The World in a Net

Last August 5, Daren Libonati was in Manchester, England, watching a soccer game. For a year, the Justice Entertainment Group president and COO had been trying to bring a world-class soccer match to Las Vegas. Now, sitting in Old Trafford Stadium watching Manchester United defeat the New York Cosmos in a friendly contest before nearly 76,000 fans, he understood that if he were to succeed, it could potentially be the biggest global sporting event in the history of Las Vegas.

Chalk one up to vision and persistence. On August 5, exactly one year after Libonati’s visit to Old Trafford, the storied Spanish club Real Madrid will play Italian powerhouse Juventus FC at Sam Boyd Stadium as part of the 2012 World Football Challenge. Tickets, which range in price from $68 to $178, go on sale May 10, and are expected to go quickly because of the game’s worldwide appeal.

“From a perspective of what I call ‘wow,’ this game is going to have a lot of worldly ‘wow’,” Libonati says.

The World Football Challenge pits top European soccer clubs against U.S.-based Major League Soccer teams, but since Las Vegas doesn’t have an MLS franchise, Libonati was able to secure the more attractive matchup of premiere international squads. What makes the game even more notable for Las Vegas is that Sam Boyd is the second-smallest stadium being used for the tour, with only the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., having a smaller capacity.

“It’s a thrill to know that we’re going to accomplish something, selfishly, that we’ve been chasing for two years,” Libonati says. “But we know that we can smile and know that we accomplished something that the city has been waiting for for a long, long time. And theonly thing that’s going to come from this is good.”

Ultimately, Libonati would like to create a World Football Challenge Final Four-type finale at Sam Boyd, but there are concerns that the stadium might be too small to host such an event. So while this year’s game brings heightened global attention to Las Vegas, it also magnifies the need for a new stadium.

“We can say that we want arenas and stadiums for NBA and NHL teams, but the reality is we need beautiful venues for world sports that want to be in our city,” Libonati says. “And this is going to prove that the world wants to be here; we just have to have the right opportunity to give it to them. And we’ve created that.”

Real Madrid, led by international superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, won its 32nd Spanish League title on May 2, while Juventus won its 28th Italian Serie A league championship on May 6. Libonati initially had lined up a match between the Cosmos against either Mexico’s Club América or Chivas de Guadalajara, which was to have been played at Sam Boyd in February. But when the Cosmos folded in November, Libonati shifted gears to land the more attractive Real Madrid-Juventus matchup.

With Southern Nevadans getting a unique opportunity to experience world-class soccer in their own backyard, this match has the potential to help change the sporting landscape in Las Vegas.

And some day, just maybe, the scene in Sam Boyd—or whatever marvel replaces it—will rival the passion at Old Trafford.

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