Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 | 9 p.m.
To use Wild West parlance, we may have us another Miss America situation right up in heah.
You remember Miss America, the gal we plucked from Atlantic City in 2006 and made our town her own until she bolted for her original homestead. Miss A was a great Vegas tradition for a time — until her first partner circled back with a sexier offer.
Years before Miss America sashayed to the Strip, National Finals Rodeo yanked its fence posts from Oklahoma City and set down in Las Vegas at the then-newly built Thomas & Mack Center. That was in 1984, when legendary Vegas dealmakers Benny Binion and Las Vegas Events President Herb McDonald assembled the right amount of chips to bring the NFR to Vegas.
What is now known as the Wrangler NFR and Las Vegas — represented by Las Vegas Events — have been gleefully galloping along ever since. After two momentum-gathering years at the start, the NFR has consistently sold out the Thomas & Mack, and the rodeo has become a citywide hoedown with more than 40 Las Vegas hotels hosting some sort of WNFR-centric event.
After initial reports that last year’s WNFR drew some $60.1 million in nongaming revenue to the city, that figure has been bumped to more than $90 million. At the Las Vegas Convention Center, the 100,000-square-foot Cowboy Fanfest is said to be a big hit, and shoppers are hustling through the Cowboy Christmas retail compound. You can even two-step at the Mirage sports book, which has been retrofitted to resemble Brandin’ Iron Saloon.
But today, the partnership between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (the umbrella organization that produces and promotes the WNFR each year) is on slippery footing. The current contract is to expire after the 2014 WNFR. A contract renewal process that even a year ago seemed a merely procedural matter is now in a virtual stalemate, with Oklahoma City emerging as an eager suitor for the 2015 rodeo.
“It’s come full circle, I guess,” PRCA chief executive Karl Stressman told me today after a news conference. He did not elaborate on any discussions with any other city, but did add, “There are people who have some real interest in our product. As the CEO of the PRCA, my obligation is to look at those offers and see what that is like and take it to the board of directors and say, ‘Here is my recommendation as CEO. It’s your decision to make. Here are the pluses and minuses.’ ”
The PRCA and LVE have never allowed a contract to term out in the 29-year history of the event in Las Vegas, and the current contract is closing out a 10-year run. But the negotiations over the past year have been a little chippy, and no new talks between Stressman and members of the National Finals Rodeo Committee are scheduled until at least the end of this year’s WNFR.
The NFRC is filled with tourism officials (Pat Christenson is the LVE president) and resort executives, including one of the city’s foremost rodeo supporters, Michael Gaughan of South Point. Gaughan, in particular, is known to be a fiery negotiator.
“In negotiations, people say things and want to do things, and everybody’s got an opinion on what we should or should not do,” Stressman said. “We have come to roadblocks. You know me. I’m going to tell you — when you put Type-A personalities together in a room, and they’re going to negotiate something, someone is going to get their feelings hurt and not like what is being said.”
Stressman says that when he talks to his fellow PRCA officials, there seems an itching for the sport’s crowning event to scan the great rural landscape.
“There are some people who like the sound of having the National Finals someplace besides Las Vegas,” he said. “That is not a bad thing for me. Not necessarily.”
As he has stated for at least the past three WNFRs, Stressman is fighting for higher prize money for the contestants competing in the WNFR. This year’s outlay is a record for the event, $6.25 million.
“We’re looking for a higher value on the contestant money, no question,” Stressman said. “One of the things that has been hardest for the PRCA is every time we’ve negotiated a deal in the past, even the contract extensions, the PRCA has been in very poor shape. We didn’t have any choice but to say, “If you give us another nickel, we’ll come back.” That is not the case today.”
One published report specified that one of the offers submitted by Las Vegas Events (and Christenson has said there have been multiple offers made to the PRCA) is a value topping $15 million. That figure encompasses prize money and also the marketing budget, hotel rooms and the staging of such officially ancillary events as Cowboy Christmas.
Today, Christenson said the $15 million figure is not new. It is the amount LVE commits to each year to produce the NFR. But he has previously said, “We are giving all of the money we make to the PRCA and to the contestants. I don’t know how we can do any more than that.”
“Pat’s number is $15 million, but it depends on what you’re counting,” Stressman said when asked about the specific offer. “We necessarily deal in contestant money, stock contractor money and PRCA money. Those three elements are what we deal in … but (LVE) added a lot of other things, expense to the city and expense for the building. I didn’t do the math on it. I’m not saying it’s not the right number, but I do know there is a value to being in Vegas.”
I asked Stressman about a comment from Christenson from an interview I conducted with the head of LVE on Friday night, during the second night of the WNFR. As Christenson persuasively noted: “I’ve been in this business a long time. I don’t know of an event that can start from scratch in another market as a 10-day event, and I am including Vegas, and get the kind of sponsorship, ticket sales and financial success that the NFR has today.”
“I do agree with that,” Stressman said. “We have established a value over the years, partly because of our partnership with Las Vegas and partly because of our own product. We’re operating as our own product, and they're operating as their own product.”
He continued: “Believe me, I understand this. I’ve negotiated a lot of things over my lifetime. We just can’t get to a point where we’re head butting.”
Christenson said Friday that if the WNFR opted to move to another city, the city would not go dark for 10 days.
“If we don’t work something out, there is no way we’re not going to have a like event here,” he said. “We will have something here.”
Not surprisingly, Stressman said the appeal of Las Vegas and the PRCA’s long relationship with the city boosts the value of staging the NFR at the Thomas & Mack.
“I can’t tell you how many spreadsheets we’ve looked at and seen that there is a value to being in Las Vegas that is not a dollar value, but you have to factor it in when you are making a decision like this,” Stressman said. “If, all things considered, we were offered $15 million to go to Timbuktu, and Vegas says we’ll give you $15 million to stay here, there’s no question what the value of staying here in Las Vegas for 29 years is — it’s a huge value, so you have to consider that when looking at the other guy’s bid.”
Stressman said that the conversation has finally reached something of a tipping point.
“We need to decide what we’re going to do, collectively, the two groups,” he said, “because if we can’t come to some kind of an agreement, we need to know that and they need to know that. But we don’t want there to be hard feelings, if in fact it would come to that.”
Would it? Christenson says, “I think we’ll extend. We just don’t have a deal. But we’re ready to go.”
It could be that Stressman and his operation will find the onerous task of relocating and reheating the National Finals Rodeo more trouble than it is worth.
“It’s been 27 or 28 years of consecutive sellouts. Do I want to do the work to build that up again? No, sir. I don’t,” he said. “I don’t want to put my staff through that kind of labor. But, like I said, I am going to recommend to my board of directors what is the best thing for the PRCA. I hope it’s Las Vegas. I hope that’s what they’re thinking.”
Then he paused and said, “You know, who is going to make the decision to leave Las Vegas on their side? Tell me that. Who on that side of the table would make that call?”
It’s a spirited, if rhetorical, question. The answer might well be “nobody.” If it isn’t, the WNFR contestants will follow all those beauty contestants and head outta Dodge.