It's time for Vegas to 'cowboy up' again

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Kyle Irwin will compete in the steer wrestling category at the National Finals Rodeo.
Kyle Irwin will compete in the steer wrestling category at the National Finals Rodeo. Photo Credit: National Finals Rodeo
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

Way back when, early December used to be a relatively slow time for Las Vegas. That period between Thanksgiving and Christmas was known for cheap room rates, easy dinner reservations and plentiful seats at shows (the ones that weren't taking a break) and at the gaming tables. It was a good time to change the carpets in casinos because fewer feet would be inconvenienced.

That all changed in December 1985 when the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) moved from a two-decade run in Oklahoma City to the brand new, 18,000-seat Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about two miles from the Strip. Thousands of tourists who might have otherwise decided to stay home and save their money for Christmas shopping made their way to Las Vegas for the pageantry, prestige and thrills of what's often called the "Super Bowl of Rodeo."

Luring the rodeo to the city was the work of Las Vegas Events, a private, nonprofit organization formed in 1983 through state statute and funded through the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to secure and promote signature events.

Creating the organization and attracting the NFR was the resort industry's recognition that December was an especially "fallow" time for Las Vegas in a relatively quiet decade before the booming '90s, said Michael Green, professor of history at UNLV. "We had to do some different things," Green said. "It was not going to do to announce that Frank [Sinatra] is here for a week. The rodeo was an important step in that."

This year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 5 to 14, is the season-ending championship event for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). The top 15 athletes in the seven standard rodeo events qualify to compete based on prize money they've won during the regular season. World champions are determined based on earnings during the season and in the 10 go-rounds of the National Finals Rodeo.

Last year, 169,171 fans attended over the 10 days. The record was in 2014, when 177,565 attended. After a brief flirtation with other cities in 2014, the PRCA signed a new contract with Las Vegas Events to keep the NFR in Las Vegas through 2024.

Its effects are difficult to measure but can't be underestimated, especially considering the viewing parties, country-themed entertainment and shopping events that take over the Strip during the rodeo, Green said.

"It draws a particular audience," Green said. "The hotels piggybacked on it and brought in a lot of country entertainers [new to] the typical regular Las Vegas market.  It becomes difficult to figure out exact numbers because you will have someone who comes here for the rodeo and says, 'Oh, I'm going to see Garth Brooks,' and then says, 'Gee, I like this, I think I'll come back anther time or two. This place is OK.' Suddenly there's a bit of a snowball effect."

A month before the action begins, room rates in hotels both on and off the Las Vegas Strip are already climbing for nights when the rodeo is in session. According to a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, citing numbers from Hotels.com, properties are charging three times as much for a room the night of Dec. 7 compared to Dec. 21.

Among the first to attend the National Finals during its early years in Las Vegas was apreteen Ryan Growney. It sparked a passion for the rodeo that has come full circle: Growney is now general manager of the South Point Hotel & Casino, whose property boasts an equestrian center and 1,200 horse stalls. South Point is what he calls "Cowboy Central" all year long, hosting 44 equestrian-themed events annually and becoming headquarters of the PRCA during the National Finals.

In the days leading up to the NFR, South Point hosts the PRCA's annual convention, the Road to the Gold Buckle contestant reception and the association's awards dinner, among other events. NFR go-round winners attend buckle presentations each night, and there are meet-and-greet opportunities for fans and after-parties. It also hosts the World Series of Team Roping (not associated with National Finals).

The South Point's 2,100 rooms were sold out for this year's NFR before the conclusion of last's year's event, Growney said.

The atmosphere at the Thomas & Mack Center during the rodeo is electric, with pride and patriotism evident amid all the blue jeans and cowboy hats. Special guests and military personnel are routinely saluted. Colorful pageantry quickly yields to the pressure of often-harrowing world-class rodeo competition.

"If you have any affiliation to the Western way of life, these are the best two weeks of the year," Growney said. "Everybody wants to be a part of it, for whatever reason: rodeo, entertainment, shopping. That's what brings everyone to town; that's why it has become such a big deal."

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