There was a time when the city’s resort properties would schedule repairs and major maintenance projects after Thanksgiving because the properties were so empty from then until New Year’s Eve.
Those days are long gone, thanks to the success of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which arrives in Southern Nevada on Thursday and runs through Dec. 14.
“Before 1985, these places used to close down in December,” said Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point, recognized around town as the property most successful at profiting from NFR, which will mark its 35th year in Southern Nevada in 2019.
“You don’t close down, you don’t furlough your employees, you don’t close the showrooms down,” Gaughan said. “You don’t change the carpet or paint the walls in December anymore. You wait until June.”
At last year’s NFR, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority estimated attendance of 171,000 — 10 sold-out rodeo performances — that included 64,000 out-of-town visitors generating 108,000 room nights in local motels and hotels. Those attending the rodeo produced an economic impact estimated at $187.5 million, said Kevin Bagger, vice president of the LVCVA’s research center.
‘A mammoth event’
NFR wasn’t always the event it is today.
“It’s really turned into a mammoth event, both for the city and for our company,” said David Strow, a spokesman for Boyd Gaming Corp., whose founders were among the driving forces to bring the rodeo from Oklahoma City in the 1980s.
“From our perspective, we see an opportunity to draw in customers from throughout our properties in the Midwest and South to Las Vegas for NFR, and we’re pretty successful in using it as an opportunity to generate business in those two weeks,” Strow said.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of NFR is that it isn’t the rodeo itself, staged nightly at 6:45 at the Thomas &Mack Center, that makes its so successful. It’s the multiple spin-off events.
While NFR competitors and their loyal fans were sure to attend one or more rodeo performances, thousands more come to Las Vegas to experience the rodeo atmosphere. Las Vegas Events, the privately held event-sponsoring arm of the LVCVA, has fostered the growth of new tied-in events with NFR. Today, NFR is viewed as the template for developing and expanding major events in Southern Nevada.
“It isn’t about selling out the Thomas &Mack Center,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events. “We still have 150,000 rooms in town. I guess we’ll start patting ourselves on the back and maybe slow down when all 150,000 rooms are sold out.”
Sponsorships propel growth
The growth of NFR as a citywide event is centered around the increase in sponsorships, including sponsor hotels.
For a long time, hotel properties with some kind of Western theme — most of Boyd Gaming’s locations, Binion’s downtown, Gaughan’s South Point, which actually spun off from Boyd in 2006 — were de facto rodeo hotels. Now, there are 24 sponsor hotels, but the core group of properties embraced the rodeo with their own special activities.
In the early days, NFR was an easy ticket to come by.
“That first year, demand for NFR tickets was so low that (owners) Sam and Bill Boyd used to walk around our casinos and hand out free NFR tickets just to get people in the seats to watch the event,” Strow said. “Obviously, you don’t have to do that now.”
NFR doesn’t provide the largest prize purse for December equestrian events in Las Vegas. South Point, which sponsors the World Series of Team Roping at its 4,400-seat indoor equestrian arena, now pays cowboys a total of $14 million in prize money, compared with $10 million at NFR. That’s one of the reasons the South Point has become the largest center of Western activity during NFR.
Gaughan also attributes the property’s success to something that first occurred about 30 years ago: the commercial-free live feed of the rodeo nightly. About 4,500 people jam into three South Point ballrooms for viewing parties each night of the rodeo, and another 1,000 watch on TV monitors throughout the casino.
Other resorts have similar setups.
The Orleans, Boyd’s stronghold for rodeo activity, hosts a free team-roping event in its arena and “National Finals Nightly,” a recap of the evening’s rodeo action, is broadcast from there.
Christenson noted that 10 years ago, only five properties had nightly viewing parties. Today, there are 23.
Sponsor hotels get the commercial-free video feed as part of their sponsorship, while non-sponsors can buy the broadcast for their properties.
Two that broadcast are the Casablanca and Virgin River properties in Mesquite, catering to rodeo fans from southern Utah.
Resorts also fill their showrooms with country music acts to attract fans. Christenson said that five years ago, there were 45 country acts in town for the 10 days of the rodeo. Today, there are 60.
Relatively new to the rodeo game is downtown’s Plaza. Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza, said the adjacent Core Arena hosts the Junior American and The Patriot Team Roping and Steer Wrestling national finals.
“Rodeo’s become probably one of the best times of year for us, from a business perspective and it used to be, far and away, one of the slowest times of the year,” Jossel said.
He said he has learned from South Point’s example by adding events to attract fans. This year, the Rodeo Fashion Western Art Expo with 75 vendors is joining the list of events. The hotel also brings horses inside the property for an auction in the resort’s showroom.
“The South Point is clearly the holy grail of rodeo, and I’ve learned a lot from them,” he said. “I think they’re the best in the city. They probably make more money in those 10 days than they do all year long. For us, if we can be a small, small version of that, I’ll be very happy.”
There are other popular events. For those seeking a break from rough-and-tumble rodeo, Cowboy Christmas at the Las Vegas Convention Center provides a retail gift show.
Christenson said an every-other-week “NFR Extra” podcast will go daily during the rodeo, and there’s also an NFR Experience app available to fans.
Other big events have taken note of NFR’s success and are using its formula to grow. Christenson said the city’s NBA Summer League is an example of an event being transformed by the NFR template. He expects the same formula may be applied to Raiders football games when the team arrives so that properties across the valley can leverage the NFL’s popularity.