Gaughan confident rodeo can thrive in Las Vegas without NFR

Look at a map of the United States. On it, you will find few places Michael Gaughan hasn’t visited to witness a rodeo.

The man knows more about small towns than Rand McNally.

Gaughan was once at the Alaskan Nationals in Anchorage, where they sold out a 6,000-seat arena on consecutive nights, where there weren’t enough cowboys to fill all the events, so those competing would change shirts after one run and ride again, where the crowd would go crazy for anyone skilled enough not to fall off a horse.

The cowboys were bad.

The stock was worse.

The barrel man wasn’t funny.

“And everyone had a great time,” said Gaughan, owner of the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. “This is something a lot of people don’t realize, including the cowboys: Fans come to see a rodeo, not the Johnny Unitas of rodeo. They want to see the bareback riding, the bulldogging, the barrel racing. If a Trevor Brazile or Bobby Mote are performing, all the better.

“But at it’s heart, rodeo is about the fans and their love for it. If we come up with the right ideas and the correct direction to take this in, the fans will be back. They will be loyal to Las Vegas. We will get our share of the best cowboys, but the most important thing will be putting on the best rodeo for the fans.”

In the immediacy of news, the moment of disappointment, the instant of bewilderment, there is no other acceptable conclusion:

That the National Finals Rodeo appears to have been lost to Las Vegas is incredibly unfortunate. There is no getting around that.

It will have been a 30-year run once the competition concludes here next December and begins its journey to where all cowboys undoubtedly fall asleep dreaming of hitching their trailers each night. You know, next to a swamp in the land of 1.3 million alligators.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association on Sunday shut the barn door on the NFR’s relationship with Las Vegas following the 2014 event, voting to pursue a more lucrative offer from Central Florida, a lasso or two from Mickey Mouse’s second home in Orlando.

It’s as basic as slipping on a Resistol hat: The cowboys want more money.

Good for them.

Bad for us … for now.

I am of the opinion that those who rope and wrestle steers and ride bulls deserve every penny they earn. Like those elite professional athletes who shoot baskets and throw touchdowns and hit home runs, the world’s best cowboys have every right to seek and demand the biggest paychecks for entertaining those who cheer them.

If that means leaving Las Vegas for Florida or Finland or Fiji or wherever, so be it. If that’s what a particular market is willing to provide, it’s hard to knock the cowboys for setting up camp elsewhere.

But it doesn’t mean ours should become fiscally irresponsible to keep them by beginning to price out those who have been the most devoted souls.

The fans.

Cowboys like to say that good judgment comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgment. There is nothing bad or wrong about how those in Las Vegas handled both pursuing another extension with the PRCA and how they are now planning a counter action.

It would be foolish to bet against Gaughan or Pat Christenson (president of Las Vegas Events) or other influential local players whose passion for rodeo is unmatched nationally. If the direction Gaughan speaks about moves in the way he prefers, there will be a major rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in December of 2015 and every year thereafter.

If that means going head-to-head with the NFR for attention and support and drawing the best cowboys during the holiday season, well, is there anything better than a good ol’ fashion tussle between rodeos?

“We have the fans, we have the stock contractors, we have most of the cowboys,” Gaughan said. “It’s sad to see (the NFR) end its run here. It was great for the city. I can’t wait for it to get here each year. We’ll have to spend some money, but I think we can have something of equal value to it in 2015 and that we will be sold out for it.

“Everyone thinks the grass is greener and in this case, the (PRCA) is going to find out it’s not. I believe the fans will give us a grace period of a few years. In that time, we’ll have to prove ourselves to them.”

It has worked in Houston and Calgary, which offer two of the world’s biggest rodeos and neither is affiliated with the PRCA. It can definitely work here.

It is a goal that should take shape over the next three months, how best to offset the loss of the NFR by staging a world-championship-caliber rodeo in 2015.

The part about cowboys wanting the most money possible isn’t going to change. That’s their right.

But it’s like that go-around in Anchorage.

Change your shirt and ride again.

It’s about the rodeo, folks.

Johnny Unitas on a horse is just window dressing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.