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National Finals Rodeo an economic hoedown

Before the National Finals Rodeo arrived in Las Vegas in 1985, the city would all but shut down in December, a traditionally slow month in which hotels would close for renovations, shutter their showrooms and furlough employees.

Not anymore.

In the nearly three decades since the NFR relocated here from Oklahoma City, December has become one of the busiest months of the year in Las Vegas, fueled in large part by the popularity of the “Super Bowl of Rodeo.”

Last year, the 10-day event drew 175,275 fans to the Thomas & Mack Center and generated a nongaming economic impact of $60.1 million, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

That figure doesn’t include a gaming budget of $10.7 million, nor does it account for the thousands of fans who travel here solely for the citywide celebrations surrounding the NFR.

“I would argue the experience around the NFR is more unique and targeted than the Super Bowl or World Series,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which operates the NFR. “During the 10 days of the NFR, Las Vegas becomes the most unique Western sports and entertainment experience in the world.

“It’s like a championship sports event with a 10-day Coachella on steroids.”

More than 40 hotels will broadcast the live satellite feed of this year’s NFR, with many hosting parties and fan experiences featuring appearances by NFR competitors, such as nine-time all-around world champion Trevor Brazile.

The Las Vegas Convention Center will be the site of a pair of large-scale events open to the public: the long-running Cowboy Christmas, a 300,000 square-foot Western shopping experience; and FanFest, a new, 100,000 square-foot interactive experience featuring replicas of the NFR arena and an Old West town, along with rides, live music and entertainment and more.

“We’re addressing what the rest of major league sports do with their showcase events,” Christenson said. “Every year, we’ve tweaked and improved and grown different experiences (around the) rodeo, and this year, we wanted to give it a shot in the arm.”

The NFR is the most valuable client to the Thomas & Mack Center, selling out 17,000-plus seats for 10 straight nights in each of the past 25 years, while compiling a total attendance of more than 4.5 million.

“It’s the cornerstone of our operation, that’s for sure,” Thomas & Mack Center executive director Mike Newcomb said. “It’s the biggest event we do in scope and magnitude, days and manpower, as well as the economic impact for the city and university.”

The NFR generates more than $1 million in profits for UNLV, which sends the nationally ranked Rebels’ men’s basketball team on the road each year during the event.

“The NFR is a fantastic event. It’s great for Las Vegas, it’s great for UNLV, and it’s great for Nevada,” UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood said. “The only hard part for us, in the athletic department, is having our men’s basketball team away for that part of the year when most major programs are playing at home. But we understand that and work around it.”

Nearly 45,000 out-of-town visitors traveled to Las Vegas last year for the NFR, which has drawn nearly a million visitors here and infused more than $1.3 billion into the local economy since the event’s inception, according to the LVCVA.

The total purse for the NFR has increased from $1.8 million in 1985 to $6.125 million this year, and the city has grown along with it.

In 1985, Las Vegas featured 53,000 hotel rooms and attracted just over 14 million visitors annually. Today, the city boasts more than 150,000 hotel rooms and last year attracted more than 38.9 million visitors.

The contract between the NFR and LVE runs through 2014, and negotiations to renew it have already begun.

“Both sides feel confident we’re going to get an agreement done,” Christenson said. “There just hasn’t been a sense of urgency and I don’t think there needs to be.”

Contact Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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