Seven Questions for Mike Newcomb

The Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack Center boss on rugby’s appeal, UNLV’s proposed mega-events center and who’d be favored in a rugby fan vs. cowboy throw-down

Photo by Zack W.

Photo by Zack W.

To put it bluntly, Mike Newcomb’s job is to put asses in seats—as many as possible, as often as possible and however possible. So when a group of officials from USA Sevens rugby came to Las Vegas several years ago to discuss the possibility of relocating North America’s premier rugby tournament from San Diego to Sam Boyd Stadium, Newcomb—then second-in-command and now executive director of the Thomas & Mack Center, Sam Boyd Stadium and the Cox Pavilion—didn’t flinch. “We’re always looking for new stuff to do,” he says, “and we’re not afraid to take a risk.” Then the USA Sevens folks spelled out their plan. “We were like, ‘What? The games are only 16 minutes long? And there are 44 of them in two days? How does this work?’”

Long story short, Newcomb and his team figured it out, so much so that he’s expecting record attendance—in excess of 50,000 in total ticket sales—when the USA Sevens returns to Sam Boyd for a fourth consecutive year on February 8-10. The rugby tournament, of course, is just one of dozens of events that fill Newcomb’s day planner—next up is a soccer friendly between the Colorado Rapids and Chivas USA at Sam Boyd (Feb. 15), followed by the Mountain West Conference basketball tournaments (March 12-16) at the Thomas & Mack. However, Newcomb’s most important task may lie down the road: protecting his turf if the planned UNLV Now mega-events center ever comes to pass.

USA Sevens attendance has increased each year. Do you see it growing into a mini-National Finals Rodeo?

Yeah, definitely. It’s probably one of our top five financial-impact events that we do, between [the Thomas & Mack Center] and the stadium. Like the NFR, the rugby matches are a small part of the experience, but it’s more about the event. And the passion is very similar. If you’re a rodeo fan, you have to go to NFR, and if you’re a rugby fan, you have to go to this if you can.

We’re trying to educate the locals that even if you’re not a rugby fan, it’s amazing [to watch], with the different fans from different countries, all side by side. The matches last 10-12 hours [on Saturday], and we don’t have any issues crowd-wise. You can go out there and watch your team two or three times a day. It’s our favorite event. … It’s been great for the stadium, great for the city.

If you had to take a multiple-choice test on rugby terminology and rules, could you pass?

It might be a “C,” but I think I could pass. When I was a kid, my uncle played a lot of rugby, so I got to go to a lot of practices and to a few games. So I’m a little more familiar with it.

What’s your stance on the UNLV Now mega-events center?

Well, obviously we think Sam Boyd is a great facility. We take some heat for being eight miles away [from campus]; sometimes I see that as an excuse. A lot of people find their way out there when it’s important to them. … Would the mega-events center be great for the city? I think it would be. Will it happen? We’ll find out more in the next couple of months. We’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the talks and the planning. It’s expensive, [but] it would be beautiful. Would it attract some other events that we currently don’t get? I think it would.

You say it would be good for the city, but would it be good for Sam Boyd Stadium? Could it survive?

Sam Boyd Stadium would still survive. We’d have to reinvent ourselves and find another niche, and we’d have to find new ways to make revenue, because obviously we’d lose a few events that would be looking for a higher-profile, sexier place right off the Strip. I’m sure most of our current major events would want to look at moving to the mega-events center. But at the end of the day, might some of them want to just stay out there [at Sam Boyd] just because of what the price might be to operate, or because we have the luxury of a lot of space out there—with the Star Nursery Fields, and we have parking for 20,000 on-site? It could happen.

At the recent Board of Regents meeting, UNLV Now officials suggested that other than Rebel football, they didn’t plan on taking events away from Sam Boyd. Do you believe that?

No, I don’t believe that. That place is going to be expensive, and they’re going to need to fill it and do quality events. And those are proven winners. … If I was running that building, I would try to go get these events that already have historic value.

What’s your answer to the complaint that Sam Boyd is too far removed from campus and its location too remote?

If you’re a traditional campus, that makes sense. But I think we only have probably 1,000 kids actually living on campus—obviously there’s more in the vicinity living in apartments. … Back in the day, when we started, there was nothing out there [near Sam Boyd Stadium]. Now it just doesn’t seem as far away. But you’re dealing with a different culture. If you’re from another place, your mom or dad probably drove 40 minutes or 30 or 40 miles to work every day and didn’t think anything of it. Here, anything over 20 minutes, you think you’re going on a road trip. It is where it is, and we try to manage it the best we can. There’s space out there, there’s not a bad seat in the house. We’ve seen over the years when we’ve had a U2 concert or our sold-out dirt events every year, maybe it’s a little struggle to get out there and we do have to add some mass-transit plans, but I don’t think it feels too far away.

What has a bigger impact on UNLV football attendance: the location of the stadium or the play on the field?

I’m going to get in trouble for that one! I think people use that as an excuse—that it’s too far away. If [the Rebels] were really competitive, people would find their way out there. But the bigger issue is, the university is the city’s university, and we should be supporting those kids, especially while they’re struggling, because that’s going to help them. We played a lot better this year; we only won two games, but there were probably three or four more we could’ve won with one play here or one play there. But I’m sure those kids see those crowds are a little light.

Both Sam Boyd and the Thomas & Mack are getting up there in years. If an anonymous donor slipped a $5 million check under your door, how would you spend it?

We’re looking at doing some renovation—there are some plans in the works. … A lot of systems need to be updated—electrical, air conditioning, that kind of thing. But that anonymous check needs to be more like $50 million! [Laughs.] The stadium may be what it is, but the mega-events center [is projected to cost] $900 million. If you were to sink some money into Sam Boyd, you could make that place really nice.

The NFR contract is set to expire in 2014. What’s the status of negotiations on an extension?

We should announce an extension probably this summer. Michael Gaughan and the Las Vegas Events board are working hand in hand with [Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association] Commissioner Karl Stressman. They want to be here, and obviously we want them. They just need to come together and iron out a few details. But all indications from both sides are that nobody’s worrying about it going anywhere. If we’re not announcing an extension this summer—or at least before this year’s rodeo—I’d be shocked.

What’s your message to someone who’s lived here a long time and never gone to the NFR?

Same as my message about rugby: Go check it out. You think rodeo, you’re probably thinking, “Not my thing.” But the way it’s structured, and with the seven events and the way it’s timed and goes so quick—once you get in there, you’ll say, “Hey, that’s pretty interesting,” and you’d probably want to come back. You might not want to go to all 10 days, but nobody would come in here and say, “Ah, that wasn’t exciting.”

A rodeo fan and a rugby fan in a steel-cage match—who wins?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. Different techniques there—old-school, hard-and-tough cowboy versus a brawler? I might have to side with the rugby fan; he’s probably a little bit younger. I’d make the rugby fan a small favorite. But after how many beers are we talking?

What’s the most memorable event/show you’ve attended at one of your venues?

NBA All-Star game. The work that went into those three days—we obviously had some trials and tribulations [that weekend] in the city, but we were lucky to be over here at the Thomas & Mack, where it was crazy, but we pulled all three days off. And I think the NBA had a good experience with us. That was probably the most rewarding.

Let’s say you can attract any event/act to the Thomas & Mack or Sam Boyd—what’s at the top of your wish list?

Obviously, the U2 shows have been great out at Sam Boyd, just the way they’re operated and managed. Any stadium rock ’n’ roll show is great out there—the view is great, really intimate seating and it just gives you that electric feeling. … So the Rolling Stones at the stadium would be unbelievable. Unfortunately, everyone in that genre is approaching 72 years old and can’t go as hard as they used to.

Back to the mega-events center: One question that really hasn’t been answered is: Where’s the parking?

That’s a good question. Don’t quote me on spaces, but I think we’re at 12,000 right now campus-wide and that would increase to 23,000. It’s going to be in garages for the most part. But if we’re having a basketball game—because the Rebels are still going to play at the Thomas & Mack—on a Saturday night against San Diego State, 15,000-16,000 fans, and they’re doing a show for 40,000-50,000 at the same time, we’re going to have to deal with that. … If you ever go to Phoenix or L.A. and the game’s over and you see barricades and police running every [traffic] light for probably a two-mile circumference—now you’re dealing with the big boys.

Speaking of, as someone who once oversaw the parking operations at the Thomas & Mack and Sam Boyd, what’s your biggest parking-lot pet peeve?

Just the stigma of the parking guy, that he’s last on the list and not that important. But there’s a lot that goes into planning that—ordering equipment, getting with police, having the county guys run the traffic. For a basketball game, we’re probably staffing 45 guys. Each has a role, and if they don’t do it [right], it screws up the whole thing.

The parking is the first taste our fans get, and usually they don’t want to stop and listen to [instructions]. But they do know what they’re doing, and it’s a very important job. The parking guy is there to help you; he’s not going to send you where you don’t want to go.

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