Rock in Rio Founder on Rolling the Dice With Vegas Debut, Brazil's Massive Sponsorship Dollars

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Rock In Rio's founder Roberto Medina attends a preview at the Rock In Rio USA's City of Rock at the MGM Resorts Festival Grounds on April 24, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Roberto Medina is sparing no expense to (finally) bring the world’s biggest music festival to the U.S.

On its 30th anniversary, Rock in Rio -- the world’s biggest music festival, with 7 million tickets sold over three decades -- is finally making its North American debut, in Las Vegas over two weekends in May. Founder/CEO Roberto Medina has basically thrown caution to the desert wind: He’s built a 37-acre, 85,000-capacity “City of Rock” (in partnership with MGM Resorts International and Cirque du Soleil, as well as SFX Entertainment) that will feature nearly 100 acts on three stages and three “rock streets.” Metallica, Linkin Park and Maná are among the headliners for the May 8-9 rock weekend, and Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Taylor Swift will top the May 15-16 pop weekend; sponsors include Mercedes Benz, Red Bull, Bacardi, Hennessy, Corona and Chilli Beans sunglasses. Billboard spoke with Medina on what it means to bring the world’s biggest music festival to the world’s biggest music market.

Billboard: Was it a challenge to find sponsors in the U.S.? 

Roberto Medina: Music sponsorship is very small in America. Each edition of Rock in Rio gets $54 million in sponsorships, meaning about 10 times more than the biggest American festivals. We have $14 million in sponsorships [for the Vegas edition], and that’s much more than other festivals in America. But if you compare it with Brazil, it’s insignificant -- there we license the Rock in Rio brand to 650 different products. The Rock In Rio operation is more expensive than others: artificial turf, real bathrooms, the best sound in the world. When we started in Brazil 30 years ago we had to make an exceptional offer because the money from ticket sales wouldn’t pay for the festival. Here it does, so there’s not such an urgency to find brands.

How does your partnership with Cirque du Soleil and MGM Resorts work?

There’s a big Brazilian population that comes here, so for MGM it’s very important to open up the tourism conversation with Brazil. I’ve designed the “Rock City” architecture and MGM is building it. Once Rock in Rio ends, the structure will remain, and every certain number of years we’ll bring the project back.

You have only one major Brazilian star, Ivette Sangalo, performing. How did you decide who to book?

We did a series of polls, and the No. 1 artist in all the polls was Bruno Mars. Sam Smith was second. Each country’s edition of Rock in Rio has to represent local tastes. Our first goal is to play for the people who are here.

You’ve taken Rock In Rio to Portugal, Spain and now the U.S. Where next?

We’ll return to Rio de Janeiro in September. And a natural next step is Asia and Japan or the Middle East.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.