Another successful National Finals Rodeo will be in the books Sunday as cowboys, cowgirls and their fans ride off from Las Vegas and into the sunset.
But could Las Vegas someday lose the rodeo to another city? That prospect, while remote, has generated discussions about how to keep “the Super Bowl of rodeos” in Southern Nevada. Maybe instead of having conversations about building a Major League Baseball stadium we should be considering a venue that could serve baseball and rodeo.
The 10 days of rodeo competition every December has become one of the most anticipated annual events on the city’s calendar and an argument can be made that NFR is the model and template for all major special events in the city.
NFR draws competitors from all over the country to Las Vegas in search of belt buckles and millions of dollars in prize money.
Since 1985, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has staged the NFR at the Thomas & Mack Center on UNLV’s campus. Since then, the rodeo has been in Las Vegas every year except 2020 when the pandemic hit, and the rodeo retreated to Dallas-Fort Worth because Texas observed less stringent health and safety rules. It returned to Las Vegas last year and was strong as ever this month.
One of the benefits of NFR is that dozens of spinoff events associated with the rodeo are staged throughout the city. Thousands of people come to Las Vegas for the rodeo but never make it to the Thomas & Mack Center to see it. That’s because showrooms are filled with country music acts, retail events occur at local convention centers like the popular Cowboy Christmas event and fans pack hotels for watch parties.
The summaries of each go-round are among the most frequently read stories in the Review-Journal.
Businesses across the city experience the same thing that Blake Sartini II, executive vice president of operations for Golden Entertainment Inc., does. Patrons in cowboy hats and boots populate dozens of PT’s Pubs across Las Vegas during rodeo days.
Sartini, as a tourism beneficiary, is wary of losing something that has been so good for Las Vegas over the years. He thinks Las Vegas should look to develop something that will keep the NFR here forever.
“This was the first NFR in three years that had no restrictions,” he said. “Travel has been limited and COVID resulted in us losing the rodeo in 2020. This is the first year we’re really seeing the power of having the rodeo back.”
To keep the rodeo in Las Vegas, Sartini suggests developing a venue specifically for it.
“I think it has to be built with the NFR in mind because it’s something that has been a staple for Las Vegas for 30-plus years,” he said. “I think for us not to invest in a venue to continue to be able to support that, I believe this city would be really upset with ourselves if we were to lose that because we didn’t have a proper venue to keep up with where it wanted to go.”
After the rodeo was staged in Dallas in 2020, some were fretting that the Texans would get the idea that they could commandeer NFR in future years. But the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association made good on its promise to return to Las Vegas. Besides, the cowboys seem to love being here.
Having dedicated rodeo grounds in Las Vegas would be beneficial on many levels.
Rodeo ticket sales provide the revenue for prize money, and a new venue could greatly expand capacity — a huge benefit because the Thomas & Mack Center always sells out.
The UNLV basketball team takes the rodeo in stride since it has no home games during NFR, but this year, they had scheduled games at the new Dollar Loan Center in Henderson and MGM Grand Garden during the rodeo. The loss of a home-court advantage can hurt a program.
The Oakland A’s have been negotiating to possibly relocate the MLB team to Las Vegas. It seems sensible that if a stadium is built in Las Vegas it could be developed to stage the rodeo there as well.
The city could rip a page out of Dallas’ playbook. When the rodeo went there in 2020, it used the brand new Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, to host the rodeo.
While developing a new venue for the rodeo may be a good idea, there’s nothing wrong with continuing at Thomas & Mack, according to the incoming president of Las Vegas Events, Tim Keener.
Keener, who currently serves as vice president of ticket operations, will take over as president for retiring Pat Christenson on Jan. 1.
“We’re really happy with Thomas & Mack,” Keener said in an interview. “It really works from a footprint standpoint, especially on the external side where we need nearly 15 acres of space for livestock, pro rodeo zones, things like that.
“But we’re always willing to listen and look at new opportunities that we’ve seen.”
Keener noted that in recent years the Thomas & Mack Center underwent infrastructure upgrades with tunnels that allow livestock easier access to the arena.
He said NFR is committed to Las Vegas and the Thomas & Mack Center through 2025, after which a contract extension can be negotiated.