Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 | 8:31 p.m.
Members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and tourism officials in Las Vegas have been working together for years. Twenty nine, to be exact.
To borrow a term, this is not their first rodeo. Far from it.
But what unfolded Sunday afternoon regarding the future of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was a chasm of communication befitting people who had never spoken to one another, let alone shared the same rodeo ring for three decades.
The latest on this astonishing go-round between Las Vegas and its longtime rodeo partner: Las Vegas Events reps have cut off negotiations with the PRCA before any formal contract has been signed to actually move the WNFR out of Las Vegas after 2014.
As LVE officials have stated, there are compelling reasons Las Vegas is finished negotiating (their long-standing offer having been turned back), but the move has left the head of the PRCA saying, in effect, “Hold on there, cowboy.”
On Sunday afternoon, the nine-member PRCA Board of Directors voted to reject the offer made by LVE to return the WNFR to the Thomas & Mack Center after the current contract times out. The vote was 6-3 against the LVE proposal.
During that PRCA meeting, way across the country, the Osceola County (Fla.) Commission met to approve something known as a memorandum of understanding. That vote authorized a formal offer to move the WNFR to Florida beginning in 2015, the year after the current contract in Las Vegas ends.
PRCA board members were reportedly watching, certainly with keen interest, a live video stream of the session from Florida. That vote, held in a rare Sunday session of the Osceola County Commission in Kissimmee, Fla., was 5-0. The decision now allows 90 days for the two sides to hammer out an agreement that would make a new, 24,000-seat arena the home of the WNFR for 20 years beginning in 2016 (the event would be held at Amway Arena, home of the Orlando Magic, in 2015).
In keeping with the oft-confusing nature of the WNFR contract negotiations, the information made public during that meeting was surprising to even Florida residents. Plans for the $100 million arena to be built at Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Kissimmee were not even made public until Sunday’s meeting.
Minutes after the unanimous vote out of Florida, PRCA Chairman Keith Martin called South Point owner and National Finals Rodeo Committee member Michael Gaughan and told him the result of the day’s sweeping activities. Gaughan then contacted LVE President Pat Christenson, whose organization has been waiting a year and a half for a vote on its current contract offer to extend the rodeo’s stay in Las Vegas by another decade.
Christenson was unaware up until midweek that the PRCA even had planned a vote and was not privy to the events in Florida until Sunday.
Suffice to say, Christenson and his fellow Las Vegas officials had grown restless and were already mapping out a strategy for a new rodeo event to supplant the WNFR if a deal with the PRCA could not be reached. Understanding that the PRCA had rejected its offer and was pursuing a more lucrative (by $4 million) proposal from the Florida county that is home to Orlando and its PRCA-sanctioned Silver Spurs Rodeo, LVE issued a statement effectively announcing the end of its partnership with the PRCA after the 2014 WNFR.
“The way it was explained to me was the PRCA Board had reviewed our offer and voted against it,” Christenson said this afternoon. “They were in negotiations with the Florida county. We gave them an offer to extend and they rejected it.”
Given the long lag since making its original offer — which Christenson has said is $15 million when totaling the entire operating cost of staging the rodeo and peripheral events — LVE was ready to move on.
“Our offer was on the table for 18 months, ready for a vote,” Christenson said. “We weren’t going to spend another three to four months waiting for them to decide what they were going to do while we were looking at planning for another event.”
Pretty obviously, the Las Vegas contingent is confident of filling the 10-day slot usually occupied by the WNFR with a top-notch event. It certainly has a high financial standard to meet: The 2012 WNFR generated $92.8 million in nongaming economic impact for Las Vegas.
“We’re going to have the top contestants in a 10-day event that would replace what we’re doing with the NFR,” Christenson said. “Everything that would be in the NFR would be in this and will be a major, major rodeo event.” This would be a series of shows not sanctioned by the PRCA and more in line with the American invitational rodeo set for AT&T Stadium in Dallas in March. That show is sponsored by RFD-TV and its CEO, Randy Bernard. RFD-TV broadcast from this year’s WNFR.
But over at the PRCA, all this talk of a new rodeo to replace the WNFR in Las Vegas is very premature. PRCA CEO Karl Stressman said he was “totally surprised” that his colleagues at LVE had acted so swiftly and decisively to cut off negotiations.
“Never, and I say never, was there ever any intention that this was the end of the negotiations between us and LVE,” Stressman said in a phone interview this afternoon. “I’m reading their statement in response to our vote and thinking, ‘Wow, they are in a rush to do something different.’”
Stressman said the PRCA vote was merely a decision to turn down the current set of financial figures and continue negotiations, not only with Las Vegas, but with other prospective suitors hoping to land the “Super Bowl of Rodeo.”
“Are we talking to the group in Florida? Heck yes, we are. But this does not mean we have a done deal,” Stressman said. “As I’ve said, we are, in fact, as a board of directors, looking at all viable options. (Osceola County) might not be the only option on the table.”
When asked if the PRCA had entered into a similar memorandum of understanding with any other city or county, Stressman said only, “We have had more than one interested party, as far as serious inquiries, about hosting the WNFR.”
And it is possible that some entity other than Osceola County and its fancy new stadium could work a deal to host the WNFR? Even Las Vegas could, conceivably, work its way back into the talks?
“Yes, sir. That is possible,” Stressman said. “That is correct.”
Nonetheless, Christenson is looking past 2014 and this super-sized, invitation-only rodeo.
“We didn’t deal this hand,” he said. “We’re playing it. We are ready and have an alternative plan, and we will succeed with it.”
Faced with the prospect of Las Vegas staging a WNFR-scope event to compete with his organization’s own crowning rodeo, Stressman said, “I don’t blame them for pursuing that. Rodeo is a great sport, and competition is competition, but we don’t want that to happen. I don’t think it’s necessary for us to have two rodeos.”
Stressman said that there will be a point when everyone involved in the WNFR has recovered from working 17 consecutive days and “is thinking clearly” to contact reps from LVE and figure out just what the heck happened here.
“We’ll need to find out what it is we can do and reach out to the LVE, who we’ve been in partnership with for 29 years, and talk to them again. Everybody wants to know what happened here, what went wrong.
“There’s no way we’re going to leave it the way it is.”
But what is the objective of resuming a conversation with the folks in Las Vegas? Is it to resume negotiations or just mend a fractured relationship?
“The answer to both sides of that question would be, ‘Yes,’” Stressman said. “I don’t want to be in a position for LVE to be angry with the way this has gone for the past few days. Knowing them the way I know them, I don’t think they want that, either.
“Our intention was to continue negotiations.”
Maybe the best way to sort out this squabble is to remember the simple fundamentals of team roping: one on the head, one on the heel, and, above all, know how to read your partner. Otherwise, that steer is outta here.