Fans watch fireworks after UNLV’s final football game at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday. (Getty Images)

Vegas college venue established itself as a concert destination

Sam Boyd Stadium played host to its final University of Nevada-Las Vegas football game on Saturday, and Daren Libonati was among the 200 former Rebel players celebrating the history behind the 48-year-old facility.

Next year, UNLV football moves to new Allegiant Stadium, just off the Vegas Strip, where the school will share the $2 billion venue with the NFL’s Raiders. At this point, Sam Boyd Stadium’s future is up in the air, according to local reports.

Looking back on the building, Libonati, who serves as MGM Resorts International’s vice president and general manager of festivals and outdoor spaces, has a unique perspective. He was UNLV’s kicker for two seasons, 1986-87, before spending about 19 years running and booking events at both Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack Center, the school’s basketball arena and home to the National Finals Rodeo.

“Although people will rip (the stadium) for being eight miles from the Strip in what was then a quiet town, it was really a diamond in the desert,” Libonati said. “The intimacy of the building with the crowd on top of you … as a player, it was fantastic.”

Former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and Daren Libonati of MGM Resorts International, both former UNLV football players, attend the final game at Sam Boyd. Libonati booked and ran events at the stadium for 19 years. (Courtesy UNLV)

Libonati started as an intern with the school’s facilities in 1987 and worked his way up from parking to booking the arena from 1989 to 1993. After leaving UNLV to help open two new arenas — the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas and Star of the Desert in Primm, 45 minutes south of Vegas on the California border — Libonati returned to UNLV in 1998 and served as executive director of Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack Center from 2001 to 2010.

Cox Pavilion, a 3,000-seat venue which UNLV opened in 2001 for women’s basketball and volleyball, also fell under Libonati’s jurisdiction.

“As a businessman, we had to fight very hard to get events and that’s where we learned to be great bookers,” he said. “Everything booked in (the stadium) I’m lucky enough to have my DNA on from a booking and operations standpoint.”

In the early 1990s, Libonati was instrumental in persuading the Grateful Dead to play Sam Boyd Stadium. At the time, the Dead was among the biggest touring acts and played five consecutive years in Vegas (1991-95) before lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia died in August 1995. 

The band’s final performances, May 19-21, 1995, grossed more than $3.7 million in ticket sales with attendance of 125,533. Both numbers set records for the stadium, which opened in 1971 with 15,000 seats and grew to 40,000 after an expansion and renovation in 1998.

The Dead’s five-year run in Vegas put the stadium on the map in the concert industry and paved the way for other artists to play Sam Boyd, including Paul McCartney, U2, The Eagles, Metallica, Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty and Ozzy Osbourne. 

 “We were stretching our arms and chasing the Grateful Dead,” Libonati said. “For me, one of the great memories was flying to San Francisco and watching them play in Oakland, and having my bosses (UNLV facility executives) Dennis Finfrock and Pat Christenson tell me, ‘You need to have an operation and a plan for how to execute this thing.’”

“It was electric because you’re talking about the Dead (and promoters) Bill Graham and Gregg Perloff,” he said. “We put together an unbelievable plan that convinced them we could do it again and again. Back then, Pat allowed us to not just be operations people but booking people. We got to play in both parts of the business, which helped because we understood what we owned and what we were responsible and accountable for.”

Monster Jam, Supercross and music festivals also played Sam Boyd Stadium under Libonati’s watch. Vegoose, a festival held around Halloween and modeled after Bonnaroo, had a three-year run at the stadium from 2005 to 2007. Libonati teamed with Christenson, who became president of Las Vegas Events in 2001, to produce the festival with Superfly Presents.

“We drove to Manchester, Tenn., and convinced the boys down there at Bonnaroo to create our own event,” Libonati said. “In our first year, we had three big stages and 15 acres (including property outside the stadium) and then rolled in the stadium for Dave Matthews. We were way ahead of our time for festivals in Las Vegas.”

The experience Libonati gained with Vegoose, among other events at UNLV venues, has helped him in his role at MGM in developing festivals such as Rock in Rio USA, Route 91 Harvest and, most recently, Day N Vegas, held Nov. 1-3 at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds, which drew 60,000 a day.

“The integrity and the backbone of those events stems from everything we did at Sam Boyd Stadium,” Libonati said.