for a new arena -- and maybe a major league franchise with Pat Christenson of Las Vegas Events, Daren Libonati of the Thomas & Mack Center, Don Logan of the Las Vegas 51s and Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Audio Clip

  • Full Sports Roundtable

Last summer, two groups were rushing to be first to build a Las Vegas arena.

They promised to have shovels in the ground by this June.

We could be playing ball — or hockey — by 2010, they said. Las Vegas seemed a giant step closer to becoming a major league city. You could almost hear the buzz from Summerlin to Green Valley.

Well, June is here. Where are those shovels?

REI Neon’s $10.5 billion plan, anchored by a downtown sports arena, has fizzled like a year-old bottle rocket.

And it’s so quiet you can almost hear crickets chirping on the lot behind Bally’s, where Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. and partner Anschutz Entertainment Group plan to build a $500 million, 20,000-seat sports and entertainment arena.

Delays are common in the arena-building business, so this seemed like a good time to assemble a panel of experts to talk about what a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment arena would mean to Las Vegas — or whether we should give up.

The panel:

• Jerry Colangelo is the former majority owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and played a vital role in the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets relocating to Phoenix. Since 2005, he’s been director of USA Basketball, which trains and plays exhibition games in Las Vegas.

• Pat Christenson is the president of Las Vegas Events, the tourism agency that produces and presents sports and other major events, including the National Finals Rodeo, the Las Vegas 400 NASCAR race and the Las Vegas Bowl football game.

• Daren Libonati is the director of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium. Under his direction, the Thomas & Mack has become an industry leader, trailing only venerable Madison Square Garden in gross ticket sales during 2007.

• Don Logan is president and general manager of the Pacific Coast League’s Las Vegas 51s, a title he has held almost since the franchise’s inception a quarter century ago.

Here are the highlights of their conversation:

Daren Libonati: Times right now are tough. It’s tougher for a guy to have $2 billion to go out, buy a piece of land, build the right arena complex and come back around and say, “How do I make my money back?” We’re probably painting a picture for a perfect Superman to come in and rip his shirt open and have a big “S” on his shirt and say, “I’m here, I’m your guy, I’ve got all the money, and we can do this.”

Jerry Colangelo: Because of what’s happened to our economy, projects have been put on the shelf. It’s difficult to get financing, regardless of whether it’s public or private. It’s a slow time. But I’m sure, since Harrah’s-AEG announced they would be in the ground in June, they either will be or will announce why they’re not. They’re pretty sharp. So I would expect at some point you’ll hear something from them.

Pat Christensen: There’s only one model that I see right now that has any likelihood, and that’s Harrah’s-AEG. REI, that’s way far off, if it’s anything at all. There are others out there, but they are no further along than concept.

Libonati: There are two or three development teams around that just haven’t raised their heads out of the water to say, “We’re ready and here’s our plans.” I think the people who have examined the Las Vegas market are sensitive. Nobody wants to be the whale that comes out to spout until they know they’re not going to get harpooned by the media.

Don Logan: If someone is planning to build a facility, they’re going to take an anchor tenant like a professional sports team. That’s part of the strategy. I think a promoter, an owner is much more likely to take a shot in Las Vegas than many other cities.

Colangelo: It’s hard to predict when something is going to happen, but I do believe it’s going to become a reality. There are enough things going, enough interested parties, interest from the leagues that will keep building. All that’s happened here is that our economy has taken a big hit. We have to be realistic. It’s slowed down everything.

This town, this valley is going to continue to change and evolve. It’s going to get bigger. It’s going to slow down when things slow down. There will be an arena or a major complex and maybe there will be three teams here 20 years from now. The reality is: Things are a little bit slow but it will happen.

Christensen: I look at the dynamics of a sports-entertainment venue. You look at all the components that it could have here and the type of events we do that no other market does — the National Finals Rodeo, the pro bull riding finals. Things that draw people from the outside because of the event and because of the attraction of Vegas. You look at the growth of Vegas and the quality of rooms and it’s hard for me to believe that someone’s not going to take advantage of that. If you add the mix of professional sports, I don’t think it’s a matter of if, I think it’s a matter of when.

Colangelo: The fact remains, if you don’t have a major league team, you’re not a major league city. This really talks about quality of life. It really does a lot for future growth, because as CEOs look at relocations they look at such things as education and transportation. Quality of life is important, and when you have major league franchises, it makes a big difference.

Logan: The dynamics are different here than any other market in the country. There’s competition for the entertainment dollar that doesn’t exist anywhere else. But Jerry’s point is the most important thing is, it’s quality of life. We aren’t a normal city. This is an adult Disneyland but we’ve got 2 million people who call this home. You have families. You’ve got to have things to do. We need something normal that people in Las Vegas can be proud of.

Colangelo: This is a unique market, and you could build a facility and fill it up with all kinds of wonderful events, but you won’t be a major league city. The bottom line is you’ll have a successful building; you won’t be a major league city. If you want to have a major sport, you need to have the facility. It’s as simple as that.

If you want to build family support for a particular sport, it’s got to be baseball, basketball, hockey or football. I happen to think this market, because of the legacy, because of the history, there should be an NBA team. That’s what belongs here, and I believe it would be very successful.

Christensen: It isn’t so much about whether professional sports is or isn’t good for Las Vegas, but at what expense? Instead of it just focusing on gaming and special events, the big-city atmosphere that comes with a team would help us diversify our economy.

You have two scenarios that can be successful. It may be that it starts as a venue without a professional sports team and works into that. Las Vegas has demonstrated that there are enough events that we’re already doing to make an arena work economically. The other scenario is with professional sports from the start.

The synergy of Vegas, the special events and the professional sports are the three ingredients that will make this venue successful.

Libonati: I think it should not be attached to a casino. The venue needs to be a neutral place to cater to the special needs of our city, our community and our state. There are so many levels of entertainment events, from high school sports to college sports to professional sports to concerts and entertainment. The crazy dynamic of our city is that these venues have been great feeders for our Strip market, which is our primary business here.

Christensen: It’s a very conservative town. I think the public would prefer that the private sector do this. I think most of the Strip properties, as long as it’s not done with public money, are willing to support it, under the right scenario. The bottom line is, if we can pay for it privately, instead of increasing taxes, I believe that’s the best scenario for the community.

Colangelo: Every city is unique and everything here is different from any other city. It will be difficult to get an NBA team here — I can’t speak for the NHL — unless there was a new building.

Libonati: Nobody wants to come in and kick UNLV in the teeth when they build this new venue and take every special event right from UNLV’s coffers. It’s understood that those special events and the revenues they have generated have kept that university in a cash-flow position both athletically and in the university. It has been a wonderful partnership.

Christensen: I think what you’ll find is the pie will grow. This is a creative town. They’ll find ways to fill other arenas. It may not be all of the mainstream stuff. It may not just be concerts. But they’re doing corporate events, bringing meetings in.

Libonati: Our market has changed. Look at the evolution of Las Vegas and entertainment. In the ’70s it was Frank (Sinatra) and the (Rat Pack) boys in small rooms, running the rooms for one, two months at a time. Then in the ’80s, the Thomas & Mack Center was built and we’re begging for mainstream acts to even come to Las Vegas. But the mainstream acts shunned Las Vegas because they felt like, “why would you even want to work on the Strip, that’s so corny.”

The Garden Arena at MGM Grand changed the attitude of what the Las Vegas Strip represented. We had our first arena tied to a casino property and it grew into its own beast.

Now we’re seeing the evolution back to the old-school model. Let’s build nice theaters of 2,000 to 4,000 seats. Let’s get the artists who sell tickets and have brand names. We’ve seen Cher come back. We’ve seen Bette Midler. Elton John. That is going to continue to evolve.

Properties may be looking for this as an excuse to shut down their big arenas and turn them into other opportunities.

You have to know how to change when things change, and you have to be quick on your feet.

The National Finals Rodeo has a need to grow. Pro bull riding has a need to grow. The Super Cross and Monster Trucks want to grow. The Las Vegas Bowl believes it can grow. Everyone needs growth and they need new opportunities and if we’re going to continue to be the home of these wonderful finals, we’ve got to collectively, when this thing is built, look at those and say, how do we make it so that everyone’s a winner?

Colangelo: We keep hearing the world evolve. Things evolve. Businesses change. The bar keeps being raised regarding new technology, new opportunities and buildings.

When does it end? I’m not sure it ends. It just gets better.

Logan: In Vegas, we’re going to have to have the Taj Mahal. It’s going to have to have every bell and whistle and some we haven’t even thought of, because that’s how it’s going to be successful. It will be a great thing, once it comes together.

Libonati: If we could be the guys who created that perfect environment, this complex would have NBA, NHL, baseball and football. Football is a nice scenario because it’s about eight or nine games, and you get a chance to create a lot of excitement in a short window. What a beautiful opportunity that would be.

Maybe that never happens. Maybe that happens in 2020.

Colangelo: Hockey has a cult following. Arena football television ratings are better than hockey ratings. There isn’t any national revenue of any consequence in hockey. How many people play hockey west of the Mississippi when you really get down to it? Hard to relate to it when you don’t experience it. And it’s a tough TV sport. I don’t know how that can ever change.

Now having said all of those things, if you are only a one-horse town, if you have one franchise in a community, it can be successful.

But I’ll go back to what I said before, this town because of legacy, history, exposure to the game, interest in the game, the sport that would be the most successful would be the NBA.

First one in wins.

Sun reporter Mary Manning assisted in the transcription of this manuscript.

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