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Losing National Finals Rodeo would be big blow to Las Vegas

When it comes to the production of special events in Las Vegas, nothing has been more important to the city than the National Finals Rodeo.

Last week, it became clear that NFR could go the way of the 2020 NFL Draft, the NBA Summer League and Life Is Beautiful — that is, removed from the city’s special events calendar.

Las Vegas resort executives famously wrestled “the Super Bowl of rodeo” away from Oklahoma City in 1985, and the event had its first of scores of sold-out performances at the Thomas & Mack Center in 1987. It’s been a hot ticket ever since.

Las Vegas Events annually projects 17,000 people in attendance at every performance, or 170,000 total. The event has an economic impact of an estimated $200 million every year.

Under the guidance of Las Vegas Events, a private nonprofit specializing in developing signature events designed to draw visitors to the city, the rodeo has grown to become a template for how to turn a singular event into a multifaceted festival that draws thousands of fans, many of whom can’t even get a ticket to the competition.

“The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association remains committed to hosting the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo,” a press release from the rodeo’s sponsoring organization issued last week states. “There is no question – the 2020 Pro Rodeo world champions will be crowned.”

The Colorado Springs, Colorado-based association said it will announce by Sept. 30 how that will happen. The association listed its options: conduct the rodeo, currently scheduled for Dec. 3-12, with a limited number of fans in the stands in Las Vegas; stage the rodeo without fans; conduct the rodeo one time only in some other city that would not only allow fans but could also guarantee that the other peripheral events surrounding the rodeo could also be staged.

That’s a tall order because thanks in part to Las Vegas Events, NFR also includes an association convention, a Pro Rodeo Fan Zone experience, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame Gala, a PRCA awards banquet and a gift show experience that in Las Vegas is known as “Cowboy Christmas.”

The association also wants local nightlife with NFR after-parties and other ancillary entertainment.

The rodeo has been a bonanza for the city’s resort community, which hosts its own rodeo watch parties and features special western promotions at a time once reserved for big once-a-year maintenance projects and deep-cleaning.

It isn’t unusual that dozens of 10-gallon hats show up at the casino table games when the rodeo is in town, a revenue bonus.

There aren’t many places that can step up with the facilities necessary to pull off that kind of an event, which is why year after year, Las Vegas has been the home of NFR. And the cowboys love it.

While the PRCA announcement came out last week, Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson said contact was made with the association more than two months ago as it became apparent that COVID-19 restrictions were going to cause long-term problems.

The biggest problem was insurmountable.

The gate receipts generated by the 10 rodeo performances are what provide the $10 million in prize money and $3 million to pay the stock contractor.

The rodeo has been able to count on a sold-out arena for every performance. Christenson estimated that without fans buying tickets, Las Vegas Events would be staring at a $15 million shortfall.

“It didn’t seem prudent for us to stand in the way of their ability to find as much as they can in terms of prize money wherever they could,” Christenson said.

He said he contacted Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point, about the possibility of staging some kind of nonticketed event for competition in the property’s equestrian arena, but the economics still didn’t make sense.

Christenson, who was looking forward to overseeing his 35th NFR event this year, said he feels for the rodeo cowboys who have lost virtually all their earnings this year because of the novel coronavirus.

“We’ve always been about what’s best for rodeo, the contestants and the stock contractors,” he said.

Where will the rodeo land? Christenson said he hasn’t heard of any viable options yet. Right now, Nevada is limited to just 50 people getting together for any large event, but some states are allowing larger crowds to gather if they practice social distancing.

The full house of rodeo fans is what makes NFR a success.

“It’s pretty healthy for everyone … unless there’s a pandemic,” Christenson said. “Then, it’s not good for anybody.”

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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