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September 17, 2014

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Cowboys Stadium poses Texas-sized threat to Las Vegas

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John Katsilometes

The huge, high-definition video screen — the trademark of Cowboys Stadium — is but one factor that makes Dallas now competitive with Las Vegas.

It is decision time at Cowboys Stadium.

Should you watch the action in the boxing ring? That’s where a pair of welterweights who tip the scale at around 145 pounds have been reduced to performing fleas by the pure enormity of their surroundings.

Should you instead watch that colossal video screen? It’s brawny. It’s beautiful. It looms large over the fight, seeming about to drop right into the action. The vast, high-definition expanse, the largest screen on the planet, shows each bead of blood and every blemish in vibrant color.

On the screen, these little fighters appear Bunyanesque.

But you hear a voice from afar and you glance, instead, behind you, toward the sea of upholstered seats being filled by thousands of fight fans. It is familiar, this voice. Or is it? It is a voice of Las Vegas, but we’re far from there, in spirit and in fact.

You make eye contact and yes, you know this man who now leans in and shouts to be heard: “Tell everyone in Las Vegas this place is terrible!”

This person is very Vegas. He is Cisco Aguilar, legal counsel for someone who is even more Vegas than he, the city’s native son Andre Agassi.

Vegas is in the house, and she is paying attention. But terrible? This place? Hardly. But you get the joke, and even a ripple of underlying concern. This place is no more terrible than it is understated — which is to say, it is wholly the opposite. It is a Texas-sized spectacle, a 100,000-seat domed palace of sports and entertainment — the vision of a man with an appropriately formidable ego, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

It would be worth praising unconditionally, for folks like Aguilar and, across the arena, Nevada political operative Sig Rogich, if it weren’t such an obvious and immediate threat to how Las Vegas does business. Big-event business, specifically. And on this night, even more specifically, boxing business.

Despite the mock plea from Aguilar, or any other individual concerned with Las Vegas tourism, we cannot report Cowboys Stadium is terrible. But it is terribly fascinating.

The stadium is a game-changer, without question. The proof can be found under a white retractable roof on a cool Saturday evening in Arlington, where nearly 51,000 boxing fans have gathered for what would be a lackluster title fight matching legendary punching machine Manny Pacquiao with cocooned challenger Joshua Clottey.

Pacquiao would pound his way to a unanimous decision. The even bigger big winner was, in its debut fight, Cowboys Stadium.

On the very same evening in Vegas, heretofore recognized as the Boxing Capital of the World, the MGM Grand Garden Arena sits empty.

Vegas will hope this is not prophetic.

Jones claims that one day he can put 110,000 fans into Cowboys Stadium for boxing, and you don’t doubt that he can, if the fighters swapping leather are Pacquiao and Mayweather.

“We are serious about boxing,” Jones says after the fight, and it certainly looks so.

You start doing simple math, realizing that Jones’ kind of numbers would fill MGM Grand Garden Arena a half-dozen times. You know that Jones didn’t build this stadium just for football, and he’s spoiling for fights, having said he wanted Pacquiao-Mayweather “so bad I could taste it” and put down $25 million to prove it.

And you remember the action in the ring, gazing up at the Godlike screen that seems as if you are witnessing the bout in your own living room, and you realize this stadium is a formidable, heavyweight contender staring down Vegas in the opposite corner.

‘It’s flamboyant’

To understand the effect the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium has on the greater Dallas area, particularly Arlington, consider the Dallas Morning News’ selection as its Sports Personality of 2009: Cowboys Stadium.

“This stadium is showy,” Jones told the Morning News. “It’s flamboyant. It’s ballsy ... Would you be wrong to say that the stadium is like me? No, you would not.”

To visualize why Cowboys Stadium, aesthetically, is such an appealing event venue is jarringly simple: It is the screen, stupid. Take it from two wildly divergent voices: Former Cowboy wideout Michael Irvin, and Pat Christenson, head of Las Vegas Events.

Irvin, as a former player and current NFL broadcaster, has seen just about every form of stadiums in the country. Of this one: “Wait ’til you see the screen. It will blow your mind.”

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Christenson, whose position with Las Vegas Events is to book shows and events in Las Vegas, takes a more clinical view.

“If it weren’t for the video screens, it would be just another stadium,” Christenson said. “I think it’s a gorgeous arena, but the reason they are selling tickets is the video screen. Boxing is a great example. Without the screens, it would be horrible. You’d be watching two little dots.”

No doubt. The screen brings whatever action is happening below to the stadium’s nether regions. Those sitting in the $50 seats for the March 13 bout had almost the same visual experience as those in the $700 seats. The NBA All-Star Game played to 108,000 fans, most of whom watched the contest not on the basketball court itself, but on the screen (which, at 159 feet wide, is far larger than an NBA-sized court, and spans each 20-yard-line of a football field).

Invaluably, the screen allows the stadium to expand its selection of events to just about any ticketed performance or competition. The first event at Cowboys Stadium was a George Strait concert in June. The first sporting event was a soccer doubleheader that drew 82,252 people, the largest crowd for such an event in Texas history. Jones has nailed down the 2011 Super Bowl and the NCAA’s 2014 Final Four. If there’s a papal visit in the offing anywhere in the Southwest, expect Jones to try mightily to book the pope.

This weekend it’s an AMA Supercross event, the type of show that brings several thousand fans to Sam Boyd Stadium each year.

“I think Jerry Jones realizes you can’t build a monster stadium just for football,” said Thomas & Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium Director Daren Libonati, who books events ranging from U2 concerts to PBR events at those venues. “You need to turn the turnstiles year-round and create opportunities to fill seats.”

That means, of course, Jones is seeking boxing matches. UFC President Dana White attended with co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, lending speculation that the UFC, too, might branch out to Cowboys Stadium.

But what else is Jones after?

The Jones doctrine

Wearing a navy-blue suit adorned with a diamond-studded Dallas Cowboy lapel pin, Jones picks the spot for this midweek interview: A staircase landing on the second deck of Cowboys Stadium, overlooking the construction of the ring for the upcoming Pacquiao-Clottey fight.

The banging of metal beams and the whir of pneumatic tools play as a sort of soundscape for Jones’ distinctive drawl.

For starters, what does he have to say to people who live in Las Vegas who are concerned he is taking away some of the city’s most lucrative boxing events?

“It is a concern for Las Vegas, and I understand that,” he says. “But what we do here, for select fights, is great for Las Vegas.”

Really? How so?

“We can contribute to the interest in the sport across the country, including in Las Vegas.”

Jones is asked about the $25 million he offered to lure the ill-fated Pacquiao-Mayweather fight to Dallas. The figure is the largest such guarantee for any bout in history (by about $8 million), but he also has said that writing $25 million checks is not too uncommon for an NFL owner.

He is asked about reports that he is interested in bringing the National Finals Rodeo to Cowboys Stadium. Jones doesn’t seem to have given much thought about the profound effect it would have on Las Vegas if the rodeo moves to Texas.

In fact, he refers to it as “National Rodeo Finals.” He says he not yet talked directly with anyone at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association about the future of the NFR.

“What we do recognize is that this is, quote-unquote, cowboy country, both from the standpoint of getting into the saddle and running up and down the field,” he says. “But I am a lot more passionate about the Cowboys who put on a football helmet.”

The NFR, a rite of winter in Vegas for 25 years that brings about 35,000 tourists and $50 million during what was once a stagnant time for tourism in the city, is contracted to be in Las Vegas through 2014. But because Cowboys Stadium has held a PBR event, to a crowd of 46,000, speculation is that Jones will throw a saddlebag full of cash across the table to bring that event to his billion-dollar fun house.

Any truth to that?

“I will say that rodeo is part of the heritage of this area. We have huge Dallas Cowboy fans who are rodeo fans, and certainly we have the potential to be aligned with those types of events,” Jones says. “But Las Vegas has such attractiveness to the people of rodeo, coming out there having worked a year to get there. Las Vegas has worked to build that into such a major event, and I recognize that. I do look at (the NFR) differently than I do a fight, a boxing match, mainly because there are just more opportunities to do boxing events than there is to do the National Rodeo Finals. It’s way out ahead of anything I’m about right now.

“I’m not trying to be shrewd and I’m not trying to be clever, but when you have a stadium you just spent $1.2 billion on ... I can’t make any mistakes,” Jones says. “The National Rodeo Finals are a great product, but I feel much more comfortable about doing fights here.”

Besides, the rodeo falls during the Cowboys’ regular-season schedule. As Jones notes, he did not build his team a new stadium only to have it displaced for two or even three home games so the other cowboys can roll in the dirt for two weeks.

It is noted that Jones does have a little Vegas in him.

“What I enjoy about Las Vegas is its building — I’m into building, hard spaces, floor coverings. I respect people who build and create jobs,” he says. “I enjoy Las Vegas’ interest in sports, which is a good thing ... I like to watch the customers and people who come to Las Vegas, how it makes them live in a world that’s a much-needed respite from the real trials of life. That is very similar to what I think the Dallas Cowboys are, and what the NFL is.”

The Texas tourism tax

Texas has more going for it than just Jerry Jones and his SuperSized Screen.

The state uses public money to help lure major events to places such as Cowboys Stadium, through its Texas Event Trust Fund.

The fund collects a 6 percent room tax levied on every hotel in the state. Expenses for select events, such as the NBA All-Star Game and the Super Bowl, can be reimbursed through this fund provided the events prove they have met a specific economic stimulus requirement. An independent firm conducts a study to see if, for example, an event would bring $8 million to the Dallas-Arlington region. For the most part, the standard has been met. At the moment, only major events are covered, but the state Legislature can adjust the requirements so an event like the Academy of Country Music Awards (to name one Vegas favorite) can be brought to Cowboys Stadium.

“As much as we should be worried about what Jerry Jones is doing, this fund has the potential to be a real problem if there was a lobbying effort to include events like the ACMAs,” Christenson said. “I’m more concerned about the State of Texas than I am Jerry Jones, to be honest.”

What is required, Christenson says (and boxing promoter Bob Arum aggressively concurs), is some sort of unified civic effort in the form of a new, neutral facility in Las Vegas. A proposal in late 2009 for a temporary arena concept was initiated by Christenson, and later picked up by Rogich.

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This venue would have seated about 30,000 fans on the open parcel where the New Frontier once stood, across from Wynn, Encore, Venetian and Palazzo. This venue might have hearkened to boxing’s glory days at the temporary stadium at Caesars Palace, which was overtaken by that hotel’s extensive expansion.

The idea of bringing events to the city’s signature location and peerless photo opportunity — the Strip — was appealing to Rogich, one of the state’s more influential political operatives and PR consultants. He’s also a former Nevada state athletic commissioner who has been involved in marketing Las Vegas for more than three decades. An effort was made by Rogich and Arum to secure at least in-principle support from resort moguls in the neighborhood, including Steve Wynn, Phil Ruffin and Sheldon Adelson.

But the temporary arena concept collapsed like ... well, like a temporary arena being imploded.

“It had more to do with time than anything,” Rogich said. When we talked about a time in March, it was too short a window to construct it. But we thought it made good sense as a way to compete with what’s going on in Dallas.”

Christenson also said the arena was a might costly for something that would be disassembled in five years: $1 million just to lay turf down on the New Frontier dirt, $4 million for the structure, $2 million, over time, to maintain.

“For a temporary facility, it’s a lot to invest,” Christenson said. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority doesn’t have that kind of money.

Arum has flatly accused MGM Mirage of protecting its two-arena monopoly (MGM Grand Garden and Mandalay Bay) and working to block the temporary-arena plan. To be sure, MGM Mirage did not sprint to the front of the line in support of the project. It has a couple of its own arenas to fill.

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“We have a situation where one company owns the two private arenas in Las Vegas, and that is not healthy for the other resorts or for the city,” Arum said, adding that MGM Mirage holds fight tickets for its own customers, and often fans resort to purchasing event tickets from scalpers at highly inflated prices.

Asked about the “monopoly” accusation, MGM Mirage President of Sports and Entertainment Richard Sturm said, “I must tell you, I don’t understand what that means. We’re in competition with other arenas in town. We’re in competition not only with arenas in town, but across the country.” He also said, of the temporary arena, “It would have been impossible to build a venue that quickly in that short a period of time. There’s no way a venue could have been built in time for an event.”

Two arena locations are still being studied: One on the old Wet ’n Wild site on the northern end of the Strip, and the other years-old concept on the east side of the Strip, behind Bally’s and Paris Las Vegas.

“Both, I’m cheering for,” Christenson said. “Both have a small component of public funding. But we need to be educated about what the value of a new arena would be. That is our biggest obstacle, educating the community. The Thomas & Mack Center has not cost a dime in taxpayer money and it’s brought in $2 billion. It has more than served its purpose, but it was built in 1983.

“It’s time to compete as a city.”

City vs. Stadium

What is certain: The region that encompasses Arlington, Dallas, Fort Worth, Irving and Grapevine does not offer the entertainment options those visiting Las Vegas enjoy. It’s a more lopsided contest than Pacquiao-Clottey.

For example: Two of the biggest night life draws in Dallas are Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe, both more than 15 miles from Cowboys Stadium. By comparison, there is a Hard Rock Café and a Hooters resort within walking distance of MGM Grand, and those are just two of dozens of nightclub/restaurant options just on the corner of Tropicana Avenue and the Strip, where in proximity stand a half-dozen resort-casinos.

There are a few bars in an area south of Cowboys Stadium, known as Arlington Highlands, and a few restaurants that turn into nightclubs about three miles from the facility. But the tourist attractions that Arlington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Wes Jurey enthusiastically points to are Six Flags amusement park, the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (home of the Texas Rangers, just across the parking lot from Cowboys Stadium), and the Hurricane Harbor water park.

As one columnist who covers the night life entertainment scene in the area near Cowboys Stadium said: “Basically, it’s lame.”

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Fighters often attend post-bout parties at clubs in Las Vegas, elaborate nightspots like Pure and Tao. For his post-fight appearance, in which he performed a mini-concert (Arum calls Pacquiao the Sinatra of the Philippines), Pacquiao ventured to Rangers Ballpark, about the only business open near the stadium when he took the stage after 2 a.m.

The 1,500-room Gaylord Texan, a beautiful hotel that is comparable in quality and customer experience to the renovated Monte Carlo, boasts the Glass Cactus. Pretty nice spot. Saturday night’s entertainment was Dokken/Skid Row. But that club closes at 2 a.m., giving anyone who took in the bout very limited post-fight club time. When the fight’s over, typically, so is the night.

The unflattering comparison is hardly a criticism. As even Irvin conceded, “What (Dallas) doesn’t have is the 24-hour party opportunities Las Vegas has. To suggest anyone matches Las Vegas as Sin City would be outlandish.”

True. Upon returning to the host hotel, most of the media covering the fight and the event’s support staff seemed lost as to what to do. Fortunately Java Coast, an outpost of the coffeehouse chain, was open. There, you could grab a panini, a salad from the refrigerator or a $3 sugar cookie.

“It all comes down to, as a brand, do you want to own the city or the stadium?” Christenson said. “We have to own the city and all it has to offer.”

There are intangibles, too. As a venue, Cowboys Stadium enjoys a vibe. But so does Las Vegas, as always, as a destination.

The flight into Dallas-Fort Worth airport is unremarkable, like a flight into just about any airport in the country. But on the flight back to Las Vegas, the US Airways flight attendant excitedly tells the full cabin, “We are descending on Las Vegas! It is said that if you cross your seat belts, it brings good luck!” The tourists laugh, giddily.

Then you disembark, and are met with dozens of signs trumpeting what the city has to offer: Cher, Blue Man Group, Penn & Teller. Even Garth Brooks looms over baggage claim. His image is a reminder that in a contest with the owner of the Cowboys, Las Vegas has its own cowboy star, and always, a fighting chance in the bout between the Strip and the Screen.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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