It was opening night of the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in April 2016, and the crowd was cheering hometown heroes: The Killers, fronted by Brandon Flowers, and "Mr. Las Vegas" himself, Wayne Newton, who had joined the band onstage.
Watching the show, arena executive Rick Arpin could finally relax. "I'm nervously refreshing my Twitter feed every two minutes to make sure no one's complaining about something in Section 202," recalls Arpin, senior vp entertainment, booking and development at MGM Resorts International, which built the T-Mobile Arena in a partnership with the facilities division of AEG. "Then I realized no one is going to be tweeting anything besides 'OMG, this is the greatest moment ever.' You could just tell that 15,000 people were completely lost in the moment."
Fans in Las Vegas have more places to experience great musical moments than in any comparably sized city in the nation. While Vegas has a year-round population of some 600,000 residents, it draws 41 million visitors annually. Serving that audience are 15-plus venues that report performance grosses to Billboard Boxscore, ranging from the 258-seat Smith Center for the Performing Arts to the 20,000-capacity T-Mobile Arena. And more concert venues are on the way.
Long gone are the days when "Sin City" relied on entertainment primarily to draw high rollers to the Strip's windowless casinos, with the promise of catching Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel and Casino.
The reincarnation of Las Vegas as a family resort city during the past three decades can be traced, in part, to the creation by casino magnate Steve Wynn of increasingly opulent hotels: the Mirage in 1989, the Bellagio in 1998 and the Wynn Las Vegas in 2005. Other casino companies stepped up to compete.
Pop stars would become an ever-more potent lure to fill the expanding inventory of new rooms. In 2003, after a $95 million renovation, the 4,000-capacity Colosseum at Caesars Palace welcomed Celine Dion for her first residency, A New Day, presented by AEG Live. Dion's production ran for almost five years and grossed $385 million. More important, it established a lucrative new business model for the music industry. Elton John, Bette Midler and Cher followed with extended runs at the Colosseum. This year, the venue is featuring residencies by Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn, Rod Stewart and Mariah Carey, with return bookings by Dion and John.
With a capacity of 7,000, the Axis at Planet Hollywood hosted the most successful residency of the past year, by Jennifer Lopez, which grossed $34.6 million. In 2017, the Axis will continue to host extended runs by Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and more.
The ticket-selling power of the extended residencies is so strong that the theater-size Colosseum and Axis at Planet Hollywood (both owned by Caesars Entertainment) rank among the five top-grossing concert venues in Las Vegas alongside three of the city's much-larger arenas, the T-Mobile Arena, the MGM Grand Garden (capacity 14,500) and the Mandalay Bay Events Center (capacity 12,200), according to Billboard Boxscore.
MGM Resorts International is the parent company of T-Mobile Arena, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay Events Center -- plus the new 5,300-seat Park Theater at the Monte Carlo Las Vegas Resort and Casino, which has upcoming residencies by Bruno Mars, Cher and Ricky Martin. The company is bullish on booking all of its halls.
"What this allows us to do is give the artists and the promoters the best chance to find the right venue," says Arpin.
The T-Mobile Arena is currently the hottest room in town, hosting concerts in the past year by The Rolling Stones, Guns N' Roses, Kanye West and Garth Brooks and a residency by George Strait that grossed $18 million during 2016. In October, the new arena also will become the home of the NHL's new expansion team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Despite the seeming dominance of the MGM and Caesar's Entertainment venues, competing facilities believe Vegas is big enough for everyone.
"The market is there," says Michael Newcomb, executive director of the 18,500-capacity Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is in the middle of a $72.5 million renovation that will add 36,000 square feet to the building. "When you're bringing in 41 million tourists a year to the city," he says, "there's plenty of shows for everyone."
According to the most recent data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, more than 60 percent of the city's visitors in 2015 attended a show during their stay, with the average attendee's performance spend at $138. That helps explain why another major venue company is coming to town. In May 2016, Madison Square Garden Company and Irving Azoff, chairman/CEO of Azoff Madison Square Garden Entertainment -- the team behind the renovation and the 2014 relaunch of Los Angeles' Forum -- announced plans for an arena in Las Vegas.
Those companies have partnered with Las Vegas Sands Corp. to build a 17,500-capacity venue just off the Strip. Like The Forum, the as-yet-unnamed building will be built and booked exclusively for music, rather than also serve as a sports facility, like T-Mobile Arena with its new NHL team. Its strategy is to compete against T-Mobile Arena as The Forum does against Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Madison Square Garden Company president/CEO David "Doc" O'Connor told the Los Angeles Times that Las Vegas remains "underserved in terms of large-scale entertainment."
Thomas & Mack Center's Newcomb notes that "within two miles" of where he sits, the city offers two arenas with more than 18,000 seats, three facilities with capacities that exceed 9,000 and two theaters seating more than 5,000 fans. With that ticket-selling inventory, he says, "the future of Las Vegas is whatever they want it to be."
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Billboard.