In the end, the Great Las Vegas Arena Race was won by neither the city of Las Vegas nor some deep-pocketed Strip billionaire nor some fast-talking, promise-making Texan.
The first shovel in the ground for Las Vegas’ first major new arena in 30 years came Thursday during a milestone groundbreaking ceremony courtesy of the company with the most properties along the Strip — MGM Resorts International , and one of the world’s powerhouse arena and entertainment companies, AEG.
On a pleasant, sunny spring late morning, MGM Resorts and AEG officially launched the $375 million construction project with shovels hitting earth in a parking lot at 11:50 a.m.
The 20,000-seat MGM/AEG arena plans to open in spring 2016 without a National Basketball Association or National Hockey League tenant. That’s fine with MGM and AEG officials, who have crafted a business plan to tap into a steady stream of content such as mixed martial arts and boxing fight events, concerts, award shows and sports. They anticipate about 100-150 events a year. Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the MMA fight event, promotion and media company, plans five or six annual fight shows at the new arena.
MGM Resorts Chief Executive Jim Murren and AEG Chief Executive Dan Beckerman welcomed the groundbreaking crowd, sitting in white wooden chairs near the Monte Carlo parking garage, next-door to MGM office buildings that will be demolished to make way for the arena. Sports broadcaster Jim Gray served as host, and the list of speakers included UFC President Dana White, former NBA star Bill Walton and “special guest” and boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather.
“It’s a big day for Las Vegas. It’s a big day for Nevada. It’s a big day for entertainment,” Murren said. “We need to create the experience tourists are so yearning for. They want to be wowed.”
Before the groundbreaking, Beckerman exclusively told the Review-Journal that a financing deal was finalized with Bank of America. AEG has never announced an arena project and not built it.
“It’s a milestone for us. We’ve been working on this vision for over a decade,” Beckerman told the RJ before the ceremony.
The arena project is significant for two reasons. First, it’s not a private-public sports venue predicated on hosting a major-league sports franchise, which is a common model around the country. Second, in a city of 2 million residents that markets itself on serving as the world’s entertainment playground for adults, the arena will vault to the top of Las Vegas’s entertainment venues in terms of amenities, seating options and opulence. Las Vegas’ current inventory of sports venues — 38,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium, 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center and 9,300-seat Cashman Field — are functional sports buildings built a generation ago and lacking the major revenue-generating bells and whistles of today’s contemporary sports buildings.
Every major touring concert and act is expected to make a stop at the new MGM/AEG arena, Beckerman said. “This is a major, major project for our company. Las Vegas is a must-play market,” he told the RJ.
The MGM-AEG arena will be built with a wide array of money-making food and beverage features and high-end seating options, ranging from spacious clubs and 50 luxury suites to more than 25 luxury loge boxes and multiple balconies. It will also be built to NBA and NHL specifications, which is expected to fuel efforts to bring major-league basketball or hockey to Las Vegas. The NBA already holds its popular summer league in Las Vegas, while the NHL holds its player awards show here.
And with the NBA’s efforts to force Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell his team following a controversy over racist comments, there will inevitably be even more headlines about a new owner potentially moving the Clippers franchise to Las Vegas — and a new dazzling arena.
Beckerman said the arena will be able to accommodate any NBA or NHL team. “Clearly, Las Vegas is a great market and we think it can support an anchor tenant,” he said. “If the leagues approve a team for Las Vegas, we would be open to that.”
The arena will host UFC event shows — and UFC’s colorful White couldn’t wait to inaugurate the arena with a UFC fight show.
“Nobody is more pumped about this than me and my team,” White said.
Walton, the ex-college basketball star and amateur philosopher, told the crowd, “What a perfect day. Why can’t all days be like this?”
Beckerman also said talks are underway for a naming rights deal for the arena and AEG has already started suite sales.
The MGM-AEG arena will be shoehorned into a 16-acre site behind the New York-New York parking garage and near the Monte Carlo parking garage, with the building close to Frank Sinatra Drive on the west side of the property. A plaza and outdoor retail center will lead to the arena front.
The arena’s guests will be split between tourists and locals. About 54 percent will be visitors, while 46 percent will be locals, an MGM traffic study said. The same report said parking will be provided in the CityCenter employee garage, New York-New York garage, surface parking designated at the Excalibur and a small surface parking lot south of the venue.
Politically, MGM and AEG avoided the headaches of lobbying local government for financial support. Both companies are not asking for a nickel in public dollars toward the construction of the building, which was designed by Populous, a well-known sports facility architectural firm in Kansas City. Denver-based ICON Group is the project manager.
Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, one of the speakers, stressed to the crowd that not a single public dollar is being spent to build the new arena.
Thursday’s groundbreaking likely spells the death knell of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s plan for a downtown arena at Symphony Park. The city is working with The Cordish Cos. on developing a $390 million arena, but the financing has not come together and Cordish has said its arena project is predicated on a sports team tenant.
Former UNLV basketball player and Las Vegas businessman Jackie Robinson has also proposed an arena for the Strip. It’s a proposed $1.3 billion, privately-funded 22,000-seat arena and resort, which includes $690 million for the arena. Robinson said he is pursuing financing for the project, which he wants to build between the under-construction SLS Las Vegas hotel-casino and the halted Fontainebleau project. He wants to open the arena in December 2016.
Texas developer Chris Milam also proposed several unsuccessful arena projects, the last one in the city of Henderson. Milam was sued by Henderson officials, accused of using the arena proposal as a ruse to buy Bureau of Land Management property at a discounted price and then flip it to house builders. As part of the lawsuit settlement with Henderson, Milam agreed to never do business in the city again.
Sisolak said the arena proposal have some and gone. But this one has legs, he said.
“This one is real,” the county commissioner said.
Contact reporter Alan Snel at email@example.com or 702-387-5273. Follow @BicycleManSnel on Twitter.