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NFR not skipping a beat with return to Las Vegas

Updated November 29, 2021 - 6:25 am

Las Vegas’ past success in hosting the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo won’t skip a beat when the event commonly referred to as the Super Bowl of Rodeo gallops into town this week.

While dozens of conferences and events have cautiously predicted smaller turnouts than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of international traffic, operators of NFR say the 10-day rodeo event starting Thursday will be stronger than ever.

“The entire rodeo community is excited to be back in Vegas,” said Tom Glause, the new CEO of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, sponsors of NFR. “Everybody I talk to is ecstatic to be back.”

How ecstatic?

This year’s rodeo at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center has been sold out since March. The city’s resorts are charging room rates well above the normal average. While the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has no estimate of the economic impact of this year’s rodeo, every indication is that it will meet or surpass the 2019 level, estimated at $175.8 million.

“We have anxiously awaited the return of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and welcoming back their loyal rodeo fans,” said Steve Hill, president and CEO of the LVCVA. “Las Vegas resorts and attractions continue to outdo themselves in transforming the destination into the ultimate country western destination with A-list entertainment and nonstop ‘Only-Vegas’ experiences.

“NFR returning to Las Vegas also serves as a vital December economic boon for our community and another important step in our recovery efforts.”

The 2021 version of NFR comes a year after the event was moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2020.

The reason for the change of venue was because Nevada had imposed a COVID-19 social-distancing mandate that made it impossible to sell as many tickets to the performances in the 15,000-seat arena. Because ticket sales fund the more than $10 million prize pool for winning cowboys, the PRCA and Las Vegas had to come up with an alternative plan.

One stop in Texas

The solution was to move the event for one year to Texas, which had no social-distancing requirements, and the rodeo was staged at Globe Life Field, the home of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Las Vegas Events wrangled a one-year extension of NFR’s contract as part of the deal. It’s now scheduled in Las Vegas through 2025, and talks are underway to add more years.

“It was painful to sit on the sidelines for two years,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, the special event-sponsoring arm of the LVCVA.

But from the moment the agreement was reached to allow Dallas-Fort Worth to stage the rodeo in 2020, local sponsors went to work preparing for 2021.

Christenson said regular Zoom calls were made among more than 25 resort partners to prepare for this year. The biggest change between this year and a year ago is that the social-distancing mandate has been lifted. But fans attending the rodeo will be required to wear masks. There won’t be any requirements for attendees to prove they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.

The pent-up demand will make for more people coming to Las Vegas than in past rodeos, Christenson said.

Demand continues to grow

“The demand has already been growing every year,” he said. “About 97 percent of our season ticket holders renewed. There are two to three times more fans wanting tickets than tickets available. We have a waiting list of at least 10,000 and most of them are wanting up to four tickets each.”

Christenson said the rodeo database grew from around 15,000 to 20,000 a decade ago to 150,000 now. He said more than 1 million fans are following NFR on social media and through word of mouth.

The success of NFR can be traced to three things, Christenson said.

Ninety-five contestants will be vying for a championship gold buckle and $10 million in prize money in a well-orchestrated, synchronized show at the Thomas & Mack Center. The resorts have created a custom festival experience across the valley. Finally, the marketing machine of Las Vegas Events, the LVCVA and the PRCA — done inexpensively through social media and websites — keeps fans interested through the rodeo season leading up to NFR.

Template for other events

The NFR formula is so successful that it’s being used as a template for other major events in Las Vegas. Now that resorts are familiar with the process, they too can lay out related events for attractions such as the Las Vegas Bowl and next year’s NFL Draft.

Christenson said resorts have always been a part of the rodeo’s success, but it was near the beginning of the Great Recession, in 2008, that resort properties supercharged their efforts.

They began adding their own events to tie in with the rodeo, arranging for special appearances by competitors, hosting viewer parties of the rodeo, and filling their showrooms and entertainment venues with country acts.

Many resorts modify their personas during NFR. Mandalay Bay becomes “Cowboyville”; the MGM Grand hosts the “Gold Buckle Zone”; Resorts World Las Vegas is “Rodeo World”; and the Westgate is the host hotel for Cowboy Christmas, a gift show with 350 exhibitors that kicks off Wednesday.

Most of the properties say they specialize in hosting participants of specific rodeo events. Most resorts offer free transportation to and from the Thomas & Mack Center for rodeo performances.

The viewer parties have expanded over time. Properties once took the live feed directly from the rodeo and just put it on screens throughout their casinos. Now, they have organized watch parties that often draw up to 1,000 people to view the direct rodeo feed.

Country acts dominate the Strip during the rodeo. The LVCVA listed 73 different country performers in town during NFR. Some of the big names: George Strait at T-Mobile Arena Dec. 3-4; Shania Twain at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater Dec. 2, 4-5, 9 and 11-12; Jason Aldean at Dolby Live at Park MGM Dec. 9-11; and Reba, Brooks & Dunn at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace Dec. 1, 3-4, 7-8, 10-11 and 14-15.

Higher room rates

Resorts are taking advantage of supply and demand for hotel rooms, particularly on weekends when the rodeo crowd will be competing with the typical Southern California crowd. A recent survey of room rates on hotels.com indicated an average rate of $384 a night among 18 properties. High-end Resorts World’s Conrad rooms were going for $3,149 a night, and the least expensive available room was at North Las Vegas’ Cannery at $89.

The midweek prices were closer to normal, averaging around $200.

The resorts take advantage of the range of prices, promoting it as “NFR-Stay Your Way.”

With each hotel having their own niche markets to appeal to, Las Vegas becomes a citywide rodeo festival grounds.

“The hotels are fully vested in going out and doing unique events that get people to book there, but collectively it becomes this festival that’s not just about the NFR,” Christenson said.

Each property capitalizes on a joint marketing effort on NFR360.com. Christenson said a series of videos explaining what is offered at the rodeo and behind-the-scenes looks at what it takes to produce the event are housed on the website.

Livestock stars

One video shares what some of the stars of the rodeo — the livestock — eat. Some 580 animals have begun being penned on the UNLV campus. Before the rodeo ends, they will eat 60 tons of grain, 120 tons of hay and 70 tons of grass.

A new partnership with the Cowboy Channel, which has become the title sponsor for Cowboy Christmas, provides rodeo fans with information throughout the rodeo season. The PRCA formerly worked with NBC, which would broadcast six to eight big rodeos. The Cowboy Channel not only broadcasts twice as many rodeos, but it also livestreams other smaller rodeos — up to six a week — through its app. All of the digital content promotes NFR as the championship event.

Christenson and Glause believe the future of NFR for Las Vegas is bright and there’s virtually no chance of the event moving back to Texas.

“The thing Texas has going for them is that it’s Texas and there are a lot of people from Texas that think that’s the only place the rodeo should be,” Christenson said. “The only rationale is, ‘It’s Texas.’ It’s about local pride for the state. The reality is no one is going to top the experience of going to the NFR in Vegas. They (Texas) don’t have the infrastructure, they don’t have the expertise, and they don’t have the same commitment to the visitors that we have here. Texas is about ranching and cowboys, but Texas isn’t Vegas for an event.”

Expensive in Texas

Christenson said the cost of attending the rodeo in Dallas-Fort Worth last year was around twice as much as in Las Vegas when including hotel rooms, ticket prices, transportation and parking.

Glause, a former saddle bronc rider on the PRCA circuit, who served as state insurance commissioner in Wyoming, believes the rodeo will remain stronger than ever in Las Vegas.

“Texas was a great option under the circumstances we faced,” Glause said. “We were thankful that we had a venue to crown our champions. NFR is one of the most coveted tickets in the sports world. So, we’ve started negotiations and we will continue our negotiations, and I think it’s everybody’s hope that we can continue our partnership with (Las Vegas Events) and the LVCVA to have the NFR in Las Vegas.”

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

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