Sunday, July 15, 2012 | 11:44 p.m.
While Robin Leach takes his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy, many of our Strip and Las Vegas personalities have stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. Our thanks to them all. Today, we welcome Daren Libonati, Justice Entertainment Group’s president who served as executive director of UNLV’s three special-events venues: the Thomas & Mack Center, Sam Boyd Stadium and Cox Pavilion. From National Finals Rodeo to Vegoose, supercross, Arena Bowl and Professional Bull Riding, Daren has brought diverse, premier entertainment to town.
Out of college, my first desire was to work with Top Rank and Bob Arum; it was 1988. Sadly enough, I made it into his lobby on Paradise Road and no farther. I was told, “We’re not hiring.”
On that same day, I traveled three miles south on Paradise and entered the Thomas & Mack Center and had the opportunity to meet Dennis Finfrock. I pitched him three ideas, told him, “I’m free as an intern for six months,” and I was hired.
A few years later, the Thomas & Mack Center hosted its first-ever fight. I brokered the deal as the booking director of the TMC with Arum and Top Rank in conjunction with the Las Vegas Hilton, and the fight was George Foreman and Alex Stewart.
Here I am today 24 years later and more than 100 championship fights booked at MGM Grand and the TMC working again with Top Rank as the president of Justice Entertainment Group on behalf of my partner the TMC, which today is JEG’s contracted event booking and business partner on events and management of venues. I couldn’t be more pleased to be a part of this great event experience.
In the early 1990s, I was given the opportunity to book and coordinate the contract for the Grateful Dead. There was so much concern about bringing a band of this nature to an outdoor stadium like Sam Boyd Stadium. A small team and I headed to San Francisco to view a handful of Dead dates. Upon returning, I was asked to present the plan to handle the ingress and egress of fans while also managing the event staff and live-event performance.
The experience was the greatest. This event allowed me to understand the importance of believing in what you can’t see and the importance of a plan. Everything from A-Z was new, and nothing close had ever been done by our TMC team. The communication and peer-to-peer coordination were priceless, as we hadn’t entered the cell phone or social media age. It was good old-fashioned, face-to-face business. In the end, the Dead came back three more times before the death of Jerry Garcia and the end of a wonderful live-event experience.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to fly to Osaka, Japan, to meet with the owners of the MMA group Pride Fighting. The trip was great, but communication on the difficult side. The goal was to bring Pride Fighting to America. We succeeded, and Pride Fighting came to the TMC two times before being purchased by the UFC. Many of the Pride fighters went on to become champions of the UFC and still compete in the organization.
What really happens back stage: In 2004, I sat with Chip Hooper, the agent of Phish and Dave Matthews. He started to share how much he loved basketball. He said that he had a friend who really wanted to come to Las Vegas and move something that was old in L.A. to something new in Las Vegas. As we talked, I realized that this was our golden opportunity to launch Cox Pavilion into the forefront and create a piece of business that could last a long time for UNLV.
We shared some wine and penciled out a strategic plan on scratch paper. We then moved upstairs into my office. We made the important call to the president of Las Vegas Events, Pat Christenson, and begged for a $25,000 stipend that would allow our team at the TMC to promote and cover what we believed the first-year expenses might be. He said yes, and the stars-of-tomorrow Summer League was born in Las Vegas.
Today in 2012, the NBA Summer League is by far the biggest pre-season NBA rookie event in the country. From six teams in the first year to more than 20 this year, this event taught me that if you can understand your client’s needs first, then yours will always be met. Today, this event is the reason the NBA has wrapped its arms around Las Vegas, and the people of Las Vegas have made the hospitality experience second to none.
I came to UNLV as a transfer student athlete to play football. I was fortunate to have some special athletic experiences while being a student athlete on campus. The competition of sport is the foundation of my business thinking. As an athlete and a businessman, I believe that you must first understand the fundamental difference between wanting to and having to. “I can’t” is never an option. I have been fortunate to see this behavior over and over again in music artists, professional athletes and successful business associates.
“Wanting to” is easy to say, but it lacks a true commitment or sacrifice. “Having to” is like the difference between living and dying; there is no option when you have to but to succeed. This attitude and spirit have carried me through my last 24 years of work.
Which leads me to our most exciting project to date. The world’s sport is coming to the world’s playground -- a historic match-up Aug. 5 between Real Madrid and Santo Laguna. Mexico’s soccer champion vs. Spain’s soccer champion here in our great city at Sam Boyd Stadium. This for me is one very special “have to!”
Our thanks to Daren, and be sure to check out our other guest column today from The Gazillionaire and Penny Pibbets from “Absinthe.” Then Monday, we’ll be back with guest columnists Terry Fator, Laura Croft and Alex Epstein.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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