Casinos win younger auds with risky acts, but conservative shows offer better odds

When Ultimate Fighting Championship matches started in 1993, the sport was a bloody, brutal, no-holds-barred spectacle fast on its way to extinction — certainly not the kind of tourist-friendly entertainment to fill Las Vegas arenas. Or was it?

UFC has mellowed in the last five years — new owners bought the near-bankrupt company in 2001 and submitted it to the Atlantic City and Nevada gaming commissions for sanctioning — while Vegas has ventured to embrace edgier entertainment options. But just how extreme can casino bookings get before they start to lose visitors?

Violent sports are nothing new at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, a venue renowned for its top-tier boxing prizefights. And even though UFC now features less carnage than the sport’s earlier, unregulated incarnation, fans consistently pack the 12,000-seat arena to watch competitors fight in mixed martial arts battles that combine wrestling with flurries of punches, kicks and other techniques.

“It’s the most exciting combat sport in the world,” boasts UFC prexy Dana White. And that added excitement means big business for the casinos that host the fights.

“It’s a younger demographic than boxing,” says MGM Mirage entertainment and sports prexy Richard A. Sturm, who cites a spike in revenue on the gaming floors whenever there’s a UFC event. “It’s fun to watch — I think it’s that simple.”

Gambling on the success of the UFC paid off, but casinos aren’t always willing to try edgy new forms of entertainment.

Producer David Saxe says every casino in town turned down the Blue Man Group before the Venetian took a chance on what is now a hit show.

“Casinos say they are looking for something new, hip, really cool — then you bring them that and they hire another Cirque show (instead),” says Saxe. “It’s safe to hire what works.”

“We book across the board,” says Hard Rock entertainment marketing manager Edward “Tex” Davis. “We don’t want to establish ourselves as appealing to one demographic.”

While it’s not unusual to find in-your-face rock acts such as Peaches, Social Distortion or Tool selling out one-night engagements at Hard Rock or House of Blues, it takes a performer like Celine Dion to move 4,000 tickets day after day.

A show like Dion’s delivers just the effect Caesars Palace planners are looking for as the concert crowd pours from each show to pass by 2,000 to 3,000 young customers moving in and out of the nightclub Pure — all potential customers for the casino.

“The overall business is not strictly about gaming or shows anymore — it’s about the entire experience,” says Scott Schecter, VP of entertainment for Harrah’s Entertainment, Las Vegas. “The gaming part is not the driving force it once was; it’s a piece of what’s happening overall on the property.”

The fate of several high-profile Broadway transplants demonstrates that even the slightest edge can be toxic when Vegas goes legit. Mainstream Abba tuner “Mamma Mia” has been a hit, but less politically correct shows such as “Hairspray” and “Avenue Q” didn’t last long. To that extent, “The Phantom of the Opera” seems a relatively safe bet at the Venetian this fall.

“When you’re going to Broadway, you’re expecting to see art,” says Saxe. “In Vegas you’re in a different frame of mind: You’re here more to party. I think (Vegas visitors) just want to have a great time.”

With 10 midsize variety shows running, Saxe gears all of his productions toward mass appeal.

One of his most popular acts doesn’t include any multimillion-dollar bells and whistles; it’s a guy named Bobby Badfingers, who snaps his fingers.

“The audience goes wild for it,” Saxe says. “It gets them laughing and drinking and having fun.”

And that’s what Vegas is all about.

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