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WNFR keeps going after the sun goes down

It’s now called Wrangler NFR After-Dark. It comprises all the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo activities that take place after the sun goes down, not at the Thomas &Mack Center, but at properties up and down the Strip and around town. But it wasn’t always the huge draw that it is now.

It first had to become a draw at all.

Back in the 1990s, Scott Sibella and Bill McBeath worked together at the Golden Nugget, in downtown Las Vegas. During the Wrangler NFR, Fremont Street was particularly popular with the cowboys and the fans, likely due to Benny Binion’s strong influence in bringing the event from Oklahoma City to Vegas in 1985.

Sibella and McBeath rightly recognized the advantages of establishing relationships with the Wrangler NFR crowd, in order to keep those cowboys and customers around for all 10 days of the rodeo, and to bring them back year after year.

As the two moved on to the Strip in their hotel-casino executive careers, they took note of a major vacancy along the south end of Las Vegas Boulevard: There was no real

Wrangler NFR presence. When the event began offering a satellite feed – which is now termed

Beyond the Dirt – from the Thomas &Mack Center to hotels in 2000, Sibella and McBeath recognized it was time for the Strip to strike.

“Nobody was really taking advantage of the satellite feed,” Sibella said, pointing out that the Wrangler NFR draws hundreds of thousands of people to town annually, but only 18,000 per night can fit into the Thomas &Mack. “On the Strip, no one was taking advantage of that niche – all these people coming to Las Vegas. You want hats inside your building. You’ve got to create a great party atmosphere.”

So Sibella, then at Treasure Island, got to work creating that atmosphere.

“We took advantage of it right away,” said Sibella, now president and COO of the MGM Grand. “When I came to Treasure Island in 2000, we did as much as we could to get cowboys to stay with us. We’d show the NFR inside our ballrooms, lounges, and to keep people on property, we started having entertainment.”

McBeath, then at The Mirage, had a similar recollection of how the Wrangler NFR first got its hold on the Strip.

“Las Vegas becomes a destination of Western lifestyle for 10 to 12 days,” McBeath said. “During the 10 days of the rodeo, there’s only so much capacity in the arena, and the people seeking the Western lifestyle experience far exceeded that. We wanted our properties to be more NFR friendly.

“When ESPN starting doing the live feed, that’s not like blacking out a fight. There were 5,000 fans on the waiting list for rodeo tickets. So we thought, ‘Why not provide that content to anybody who wants it?’ ”

The big surprise to McBeath, now president and CEO of The Cosmopolitan, was that more properties weren’t as eager to jump on board in 2000.

“I don’t think people realized how much demand there was for that content streaming live around Las Vegas,” said McBeath. “The fans would pay for it through gambling, food, ancillary spending. We started developing a lot of programming around the NFR, and when I left The Mirage in 2004, Scott came in and took it to a whole other level.”

Indeed, there were cowboy sponsorships, autograph sessions, and with the upgrade in nightlife, the property drew plenty of rodeo types for both viewing parties – including on the huge screens at the sports book – or post-competition after-parties.

“The Mirage became the after-hours cowboy place to go for the whole 10 days of the rodeo,” McBeath said.

It was only a matter of time before more properties recognized the potential of the Wrangler NFR and got in on their share of the wind fall. Boyd Gaming has had a long relationship with the Wrangler NFR, and its Gold Coast, Sam’s Town and The Orleans properties are all host hotels. Jackie Ferrando, director of event marketing for Boyd Gaming, said fans have no problem keeping tabs on the rodeo on a nightly basis.

“If someone walks into the building and wants to find a viewing party, they will,” she said, particularly noting The Orleans, which nightly hosts a great pre-rodeo party at the Bourbon Street Lounge, with live music and such. Then, after the viewing party, the lounge takes on a honky-tonk feel for the Legendary Buck’N Ball, with more live music.

But wait, there’s more!

“Once those viewing parties are over, we have ‘National Finals Tonight’ in The Orleans showroom,” Ferrando said. That venue seats 850 and brings together as hosts renowned rodeo stars Donnie Gay and Joe Beaver.

The South Point has also become a major artery to the ever-expanding heart of Wrangler NFR After-Dark. Owner Michael Gaughan – whose Wrangler NFR roots are deep and who used to own Coast Resorts, which went on to merge with Boyd Gaming – said for his property and all others, it was all about the satellite feed.

“The single biggest thing we ever did was put the satellite feed into the hotels – other than get the rodeo here in the first place,” Gaughan said. “We just got more and more people involved in the rodeo. With that, hotels started to have more and more viewing parties. A lot of people who came to town without a ticket could watch the rodeo. It’s a direct feed, without commercials. It’s like your there.”

South Point general manager Ryan Growney has overseen massive growth in the property’s nightly offerings, particularly the viewing party.

“When that thing started out, we used to do one ballroom on the weekends,” Growney said. “But we thought, ‘The casino is packed, so let’s do it all 10 days.’ And it was packed again. Then we moved to a second ballroom, and then a third ballroom. So all three, we fill.

“We have it in the showroom and the Grandview Lounge, and it’s filled there, too. We counted all the seats one day, and it’s gotta be pretty close to 5,000 chairs, and that doesn’t count the casino bars. People belly up to the bars in slot chairs and watch the rodeo.”

The head count is bolstered by the South Point hosting the World Series of Team Roping during the Wrangler NFR, along with the 80,000-square-foot PRCA convention. And it doesn’t hurt attendance that the Wrangler NFR’s nightly go-round gold buckle awards show is at the South Point, with popular hosts Flint Rasmussen and Randy Corley.

Growney said the South Point’s Wrangler NFR After-Dark has expanded about as much as it can, so for 2016, it’s all about bettering the experience. Based on room availability, fans are already sold.

“I got there in 2010, when we were doing weekends only. In four years, it grew to what we do now,” he said. “Our hotel rooms for the 2016 NFR sold out just two days after the 2015 NFR ended. Now, we’re trying to make the experience as good as possible, do as good a job as possible of accommodating people.”

Growney said the South Point’s Wrangler NFR After-Dark has expanded about as much as it can, so for 2016, it’s all about bettering the experience. Based on room availability, fans are already sold.

“I got there in 2010, when we were doing weekends only. In four years, it grew to what we do now,” he said. “Our hotel rooms for the 2016 NFR sold out just two days after the 2015 NFR ended. Now, we’re trying to make the experience as good as possible, do as good a job as possible of accommodating people.”

The South Point is certainly a leader in Wrangler NFR After-Dark attendance, though Gaughan did tip his cap to Sibella for getting the Strip up to snuff.

“Scott got personally involved with it,” Gaughan said. “More and more hotels have gotten involved. The MGM does a great job. I didn’t think anybody would catch me, but Scott gives me a run for my money.”

A few blocks east of the Strip, and very close to the Thomas &Mack, the Hard Rock Hotel &Casino has also gotten rodeo fever. Last year, the property greatly expanded its offerings and got great response, with viewing on the casino floor and the Side Bet Bar by the sports book, along with live music and more.

“We determined that our location to the Thomas and Mack was a key driver to get keenly involved,” said Drew Varga, the Hard Rock’s vice president of group sales and operations. “We saw so many NFR attendees on the casino floor and throughout the hotel, with compression in our December occupancy, that we said, ‘Why not go all out in promoting the NFR?’ Moreover, our location to the Las Vegas Convention Center, with all of its related activity, is extremely convenient for the NFR guest.

“We found the results to be profound, even with our delayed efforts to get into the full swing of our own marketing efforts.”

Varga said fans can expect even more this year, with live music at Vinyl all 10 nights, and the Hard Rock will also bring country music star Gary Allan to The Joint next Friday and Saturday. And of course, the Wrangler NFR viewing opportunities will expand, as well.

“With the viewing parties throughout the property, the atmosphere during the NFR is full-tilt old school and new school Country Western Cool. The famed Center Bar is Cowboy/Cowgirl Central,” Varga said.

Sibella has ramped up the Wrangler NFR After-Dark offerings in his role at the MGM. The hotel’s conference center fills up nightly with raucous rodeo revelers following the action on multiple big screens, with plenty of food and drink offerings, and even an elevated VIP area. And when competition ends, the party really begins.

“We’ve got a nice big bar, music playing, people coming back from the rodeo,” he said. “And with our relationships with the cowboys, the fans come out on top.”

And although The Cosmopolitan might not seem a likely fit for rodeo at first glance, McBeath knows it would be crazy not to take advantage of the demographic. That’s especially so during what would otherwise be the slowest time of the year for tourism, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Who would’ve thought The Cosmopolitan would become part of the NFR? We’re sponsoring the team roping,” McBeath said, noting his hotel puts up the 30 team ropers who compete in the Wrangler NFR. “We’re booking country music acts at The Chelsea. It shows that cowboys and cowgirls are hip and cool.”

In the next week, The Chelsea will host Alabama, Lady Antebellum, Dwight Yoakam and more.

All this demonstrates that the major properties understand just what a financial gem they have in rodeo fans.

Downtown is still a big part of that draw, as Fremont Street kicked off the WNFR on Wednesday night with the annual Downtown Hoedown, and the Golden Nugget and the D host official parties, concerts and other special events throughout the week.

“It’s the commitment from the destination and people who understand the Western lifestyle and the cowboy way. Their entertainment is important to them,” McBeath said. “To have a mass of people that will move in unison from all over the country, and the world, for this 10-day period, that’s why it was so important to extend the (Wrangler NFR) contract another 10 years. It’s very difficult to promote travel to any destination at that time of year.

“Everybody has kind of figured out that this is the consumer. Be thankful they’re here.”

And be thankful that when the sun goes down, the party starts up during the Wrangler NFR.

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