John Saccenti has held pretty much every sports job in Las Vegas, and now he’s in charge of one of the city’s biggest annual athletic events. In June, the New Jersey native and UNLV graduate was named executive director of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl after working on the bowl game’s staff under ESPN Events since 2001.
Saccenti has also worked with the Las Vegas Stars/51s baseball team, the Las Vegas Thunder hockey team and even the Las Vegas Outlaws of the short-lived XFL—a gig that, with the benefit of hindsight, helped prepare him for his current post.
What originally brought you to Las Vegas? I didn’t want to go to college anywhere near New Jersey, and my grandma had moved here about four years earlier. I’d visited her during the heyday of UNLV basketball and I thought this was the best town ever. And when I came to school, she came to pick up my laundry every Sunday morning and sent me back with a pan full of lasagna. I was the most popular kid in the dorm. But I didn’t share nearly as much as I told her I did.
Being in town when the Runnin’ Rebels ruled must have been a formative experience. Did you plan to work in sports? I wanted to be an architect. For my last year of high school final project I designed a house for my dad to build when he retired. I came out here looking at all these hotel buildings thinking I could design that stuff. But in my first year, studying the history of architecture, I didn’t want to do it anymore and I became a communications major.
You worked for the IHL hockey team, the Thunder, first doing game-day operations and then as Boom Boom, the polar bear mascot. I had played sports my entire life and now I was seeing this other side of it, which was really interesting to me. And it was fun. Back then, I think there were people who looked at me and realized if I was willing to do that, I was serious about getting involved and I’d do anything for an opportunity. Someone told me this years ago: You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid, monotonous work, chances are you’ll end up being boring, stupid and monotonous.
You worked your way up with the Thunder and the Stars baseball team, which were owned by the same company. What did you do next? Jon Sandler, now the voice of UNLV sports, had been my boss and he took a job as vice president of the XFL, starting a football franchise in Las Vegas working for Vince McMahon and the WWF. I was his first hire and went to run all the sponsorships and marketing. It only lasted a year and the league folded, but it worked. We had the No. 1 franchise in the league, the best attendance and the most sponsorship dollars. The reason it went away was not because of what the franchise did on a local level, but because the league lost its TV agreement and it couldn’t sustain itself.
Did that experience help prepare you to direct the Las Vegas Bowl? What it did for me was this: The XFL gave us a platform to be creative, to generate excitement and fun. People didn’t know most of the players. You had to sell the experience: This is gonna be awesome and I can’t miss it. What I’m doing now is a little like that. It’s August and I want you to buy tickets or sponsor an event in December, and I can’t tell you what teams are playing. I have to sell 40,000 tickets and get people excited, and the only way is to create excitement around the event. We use the line “More than just a game,” and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a week-long celebration of college football, and we’re highlighting the city and everything Vegas can do. Last year we gave a car away to a fan, and we gave away a house and $20,000 in furniture to a soldier who just came back from being in combat. Who else is doing stuff like that? We’re working on some cool new things for this year, too.
What do you think of the new college football playoff system? I think fans really wanted it. There’s always so much debate at the end of the year, and with this system, with four teams playing out, there shouldn’t be much debate. Everybody seems to think it will expand beyond four teams, but I hope it doesn’t expand too much because of the great bowl system and what it does.
What’s your stance on a new football stadium for UNLV? Obviously we’re all for it. Sam Boyd is a great venue and it serves its purpose well, but the only way we can grow and make this game bigger and generate more tourism and bring higher-ranked teams is to have a newer stadium. I think the craziest idea ever is to build a football-only stadium. We’re a major events city, a special events city, and we need a stadium that’s flexible. Make it a beautiful, state-of-the-art home for UNLV, but when UNLV is not there, it can attract more concerts, maybe MLS, another bowl game, maybe get the NFL to play Monday Night Football or an exhibition game. And you never know what the next great Las Vegas event will be. Who would have predicted EDC would become what it is?
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl December 20, 12:30 p.m. (tickets on sale August 25). Sam Boyd Stadium, 702-895-3761.