With more than a half-century of hindsight at his disposal, Rossi Ralenkotter now admits that the topic for his master’s thesis lacked plausibility.
“Growing up in Las Vegas, I always had hoped that all the major sports would come here, because I’m a big sports fan,” Ralenkotter says. “So back in 1971, I did my MBA thesis on the viability of an NBA franchise in Las Vegas.
“Maybe I was a bit naïve.”
Ralenkotter must have made somewhat of a persuasive case with that thesis, because he did earn his master’s in business administration from UNLV. Alas, 52 years and 10 U.S. presidents later, Las Vegas still doesn’t have an NBA franchise.
It is, however, home to NHL, NFL, and WNBA franchises. Major League Baseball appears to be on deck with the impending relocation of the Oakland Athletics. Formula One racing will speed down the Strip in November's Las Vegas Grand Prix. And in February, Las Vegas will host America’s grandest of sports spectacles: the Super Bowl.
Of course, it’s almost slam dunk that the NBA will be here soon enough, too. Because professional sports leagues that once stood shoulder to shoulder atop the moral high ground, wagging their fingers at “sinful” Las Vegas, have done an about-face — thanks in no small part to the almighty dollar.
(Who knew righteousness had a price tag?)
When the NBA and the Athletics (or another MLB team) do inevitably arrive, Las Vegas will become just the eighth U.S. city with NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and WNBA franchises.
Pretty remarkable, considering the first one — the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights — didn’t drop the puck until October 2017.
But it’s misleading, if not downright erroneous, to suggest that it took until the second decade of the 21st century for Las Vegas to become a major league city.
Such a narrative ignores the region’s rich professional sports history. It also ignores the role that UNLV — both the institution and some of its alumni — played in building the city’s reputation as a desirable professional sports destination.
Two years after completing his MBA at UNLV, Ralenkotter landed a job as a research analyst at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA). One of his first tasks: develop a visitor profile study that tourism officials could use to market Las Vegas as a destination city.
“One thing we learned through our research was that visitors were looking for things to attend,” Ralenkotter says. “So we began exploring golf, which was always popular here.”
Indeed, Las Vegas was home to the Professional Golf Association’s Tournament of Champions from its inception in 1953 until 1968. The popular event was first staged at the Desert Inn Country Club before moving to the Stardust Country Club for the final two years.
Although the tournament moved to California (and later Hawaii), the PGA Tour maintained a Las Vegas presence with the annual Sahara Invitational (1962-1976).
Then in the early 1980s, the Las Vegas Invitational was launched, with the LVCVA serving as the title sponsor. Now known as the Shriners Children’s Open, the tournament gained national notoriety in 1991 when Chip Beck became the second golfer in history to card a 59 on a par-72 course.
Five years later, a 20-year-old rookie named Tiger Woods entered the Las Vegas Invitational and walked away with his first PGA Tour victory.
By the time of Woods’ historic triumph in 1996, Ralenkotter had climbed the ranks within the LVCVA. And during his first two decades with the organization, his influence on Las Vegas’ growth as a professional sports town stretched beyond the city’s emerald green fairways (which also once regularly hosted LPGA and Senior PGA tournaments).
For instance, in the early 1980s, Ralenkotter was part of the team that encouraged the LVCVA’s board of directors to approve funding for what would become Cashman Center. The vast, city-owned complex would include a performing arts theater, as well as convention and meeting space. But its most prominent feature was a then state-of-the-art baseball stadium to replace the existing Cashman Field.
Built in 1947, the original Cashman Field hosted rodeos and football games, including an American Football League exhibition contest in 1964 involving the Oakland Raiders. But it was primarily the home of the Las Vegas Wranglers, a Minor League Baseball club that operated from 1947-52 and 1957-58.
The imperative for the modern Cashman Field: Bring Minor League Baseball back to Las Vegas.
After funding was approved, a group that included Ralenkotter — who played baseball at Bishop Gorman High School and is a lifelong fan of the Cincinnati Reds — was charged with finding a ballclub. They did just that in 1983, luring a Pacific Coast League Triple-A franchise from Spokane, Washington, and rebranding it the Las Vegas Stars.
Four decades and three name changes later, the franchise now known as the Las Vegas Aviators continues to thrive at the sparkling Las Vegas Ballpark (which opened in Summerlin in 2019).
During his time at the LVCVA, Ralenkotter also was involved (either directly or indirectly) in bringing other professional sports events to his hometown. Among the most notable: NASCAR’s premier racing series (at Las Vegas Motor Speedway); numerous championship boxing and mixed martial arts matches; dozens of preseason NBA, NHL, and MLB games; and the 2007 NBA All-Star Game.
Then there’s the professional sporting event that takes the Entertainment Capital of the World back to its Western roots every December: the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). And while legendary Las Vegas hotel-casino operator Michael Gaughan is a central figure for the NFR’s presence in Las Vegas, the event also has Ralenkotter’s fingerprints on it — as well as those of a fellow UNLV alum and longtime colleague.
Also playing an equally important role: a one-of-a-kind campus arena that was built at the insistence of a one-of-a-kind coach who led a one-of-a-kind basketball program.
Pat Christenson shouldn’t be part of this story — and he’d be the first one to say it.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he won a national championship in wrestling in 1976, Christenson never envisioned moving to Las Vegas, let alone getting his master’s at UNLV and launching a career in events management.
After college, Christenson initially went into teaching, but after three years in front of the classroom, he got the itch to earn a graduate degree in exercise physiology and to be a wrestling coach.
Christenson settled on Louisiana State University for one primary reason: It was situated in a warm-weather climate. But before packing his bags, he got a call from then-UNLV associate athletics director Dennis Finfrock.
Finfrock was aware of Christenson’s collegiate wrestling prowess, and he needed an assistant coach for the UNLV program he started in 1976. Finfrock also had an opening for an events coordinator, and offered Christenson both jobs as a package deal.
At the time, two of Christenson’s sisters were living in Las Vegas. In fact, one worked as an assistant for Jerry Vallen, then dean of UNLV’s Hotel College, and later as Finfrock’s assistant.
Still, Las Vegas and UNLV didn’t appeal to Christenson.
But upon reflection, he realized he could earn extra money working two jobs while studying for his master’s. So he accepted Finfrock’s offer and arrived in 1980. The Rebels wrestling program would only survive three more years, but Christenson’s budding career in events management would last for four decades.
Initially, Finfrock tasked Christenson with managing most everything related to UNLV football games at what was then called the Las Vegas Silver Bowl (later Sam Boyd Stadium) and men’s basketball games at the Las Vegas Convention Center Rotunda.
“Growing up a competitive wrestler and going to college for wrestling, I never pictured being in the events business,” says Christenson, whose early responsibilities at UNLV included hiring and managing ticket-takers, ushers, and parking attendants. “However, the combination of two things that brought me to UNLV — being an assistant wrestling coach and events coordinator — put me in that world.”
As hectic as that world was for Christenson from the start, it would get even more chaotic in late 1983. That’s when UNLV opened the doors to the Thomas & Mack Center for the first time. The 18,500-seat on-campus arena was a modern marvel, and its primary purpose was to serve as the new home of basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin’ Rebels.
Emphasis on “primary,” because Tarkanian’s perennial Top 25 team would occupy the arena for less than 30 nights a year. So it was up to the athletics department’s events staff to fill the calendar with everything from concerts and boxing matches to Ice Capades performances and circus acts.
Adding to the challenge: The Thomas & Mack Center — which initially was planned as a basketball-only venue until Finfrock convinced the state Legislature to boost funding at the 11th hour to turn it into a multipurpose facility — came in way over budget. As a result, the building wasn’t ready for prime time when it opened.
“It was a $30 million building, and they ran out of money to pay for the finishes inside the venue, paving the parking lot, landscaping — almost everything was incomplete because of a lack of money,” says Christenson, who served as Finfrock’s assistant when the Thomas & Mack opened and was promoted to director in 1991. “But because of its size, we were able to put on every event we could. It just took us years to get to the point where the building was 100 percent finished.”
In addition to booking the T&M and handling pretty much everything that wasn’t related to backstage production, Christenson and his skeleton staff sold sponsorships and suites. All the revenue that was collected was directed to pay bills and finish the venue, with any leftover profits used to hire additional help.
Some of those early profits? They came courtesy of a 10-day annual event that has had a positive economic impact on Southern Nevada for the past 38 years: the National Finals Rodeo (NFR).
Operated by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the NFR is literally the Super Bowl of rodeo. It brings the sport’s most accomplished cowboys and cowgirls under one roof for 10 nights of season-ending championship action.
From 1964-84, that roof was located in Oklahoma City. But when the PRCA’s contract with Oklahoma City expired after the 1984 NFR, UNLV — led by Finfrock and Christenson — joined forces with Herb McDonald and other tourism officials, made a pitch to the PRCA, and hogtied rodeo’s marquee event.
Since 1985, millions of rodeo fans have packed the Thomas & Mack Center to the tune of an ongoing NFR streak of 350 consecutive sellouts. And millions more have filled hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and convention space up, down, and beyond the Las Vegas Strip.
Most importantly, they’ve done so during a period of December when the resort corridor previously resembled a ghost town.
“Did we say, ‘Let’s go out and get a 10-day, sold-out rodeo event?’ No. That, from a venue perspective, fell into our lap,” Christenson says. “But those 10 guaranteed sold-out nights each year and the way we were able to increase revenue streams year in and year out — that’s a perfect example of a great partnership between the city, the county, the university, and the PRCA.
“Not only did the NFR help us complete and sustain the arena, but without it, the Thomas & Mack Center doesn’t make it.”
And if the Thomas & Mack Center doesn’t make it? It’s possible that none of the large-scale venues that followed — UNLV’s adjacent Cox Pavilion, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Mandalay Bay Events Center, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Las Vegas Ballpark, T-Mobile Arena, Allegiant Stadium, and The Sphere at the Venetian — would’ve ever made it to the drawing board.
In that regard, it’s not hyperbole to say the Thomas & Mack Center was the mother that birthed all others.
Which brings us back to that one-of-a-kind college basketball coach and his one-of-a-kind program: Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels.
One of the hottest coaching commodities in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tarkanian agreed to remain at UNLV on one condition: that his team move from the antiquated, 7,000-seat Las Vegas Convention Center Rotunda to a modern, large-scale arena on campus.
It was quite the demand, to be sure. But because Tarkanian’s teams had been so successful — including an appearance in the 1978 NCAA Final Four — UNLV found itself basking in the national spotlight for the first time. So “Tark the Shark” got what he asked for.
That national spotlight only got brighter during the Thomas & Mack’s first decade, when the building was packed to the rafters as the Runnin’ Rebels qualified for three additional Final Fours and won the 1991 national championship.
“Someone who probably isn’t being mentioned enough when people talk today about Las Vegas being this new professional sports mecca is Tarkanian,” says Michael Green, a renowned Nevada historian and associate professor of history at UNLV. “Because in that era, the success of the Runnin’ Rebels on the court and also in the stands certainly was a sign that Las Vegas could fall in love with a team and a sport.”
Says Christenson of Tarkanian: “He deserves all the credit. There’s no Thomas & Mack without Tark.”
As if running UNLV’s on-campus arena wasn’t enough, Christenson also was in charge of Sam Boyd Stadium, named for the gaming icon behind what has evolved into the Boyd Corp. today.
The university’s off-campus venue was home to both the Rebels and the Las Vegas Bowl until Allegiant Stadium opened. Beyond that, Sam Boyd also has housed a Canadian Football League team (Las Vegas Posse), XFL team (Las Vegas Outlaws), and a United Football League team (Las Vegas Locomotives).
Additionally, the stadium has staged professional soccer matches, professional rugby tournaments, concerts, and monster truck and motocross events.
However, it was the Thomas & Mack Center that hosted arguably the community’s biggest one-off sports event — one that showed the world that Las Vegas was a feasible professional sports town.
In February 2007, the NBA brought its All-Star Game to Las Vegas and took over the Thomas & Mack. Unfortunately, incidents away from the arena also generated headlines. But inside the building, All-Star Weekend was a huge success.
By this time, Christenson was no longer with UNLV, having departed in 2001 to become president of Las Vegas Events, whose mission is to secure long-term events for Southern Nevada.
However, having risen to president and CEO of the LVCVA in 2004, Ralenkotter was very much involved in convincing the NBA to bring its All-Star Weekend to a non-NBA city for the first time. So, too, were then Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman and UNLV alum George Maloof, whose family owned the NBA’s Sacramento Kings at the time.
“Filling the Thomas & Mack for the NBA All-Star Game — which was broadcast on national television and gave the destination tremendous exposure — proved to professional sports leagues that Las Vegas was a viable marketplace,” Ralenkotter says.
Of course, it was not the first time the NBA set up shop at the Thomas & Mack. In fact, the arena’s second event was a regular season NBA game pitting the Utah Jazz against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 23, 1983.
It was the first of 11 “home” games that the Jazz would play at the Thomas & Mack during the 1983-84 season as the franchise attempted to generate regional support.
Then there’s the NBA Summer League. The 10-day event has been held at the Thomas & Mack Center and adjacent Cox Pavilion since 2004 and has gotten more popular with each passing year, including multiple sold-out crowds this past July.
Among those responsible for bringing the NBA Summer League to Las Vegas? Christenson.
“I was working at Las Vegas Events at the time, and someone from the NBA called and said, ‘It’s really simple: We need $25,000 to bring the Summer League to Las Vegas.’ And I said, ‘Wait — you’re talking about the NBA?’ It was an easy thing to say yes to.”
On January 1, 2023, Christenson finally left a business he had no intention of ever getting into when he officially retired from Las Vegas Events. But when he looks at all the modern arenas and stadiums that now dot the city’s landscape, he takes great pride in knowing that it all started with the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Until fairly recently, we were a destination without venues, while other cities growing at a similar pace had venues but they weren’t a destination — at least not anywhere near the level of Las Vegas,” he says. “Now we have state-of-the-art venues of various sizes and shapes, all in a place where millions of people want to visit. It’s a winning combination — one no other city can match.”
That MBA thesis Ralenkotter wrote 52 years ago? It included a survey of Southern Nevada residents who were asked if they wanted and would support an NBA franchise.
The majority of the responses: two thumbs up.
Yet despite the league’s long-standing relationship with Las Vegas — and despite the city’s storied history as a fervent basketball town — residents are still waiting for an NBA team to support.
Count Ralenkotter among the many who believe it’s only a matter of time before that changes. Because as he notes — and as leagues like the NFL, NHL, and MLB can attest — Las Vegas in 2023 is simply impossible for professional sports organizations to resist.
“Las Vegas has always been a sports city and a sports-minded community, because a lot of the people who have moved here over the decades have come from cities that had professional sports teams,” says Ralenkotter, who retired in 2018 after 45 years at the LVCVA. “Having grown up here, I know how much sports are part of our DNA.
“And the reality is, when you put all the things that we offer on the table, there’s not another city in the United States that can compete with Las Vegas That’s why I think the NBA will be next.”
When it does finally arrive, fans undoubtedly will pack the arena game after game. At which point Ralenkotter can dust off his half-century-old UNLV thesis and say, “See, I told you so!”