Updated August 17, 2022 - 8:02 am
When Pat Christenson won an NCAA wrestling championship at the University of Wisconsin in 1976, he competed at 167 pounds. But as president of Las Vegas Events, he was strictly a heavyweight, bringing major sports and entertainment acts to Las Vegas.
“I always wanted to be done by 70 and I’ll be 68 next month, so we’re getting real close,” Christenson said about his impending retirement, which will be announced Wednesday. “I just thought this was a good time.”
Like so many of the events he helped produce, his retirement involved planning and creativity. The idea is to name a successor before December’s National Finals Rodeo — LVE’s figurative and literal cash cow — and for Christenson to stay on as a consultant through the 2023 NFR.
He’ll be off the books beginning Dec. 31, 2023. It’s sort of like Mickey Mantle moving to first base before hanging up his spikes with the Yankees.
Only with Christenson it’s spurs instead of spikes.
“You’ve got so many moving pieces with the NFR, so many committees, the PRCA, all the logistics, that it’s critical to get somebody in here that has a year under their belt,” he said of LVE transitioning to a new president — a title that Christenson assumed in 2001 after spending 18 years as assistant director and director of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium.
Pack the Mack
As Dennis Finfrock’s chief apprentice, Christenson helped turn the Rebels’ sports venues into valuable resources during a budget crisis.
“So out of a need we created more of a professional sports venue and operated it that way,” he said of booking an average of 175 events per year that not only helped UNLV balance its athletic budget but created a huge reserve fund.
Quicker than you could say “Disney on Ice,” the Thomas & Mack Center was transformed into one of the nation’s top grossing sports and entertainment venues.
“The key there was to grow a culture around people being able to have success on their own through this event business,” Christenson said in praising former disciples such as Daren Libonati and Steve Stallworth, who went on to achieve similar success as Las Vegas arena managers and content producers.
“All those guys who came in, they were given the same thing that I was given by Dennis — the autonomy and the authority to create something different.”
But it all starts with the building, Christenson said.
When he moved here in the early 1980s to assist Finfrock with UNLV’s short-lived wrestling program, Las Vegas was mostly a gambling, showroom town. It was the Thomas & Mack Center that seismically shifted the landscape and helped Las Vegas reinvent itself.
“The NFR is the perfect example. If you don’t have the Thomas & Mack, you don’t have the NFR,” Christenson said.
Like a rock
The Thomas & Mack Center opened in 1983. The rodeo arrived two years later. It was mostly a niche sporting event then. Now it’s an experience.
“We probably had only five or six hotels involved with the NFR until 2008 and the recession,” Christenson said of adding viewing parties, concerts and other ancillary events that now lure more than 400,000 visitors to Las Vegas during what once was a slow time for room occupancy and local honky-tonks.
“The beauty of the NFR is that it has grown because the city has collaborated to create an experience beyond what’s at the Thomas & Mack. It’s all the events around it that make it the festival it is now.”
In addition to overseeing the NFR’s prolific growth, Christensen also brought major music acts to Las Vegas, starting with the Grateful Dead at Sam Boyd Stadium. The sage and swampland around the Rebels’ former forlorn football facility morphed into a tie-dyed extravaganza that sold out every show over a five-year period.
But Christenson said when looking back at his two-plus decades at Las Vegas Events and the legacy he leaves (or eventually will leave), the first thing that comes to mind is a lyric from a familiar Bob Seger song, “Like a Rock”:
“Twenty years now. Where’d they go?
“Twenty years. I don’t know.
“I sit and I wonder sometimes where they’ve gone …”
A sampling of the sports and entertainment events that Pat Christenson helped bring to Las Vegas as president of Las Vegas Events and director of UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium and the Thomas & Mack Center:
— National Finals Rodeo and NFR Experience
— FEI World Cup Jumping and Dressage Finals
— Mountain West, West Coast, Pac-12 and Western Athletic conference college basketball postseason tournaments
— NBA Summer League
— USA Sevens rugby
— USBC (bowling) Open Championship
— Concerts featuring the Grateful Dead, Eagles, Metallica, Dave Mathews Band, N’Sync, George Strait and U2.
— Electric Daisy Carnival, Rock in Rio, Life is Beautiful and Lollapalooza music and lifestyle festivals.