In the world of sports, there is perhaps no better indicator of success than the ability to consistently draw fans to an event, over a long period of time. In layman’s terms, to put butts in the seats.
To be sure, there are some incredible streaks on the books. The Green Bay Packers will have 326 consecutive home sellouts by the end of this season, in a streak dating to 1960, and that doesn’t count playoff games. In college football, Nebraska reached 355 home sellouts this year, going almost as far back as the Pack, to 1962.
But make no mistake, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is right up there with the best of them. The first go-round of the 2016 WNFR rides at 6:45 p.m. Friday at the Thomas &Mack Center, setting off another run of 10 sold-out nights that will bring the Super Bowl of Rodeo’s streak to an even 300.
“When the WNFR moved in, we knew we were on to something,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which operates the WNFR, working in conjunction with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
It took a couple of years for that “on to something” to really take hold, but since 1987, every night of the WNFR has been a sellout.
If you’re a baseball fan, you might say that pales when compared with the Boston Red Sox’s run of 820 games. Or in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers’ record tear of 814 games, or the NHL mark of 487 by the Colorado Avalanche, or Duke’s current run of 406 in men’s college basketball.
But try taking a little more of an apples-to-apples comparison. Boston’s streak spanned 10 years, from May 2003-April 2013. The Blazers’ run went from 1977-1995, Colorado’s stretched 11 years from 1995-2006, and Duke’s still-intact run started in 1990. NASCAR’S best Sprint Cup streak was at Bristol Motor Speedway, starting in August 1982 and ending in March 2010, a stretch of 55 sellouts over 28 years.
All fall short of the 30-year run by the WNFR. And even the streaks by the Packers and Huskers didn’t require either team to sell out their venues over the course of ostensibly a long week – 10 straight nights. In other words, seeing it simply as 300 straight sellouts is skewing the math.
“I think that’s looking at it wrong,” said Bill McBeath, president and CEO of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. McBeath also serves on the board for Las Vegas Events and is on its WNFR committee. “This is 30 straight years of sellouts. That’s how I look at it. In any sport, entertainment, I don’t know of any streak like that. Thirty years of sellouts is pretty amazing.”
Karl Stressman is overseeing his ninth WNFR as PRCA commissioner, and he’s been involved with the event for 20-plus years. He’s known nothing but the sellout streak — and it’s certainly led to many acquaintances being quite chummy this time of year.
“The surprising thing about it is every year, I have a lot more friends around this time than I have in February and March,” Stressman said with a laugh. “The conversation always gets around to, ‘By the way, if you have any extra tickets, call me.’ I always say, ‘Let’s cut to the chase here. I don’t have any tickets.’
“It’s been said this is the hardest ticket in sports. I’m not exactly sure if that’s correct, but I’d like to think it is. We sold out faster this year than ever in the history of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. That’s pretty blasted impressive that we continue to have that demand.”
Christenson was with the Thomas &Mack Center when the WNFR first arrived, and he’s been with Las Vegas Events since 2001. This is by no means his first rodeo — in fact, it’s his 32nd — and he can speak to the streak as well as anybody associated with the event.
“I think with the streak, there are two pieces that stand out in my mind,” he said. “One, just the fact that we sell out the venue every year, and then we go to our oversell with the Mad Dash, stuffing as many people into the Thomas &Mack as we can.”
For you WNFR novices, the Mad Dash is an opportunity each night for those without tickets to pay $10 admission, and if they can find an open seat in the upper levels, they can take in the show with 18,000 other fans. If they can’t find a seat, they can either watch from the Cowboy Corral, the concourse or get their money back up until 7:15 p.m.
“The second piece is how we’ve grown the experience beyond the Thomas &Mack,” Christenson said. “There are two or three times as many people here in town, to just be part of the experience.”
On the first piece, much of the credit must go to Shawn Davis, the WNFR general manager, who has held a key role with the event throughout its Vegas run. It was his idea to turn the event into an absolute on-time machine, with competition starting at 7 p.m. and finishing by 9, every night. He has also been the key to enhancing the entertainment value of the WNFR, while still squeezing it all into those two hours.
“What we’ve improved is the production and the entertainment of the show,” Christenson said. “When it first started, it really was just about rodeo. The top 15 contestants in each event, against the best stock. Shawn cut it down to two hours.
“Until the early ’90s, we used to have a four- or five-piece mariachi band. They played the same song after every ride. They might’ve had three or four songs, but they all sounded the same. Shawn added music, sound, lasers, fireworks. He pulled up the production value and turned up the volume.”
Initially, that put a burr under the collective saddle of longtime WNFR patrons.
“The older customers wanted to hang him,” Christenson said. “But now, even they don’t mind it. It created a tempo and energy for the event.”
The second piece is arguably even more important than the first, attracting tens of thousands of fans to Las Vegas for the first 10 days of December who might not spend a single evening at the Thomas &Mack Center. Scott Sibella has long been a part of making that happen, from his 1990s days downtown at the Golden Nugget (with McBeath, by the way) right up to his role now as president and COO of the MGM Grand, as well as on Las Vegas Events’ board and its WNFR committee.
“What we’ve created is an experience for everybody to come to Las Vegas and see what rodeo is all about, even if they don’t have a ticket,” Sibella said, while alluding to that massive sellout streak. “What that says is that it’s more than just the rodeo. It’s about the city of Las Vegas and what we deliver.”
The enhanced experience started with the Cowboy Christmas expo, which had modest beginnings but now is a huge shopping opportunity and an interactive entertainment experience. The expo joined forces last year with the Hunter and Outdoor Expo and now takes up 900,000 square feet in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall. And there are several other offshoot expos around town.
Then there’s the whole NFR After Dark experience, which is something more and more hotels and entertainment venues capitalize on each year. Whether it’s viewing parties from the live feed, pre- and post-go-round parties with live music, George Strait this Friday and Saturday at the new T-Mobile Arena, a host of other big-name acts at venues up and down the Strip, or a whole bunch of free concerts scattered all over the city, fans can literally go from dawn to dusk and well into the wee hours with Western lifestyle overload.
“The viewing parties at the hotels are a big thing, and they have not affected attendance at the rodeo at all,” said Michael Gaughan, owner of the South Point, which is arguably ground zero for all the cowboys and cowgirls during WNFR week. “These parties have just brought more people to town.”
Gaughan also serves on the LVE board and on the WNFR committee, and has had his fingers in the WNFR grease practically since the beginning in Vegas. He gave much of the credit to the late Bennie Binion, who was prepared to step up and salvage the event in its first couple of years here.
“It was a three-year contract with options,” Gaughan recalled of the initial deal. “Bennie said he’d pay for any losses after the second year, and we lost a little money that year. After it sold out the third year, we knew we had a winner. Probably after the fourth or fifth year, we put tickets on sale in February, and sold out by March. We looked like rocket scientists!”
Indeed, the WNFR to this day takes a dead time of year for the tourism industry and turns it into an early Christmas gift for the hotel-casinos. Christenson said it helped make the T&M solvent in its early days and obviously is a huge boon now.
“The rodeo kept the town alive in December,” said Gaughan, who now fills three ballrooms with 3,000 patrons per night for his viewing parties. “It used to be a ghost town, by far our worst month. Even New Year’s couldn’t save December. If you could break even, it was a good December. After about three or four years, this town came alive with the rodeo.”
It took a while for the Strip to jump on the cash cow, but Gaughan was quick to tip his Resistol to one of his competitors for doing just that.
“I’ll tell you who really picked up on it is Scott Sibella,” Gaughan said, noting the massive Gold Buckle Zone nightly viewing party at the MGM Grand Conference Center, among other efforts. “He gives me a run for my money.”
McBeath is all in at The Cosmopolitan, as well, as are most properties up and down the Strip and well beyond. Gaughan harbors no hard feelings for that toward Sibella, McBeath or any of his hotel-casino peers. In fact, all of them are happy to see everybody benefiting from the WNFR, thanks to the sea of fans embarking for the desert every December for 10 days of riding and roping.
“Look at our fan guide 10 years ago and look at it today,” Christenson said. “We didn’t need one 10 years ago. Now we do. It’s the continued evolution of the whole experience. Every year, we find more and more ways to connect to our fans. Every year, the strength of the ticket grows, so we’re confident in our streak. But all of the people who want a ticket and couldn’t get it are still coming for the experience.”
McBeath perhaps summed it up best.
“The marriage between a great sport and this incredible city was the perfect recipe for long-term success,” he said. “It speaks to a perfect partnership: a great entertainment experience embedded in the greatest entertainment destination in the world.”
Long live the streak!