Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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MOST INFLUENTIAL LAS VEGAS SPORTS FIGURES

Compiled by Ron Kantowski, Jeff Haney, Brian Hilderbrand and Rob Miech

Over the years, the Sun has ranked the area's sports movers and shakers.

As always, this year's poll reflects the unique sports landscape in the valley.

Only one just-retired athlete and one coach made the Top 10. The rest are promoters, directors, owners and civic boosters.

It was far from unanimous. Only four names - Pat Christenson, Andre Agassi, Oscar Goodman and Lon Kruger - appeared on every ballot, and the first-place votes were split by Christenson, Agassi, Bruton Smith, Mike Hamrick, and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

The poll isn't scientific; it's meant to start discussion. The nine staffers couldn't even agree on what influential meant - splitting the votes in some areas among several key players. In fact, they couldn't even agree on what sports meant - with one balloter vehemently scratching every poker-related name off his list. He probably thinks pitchers shouldn't be considered for baseball's most valuable player award either.

1. Pat Christenson

People who need people, as Barbra Streisand sang, are the luckiest people in the world.

Pat Christenson can relate.

It's the people he works with, the people who support him at home - wife, Vicki, and daughters Nicole and Danielle - and even people like ... well, the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who have made the Las Vegas Events president a driving force behind sports and entertainment in Southern Nevada.

"You look at the people I've been around, the people I've worked with and for, including those now, and you can see why I am where I am now," said Christenson upon being voted the most influential sports figure in Southern Nevada by the Sun's panel.

And then there are the people who come here for a good time. Christenson needs those people, too.

"Whatever level of success I have had is due to the strength of Las Vegas as a destination," he said. "You look at the visionaries who created this experience and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that so successfully branded this destination. That makes it easy for us to sell."

Las Vegas Events, founded in 1983, is funded by the convention authority.

Christenson, 52, has been selling something from the day he set foot in Southern Nevada in 1980 as a UNLV assistant wrestling coach and athletic events coordinator. He went on to become director of Sam Boyd Stadium and the Thomas & Mack Center and turned them into mini gold mines.

While Christenson has a strong athletic background - he was 1976 NCAA wrestling champion while competing for Wisconsin at 167 pounds - and attracting sporting events is a major part of what he does, he said he owes much of his reputation to acid rock and tie-dyed T-shirts.

At a time when Las Vegas wasn't thought of as a touring market for major music acts, it was Christenson's vision that helped make it one by bringing the Dead and the Deadheads to Sam Boyd Stadium.

"The last year the Grateful Dead played Sam Boyd Stadium, we sold 135,000 tickets and were busting at the seams," he said.

Those shows paved the way for similar megaconcerts featuring Paul McCartney, the Eagles and U2.

As point man for Las Vegas Events, he is responsible for producing, presenting and supporting 50 major events per year, including NASCAR at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the National Finals Rodeo, the Mountain West Conference men's and women's basketball tournaments, USA Basketball training camp, the Tennis Channel Open and the USA Olympic Wrestling Trials.

Under Christenson's direction, Las Vegas Events has gone from 21 events with an economic impact of $115 million in 2001 to 49 events and $364 million last year.

There's no telling how high that could go during the next five years if the city commits to building a state-of-the-art arena.

"At the end of the day, the reason we are successful is because people want to come to Las Vegas," Christenson said.

He should know, because he's a people person.

- Ron Kantowski

2. Andre Agassi

OCCUPATION: Retired tennis player, founder Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation.

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: When he was 5, Agassi practiced with professionals Jimmy Connors and Roscoe Tanner. The former No. 1-ranked player won eight Grand Slam singles tournaments (finishing second seven times) and an Olympic gold medal. He retired, because of back problems, on Sept. 3, having won 60 total singles titles and more than $31 million on tour. In 1995 Agassi started his foundation. It has raised more than $70 million to help underprivileged, abused and at-risk children in Southern Nevada. Its annual fundraiser, the Grand Slam for Children, attracts some of the biggest names in the entertainment world, such as Elton John, Robin Williams, Celine Dion and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Agassi also opened the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club and the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. He married former tennis ace Steffi Graf in 2001.

DID YOU KNOW? Agassi's middle name, Kirk, is a tribute to hotel tycoon Kirk Kerkorian, who befriended Agassi's father, Mike.

QUOTE: "Agassi was a reference point in world tennis. He's someone who, by changing style and image, left his mark on the game." - Rafael Nadal, currently No. 2 in the world.

- Rob Miech

3. Oscar Goodman

OCCUPATION: Mayor of Las Vegas

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Point man for Las Vegas' bid to land a major league sports franchise. Goodman has had talks, both formal and informal, with the defunct Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins of Major League Baseball and the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League about moving to Las Vegas. He also was instrumental in Las Vegas' successful bid to host next week's NBA All-Star Game. He is a fixture at major Las Vegas sporting events and his bobble-head dolls, given away at Las Vegas 51s baseball games, are widely sought on eBay.

DID YOU KNOW? In 2002 Mayor Goodman became a spokesman for Bombay Sapphire Gin, receiving a $100,000 salary which was donated to charity, including $50,000 donated to The Meadows School, a private school started by his wife, Carolyn. He also played himself in the movie "Casino," which recalled his days as an attorney for organized crime figures such as Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro.

QUOTE: "He got what he wanted. Everybody in baseball was down in that lobby. Every newspaper carried it, every Fox and ESPN outlet talked about it. He put the place on its ear, which put the attention squarely on Las Vegas as a potential Major League Baseball city." - Don Logan, Las Vegas 51s' president, on Goodman's arrival at the Major League Baseball winter meetings with showgirls on each arm.

- RK

4. Bruton Smith

OCCUPATION: Owner, Las Vegas Motor Speedway

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Has invested millions in upgrading the 1,600-acre facility, which hosts the largest sporting event west of Dallas in the annual NASCAR Nextel Cup race. Last year's NASCAR weekend pumped an estimated $197 million into the local economy. Smith's company also owns Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., Texas Motor Speedway and Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

DID YOU KNOW? Smith once headed the National Stock Car Racing Association, an upstart group that attempted, unsuccessfully, to unseat Bill France Sr.'s NASCAR as the sport's official sanctioning body in stock-car racing's early days.

QUOTE: "He's definitely stepped it up a notch for a lot of people. You look at the new facilities today, and he has set examples for how those tracks should be run. When you go to his tracks, they're places that are eye-opening. I remember the first time I saw Charlotte (Motor Speedway), it looked light-years ahead of any track I had seen. It looked to me like they were designing it in a way to look to the future and I think that's awesome for anybody who wants to be a part of this sport and take it to the next level; I definitely think he has." - Jeff Gordon, four-time NASCAR Cup champion

- Brian Hilderbrand

5. George Maloof Jr.

OCCUPATION: Palms owner and operator

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Pop would be proud, very proud. By the time George Sr. died in 1980, he had become one of New Mexico's richest men by turning the family grocery store into ventures that included a Coors distributorship, banking and hotels, and, in 1979, the Houston Rockets. Junior came to Las Vegas to study hotel management and play football at UNLV. At one, he's become very successful. In 2001 he sold the family's Fiesta operations to Station Casinos and opened the Palms. The drive in front is named after friend Hugh Hefner, and New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and hotel heiress Paris Hilton are among his legion of pals. The property's third tower is under construction, and he has expanded the family business into film and recording wings. Brothers Joe and Gavin run the Sacramento Kings, whose logo is tattooed on Junior's arm. Will they one day become the Las Vegas Kings? The Palms is a hot spot for athletes, and NBAers especially like a slew of rooms with larger door frames and bigger beds. The family is reportedly worth more than $1 billion.

DID YOU KNOW? Maloof, a sixth- or seventh-string linebacker, once popped running back Ickey Woods, whose shuffle once graced the National Football League, backward during a practice at UNLV.

QUOTE: "When Gavin and I came up with the idea, the first person we talked to was George. He loved it. We got to (NBA Commissioner David) Stern, and he said, 'Go ahead.' George took over from there. He's the person who called the other casino owners, the other influential people in the city and the mayor. He made sure everyone got behind the idea. He rallied everyone. You have to give all the credit in the world to George. It was tremendous what he did." - Joe Maloof, on his brother's efforts to secure the 2007 NBA All-Star game for Las Vegas.

- RM

6. Tina Kunzer-Murphy

OCCUPATION: Las Vegas Bowl executive director.

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Oversees the Las Vegas Bowl college football game, which for the past two years has attracted record crowds to Sam Boyd Stadium. Kunzer-Murphy is one of just two females serving as executive director of a bowl game, preceding Missy Setters of the Independence Bowl. Before getting into the bowl business, Kunzer-Murphy was a UNLV athletic administrator.

DID YOU KNOW? Kunzer-Murphy was a member of and later coached the UNLV women's tennis team.

QUOTE: "First and foremost, she loves this town and wants what's right for Las Vegas. She is totally dedicated to the bowl game, the one responsible for putting it all together. I don't know if I've known a lady more dedicated to sports than Tina - OK, I've known other women who were dedicated. But she's right there, wherever she needs to be, to make sure everything gets done." - George Kunz, former NFL All-Pro offensive lineman and a member of the Las Vegas Bowl committee.

- RK

7. Lon Kruger

OCCUPATION: UNLV basketball coach

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: He starred at Kansas State under legendary coach Jack Hartman, a tough-minded boss whose aggressive spirit rubbed off on most of his players, if they were wise. Kruger eventually coached at his alma mater, which launched his career. He guided Florida, a program that was in the doldrums before he took over, to the Final Four. He also coached at Illinois. A stint running the Atlanta Hawks did not go so well, as he was fired midway through a season that he had guaranteed would end in the playoffs or season-ticket holders would get refunds; the Hawks did not reach the postseason. A series with Texas Tech and coach Bob Knight likely does not get scheduled unless Kruger, whom The General respects, is coaching the Rebels.

DID YOU KNOW? If it's ABBA-related, Kruger likes it. Multiple CDs by the Swedish pop group are usually in his car stereo, and he has seen the musical "Mamma Mia!" in several cities.

QUOTE: "I've known him since he was a senior in high school. I'm not at all surprised by his success here. It's defense first. You create offense off defense. It takes a certain characteristic to want to play defense. It's easy to play offense in basketball. Everyone likes to shoot and score. (Defense) takes tenacity and fortitude. He coaches and recruits players with those characteristics. Obviously, he's been so good for us ... at a time when we badly needed it. He's brought it back a long ways from the recent past." - Brad Rothermel, special adviser to UNLV's athletic director.

- RM

8. Mike Hamrick

OCCUPATION: UNLV athletic director

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Under Hamrick's watch, UNLV has stepped up its performance both on the playing field and in the classroom. The Rebels have won 12 Mountain West Conference Championships since Hamrick took over, including a school-record six conference titles in 2004-05. During the 2005-06 school year, more than 88 percent of the student athletes at UNLV had a grade-point average of 2.8 or higher. Last fall UNLV announced it was graduating a school-record 54 percent of its student-athletes, which is 24 percent higher than when Hamrick arrived. Under Hamrick, UNLV's athletic department assumed direct oversight of the Thomas & Mack Center, Sam Boyd Stadium and Cox Pavilion.

DID YOU KNOW? Hamrick was a two-year starter at linebacker for the Marshall Thundering Herd (1978-79) and served as an assistant football coach at Ohio University in 1981.

QUOTE: "I've been at a lot of different places and some really good programs and have been around some really good athletic directors, and I think Mike Hamrick is an athletic director that understands what it takes to be successful in big-time Division I-A athletics. " - Mike Sanford, UNLV head football coach

- BH

9. Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta

OCCUPATION: Owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship; casino executives

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: The brothers run neighborhood-casino giant Station Casinos, founded by their father, Frank Fertitta Jr. Longtime financial supporters of primary and higher education in Southern Nevada, they bought and revamped the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001, taking a once-moribund fighting organization and developing it into the powerhouse drawing card it is today.

DID YOU KNOW? The Fertittas were the executive producers of the 2006 comedy film "Bachelor Party Vegas," in which UFC champ Chuck Liddell has a role as a thug-type character called "The Iceman."

QUOTE: "The Fertittas aren't known for their bad bets." - UFC President Dana White, on the brothers' prescience in purchasing the UFC

- Jeff Haney

10. Bob Arum

OCCUPATION: Boxing promoter, founder and chief executive of Top Rank Inc.

CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: One of the sport's leading promoters for more than three decades, Arum had a hand in some of the biggest fights in boxing history involving champions such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. He currently promotes many of the stars of boxing's lighter weight classes including Jorge Arce, Jose Luis Castillo, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito and Erik Morales. In November Arum announced a deal with super featherweight champ Manny Pacquiao. He also has ties to heavyweights Tye Fields and Hasim Rahman.

DID YOU KNOW? Arum graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1956.

QUOTE: "At the end of the day, only the two of us are left standing. Collectively, the rest can't tie our shoestrings." - Rival promoter Don King

- JH

Others receiving votes

Dana White, UFC president

Ken White, Las Vegas Sports Consultants oddsmaker

Oscar De La Hoya, boxer/promoter

Michael Gaughan, owner South Point Hotel and South Point racing, rodeo and equestrian promoter

Jim Rogers, University system chancellor and UNLV booster

Daren Libonati, director, Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium

Bill Garis, Clark County School District athletic director

Don Logan, 51s president

Kurt and Kyle Busch, NASCAR drivers

Steve Stallworth, Orleans Arena director

Marc Ratner, UFC vice president

Terry Lanni, MGM Mirage chairman

Greg Maddux, baseball player

Jeffrey Pollack, World Series of Poker commissioner

Keith Kizer, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director

Doug Dalton, Bellagio director of poker operations

Chris Powell, Las Vegas Motor Speedway general manager

Sam Jankovich, Gladiators general manager

Doyle Brunson, poker player

Glen Gulutzan, Wranglers coach and general manager

Gary Loveman, Harrahs Entertainment chairman

Chuck Findlay, UNLV booster

Daniel Negreanu, poker player

Bill Walters, golf course developer

Jim Ferraro, Gladiators owner

Steve Wynn, Wynn Resorts chairman

Natalie Gulbis, golfer

Phil Ivey, poker player

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