Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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Rodeo rustler? Tourism officials worry Dallas Cowboys owner could steal Vegas event

Jerry Jones Rodeo Illustration

Emily Morrow / Special to the Sun

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Clark County may need a new arena to head the Dallas Cowboys off at the pass.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has made it clear that he wants his $1.2 billion state-of-the-art stadium to supplant Las Vegas as the premier site for the biggest boxing matches. Now local tourism officials are concerned that Jones’ posse plans to corral the National Finals Rodeo, Las Vegas’ premier December event.

For 25 years, UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center has been home to the NFR. Last year, its 10 nights of competition posted an attendance of 174,000, including an estimated 35,000 out-of-towners, delivering a much-needed economic boost of $50 million during an otherwise slow time of the year.

The Cowboys know the NFR brings in big bucks, of course. They also know “the Super Bowl of rodeos” would be a particularly plum event in a part of the country famous for 10-gallon hats and boots. In fact, the first three NFRs were in Dallas beginning in 1959.

So far Jones and chums are keeping their strategy for bringing the NFR back to Texas under their Stetsons. But Brett Daniels, director of corporate communications for the Cowboys, acknowledges that his team has “had a few initial conversations and invited people to see the venue.”

“We’re not actively pursuing it at this time,” he reassures, but, he adds, “We’re interested in finding out more about it.”

Translation: Las Vegas has the NFR locked up in a contract through 2014, but Cowboys Stadium is aiming to be its new home when that contract expires.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President and CEO Rossi Ralenkotter has seen how aggressively the Cowboys’ posse pursued virtually all of the nation’s other big-ticket events. They managed to lasso this year’s NBA All-Star Game, the 2011 Super Bowl and the 2014 NCAA basketball Final Four. Jones offered $25 million in his bid to snatch the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather Jr. championship boxing match away from Las Vegas, and when that bout fell through, Jones snagged Pacquiao for a fight against a lesser opponent for the same date that the Mayweather fight was expected to occur, March 13.

But would rodeo work in such a big stadium? Would people turn out in big numbers?

The answers came a few days after the NBA shattered attendance records for a single basketball game by drawing 108,000 people to Cowboys Stadium.

Professional Bull Riders Inc., an offshoot of NFR aimed at capitalizing on rodeo’s most popular event, staged its Built Ford Tough Series tour event in Dallas on Feb. 20.

The PBR event drew about 46,000 people — three times the number of people who attend a night of NFR in Las Vegas.

“It was phenomenal,” says Sean Gleason, PBR’s chief operating officer. “The venue is so spectacular, it was almost surreal.”

It was the single biggest one-day performance for a bull-riding event on U.S. soil. About 60,000 had piled into a stadium in Brazil for a PBR World Cup event.

Thomas & Mack is the home of PBR’s signature North American event in the fall, the PBR World Finals, and Gleason stops short of saying whether that event might head down the road.

The main thing Thomas & Mack has going for it, Gleason says, are the promotional partnerships that PBR has with several Las Vegas resorts.

“Las Vegas is the perfect home for our event,” Gleason says.

But he goes on to say: “Our fans are geographically dispersed from the Northwest to the southern tip of Florida and from the Northeast to San Diego.”

The problem is that the Dallas Metroplex is closer to the center of the nation than Las Vegas is, and more than half of PBR’s fans travel from east of the Mississippi to go to the finals in Las Vegas. The PBR’s highest grossing event, in fact, is the one it has at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

For the recent PBR event at Cowboys Stadium, the upper tier of seats was closed off, so the event was a virtual sellout. Jones’ famous 72-by-160-foot video screens, the largest in the world, were lowered to be closer to the rodeo arena dirt to create a unique atmosphere: the excitement of the live performance coupled with high-definition close-ups of performers on the monstrous screens.

Not a bad seat in the house, as the ticket hawkers like to say.

The news releases leading up to the bull-riding event, for example, crowed: “Top PBR superstars will ride in the largest, most technologically advanced entertainment venue in the world.”

Pat Christenson, head of Las Vegas Events and one of the city’s top rodeo ramrods, is painfully aware that Thomas & Mack isn’t even close to being in the same league as Cowboys Stadium. UNLV’s arena, which is the valley’s largest, holds about a sixth as many people as Jones’ stadium. But the bigger problem may be that it’s also 26 years older and showing its age.

Christenson doesn’t think larger capacity is that important to the rodeo’s success but having a more updated facility is.

“I’m hoping that by the time we start discussing contract extensions again with the (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) that we’ll at least have a shovel in the ground for a new venue,” Christenson says.

Another of Christenson’s concerns is an economic incentives package put together by the Texas Legislature. Texas’ Events Trust Fund enables cities to recover marketing expenses from the economic boosts those events provide.

The LVCVA provides sponsorship money on a far less sophisticated basis. Basically, what it does is grant money directly as a sponsor, which is a good incentive, but it’s nothing like in Texas where if your event is a huge success you could get most or all of your marketing expenses reimbursed.

Still, at least for the time being, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, sponsor of the National Finals Rodeo, says it has nothing but love for Las Vegas.

In an e-mail, association Commissioner Karl Stressman said, “Las Vegas is the perfect home for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Las Vegas Events and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority are great partners, and we look forward to continuing our combined efforts in transforming the world’s most exciting city into ‘Cowboy Town’ each December.”

“The great thing about the rodeo is that we’ve built so much around it,” Christenson says. “What we’ve done over the past eight or nine years is develop spinoff events, and we now have about 20 of them.”

During the 10 days the rodeo is in town, Las Vegas celebrates the western lifestyle with Christmas gift shows, cowboy meet-and-greets and concerts by country stars such as Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire and Tim McGraw. Thirty-five hotels take a live satellite feed of the NFR performances.

But the question for the future will be whether Las Vegas can be more of a cowboy town than Cowboy town can.

A version of this story appears in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.

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