The man who helped bring major events to Las Vegas announces retirement
You can chart the evolution of Las Vegas’ concert and sports industries through the resume of Pat Christenson.
Initially brought to Las Vegas in 1980, he helped open UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center in 1983. And he had a vision: To bring major live acts and professional sports to Southern Nevada.
He did that. And more.
The Grateful Dead. The NBA. Guns 'N' Roses. The World Wrestling Federation. All filling the many seats of T&M and Sam Boyd Stadium way before mega-venues began populating the Strip. He also helped usher in the annual juggernaut that is National Finals Rodeo.
Last month, Christenson announced his retirement, and that this year’s rodeo will be his last hurrah as president of Las Vegas Events. He recently spoke with State of Nevada producer Mike Prevatt.
“You look back at Vegas then, the emphasis was on gambling, not entertainment. It was cheap rooms, cheap food, some good restaurants, but not a lot,” he said. “Some good shows, but not that many. So that is where we were in the early ‘80s.”
At the time, the city had about 500,000 residents. Christenson said T&M was built to be a basketball-only venue with 18.000 seats.
“When it opened, there was no pavement in the parking lot. Concession stands were bare, they were stubbed for plumbing and electrical, concourse was bare, all suites were bare, no electrical. And I think they waited a little bit too long. You know, the group that raised the money wasn't ready to operate it,” he said.
What followed in the 1980s was a slow period for the Strip and tourism. And in the early years for T&M, they did about 24 concerts a year, hosting Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and infamously, a terrible Lionel Richie show.
“The city had a reputation as a graveyard for stars, you're gonna end up in a showroom. So it took a long time to live that down,” he said.
But with the National Finals Rodeo and other major sporting events, the center was able to grow, as was Las Vegas.
“It was a concerted effort by Las Vegas Events to grow it beyond Thomas and Mack,” he said. At the time, their other property, Sam Boyd Stadium, wasn’t really being used for concerts, but Bay Area rock promoter Bill Graham was wondering if The Grateful Dead could draw fans in Las Vegas.
In 1991, they played the stadium for the first time.
“When we showed them the stadium, we had them at hello. The problems they were having is that some of their fans became a nuisance. Anytime they were around a neighborhood, they had problems. So the fact that Sam Boyd Stadium was eight miles east, those mountains, the parking around it, the fence, that was just perfect for securing it,” he said. “They came out here and fell in love with the layout and the location.”
They sold out shows every year through 1995. Huge acts like U2, Paul McCartney and The Eagles followed.
“We were off to the races,” Christenson said.
Skip ahead a few years, and he’s helping bring the Electric Daisy Carnival to Las Vegas. The EDM festival has brought in billions of dollars to Las Vegas over the past 11 years. In 2010, the festival was booted out of Los Angeles following the overdose death of a 15-year-old.
“Here, the [Las Vegas Motor Speedway] worked out perfect for again … 10 miles from town, big platform, so the fans could go out there, enjoy it there, and then come back. I gotta give a lot of credit to [Pasquale Rotella, founder of EDC] for that, though, because not only did he move it, but he took it to a whole new level. … [Las Vegas police] felt confident we could create a safe plan for that event here.”
The upcoming National Finals Rodeo will be the last event he actively works on, he said.
“Looking to do something a little different in the last chapter here for me that really doesn't involve a lot of responsibility,” he said. “But those events, especially the NFR, are a lot of responsibility, not just to produce them, but to grow. … Until they are sold out there, there's more room to grow.”
Pat Christenson, president, Las Vegas Events