On Pat Christenson’s retirement, we look back at five of the legendary local event promoter’s defining moments
Las Vegas is a huge entertainment town, right? Not always. For years, its focus was gambling — not shows. That changed shortly after Pat Christenson arrived from Wisconsin in 1980. A UNLV events coordinator job led to filling the then-new Thomas & Mack Center’s calendar, which needed more than just the Runnin’ Rebels to succeed. Superstar concerts, NBA games, and National Finals Rodeo followed, as did the city’s first stadium shows at Sam Boyd. And during his time as Las Vegas Events president, Christenson shepherded Las Vegas to becoming the nation’s live entertainment and sports capital. As he winds his way down to retirement, we look at five milestones that summarize his legacy.
Opening the Thomas & Mack:
Unveiled in 1983, the 18,500-seat T&M wasn’t designed just for sports, but also for long-underserved music fans. The venue opened its doors to whoever wanted a crack at the city’s 500,000 residents and 12 million-plus visitors. Christenson made it easy for promoters to bring big names here, and many finally did. “In our first three or four years, we did 24 concerts a year,” Christenson told KNPR’s State of Nevada. And yet, there was still work to do. “We weren’t getting the Billy Joels, the McCartneys, the Neil Diamonds … the city had a reputation as a graveyard for stars.”
Bringing sporting events to town: For the T&M — and Sam Boyd Stadium — to be profitable, Christenson needed to fill seats. T&M’s goal upon opening: 100 events per year and one million guests. So, it beckoned every kind of large-audience event, including sports, which at the time was often limited to boxing matches at Caesars Palace. Regional college basketball tournaments, volleyball, tennis, and the NBA all found a new home in the desert. “That first year was off the charts,” Christenson says. “Sporting (events) really weren’t difficult to secure.”
Landing National Finals Rodeo: Christenson himself didn’t lure the 10-day event from Oklahoma to Las Vegas in 1985. But as a mentor to former UNLV Arena Director Dennis Finfrock, his suggestion to forgo merchandise percentages helped influence the final vote. Once at Las Vegas Events, Christenson helped the resort corridor and NFR develop other programming — country-music concerts, rodeo broadcast parties — that turned the event into a revenue machine. With NFR, he played the long game. “We didn’t sell out till the third year,” he says, “but from there (on), those 10 days were so critical to the financial success of Thomas & Mack.”
Booking The Grateful Dead at Sam Boyd: In the late 1980s, at the height of their popularity, the Dead saw paltry numbers at the Aladdin and outright disinterest from the Los Angeles concert market. Enter Christenson, who saw an opening for concerts at Sam Boyd Stadium. With help from legendary promoter Bill Graham, Metro, and Clark County Commissioners, the April 1991 shows sold out, starting a five-year run of weekenders until bandleader Jerry Garcia died. Christenson’s smartest move, though, was to commission a photo of that full stadium in 1991. “It was a great aerial shot that went around to agents. I think the first to bite was U2, then McCartney, and then the Eagles. And we were off to the races … The hotels woke up to the value of live music.”
Rehoming Electric Daisy Carnival: Before 2011, Las Vegas’ musical festival scene was struggling, because of costs and competition. But that changed after L.A.’s disastrous 2010 EDC. Again, Las Vegas’ gatekeepers and Christenson huddled and strategized. The result: In 2011, the rave debuted at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and drew 230,000 attendees. Since then, the yearly event’s economic impact has been in the billions. “It parallels real close with the Dead — and it’s one of the reasons people don’t give Metro and (Las Vegas) enough credit,” Christenson says. “I gotta give a lot of credit to Pasquale (Rotella, EDC promoter) for that, though, because not only did he move it, but he took a whole new level.” Φ