Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
The National Finals Rodeo moved to Las Vegas in 1985 after 20 years in Oklahoma City. Las Vegas became the fourth home of the NFR; it had also been in Dallas and Los Angeles. South Point owner Michael Gaughan has been a driving force behind the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. He serves on the NFR Committee and the board of Las Vegas Events. He has negotiated contracts to keep the rodeo in town. His hotel is a key location for rodeo events, and he has several animals participating in the NFR. In 2007, he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame as a notable contributor to the sport. The Sun talked to him about the rodeo. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Why do you think the rodeo is important to Las Vegas?
The rodeo is important in Las Vegas because it keeps the town alive in December. It’s been 27 years and everybody has kind of forgot except us old farts, but 28 years ago in December this town damn near shut down.
You replaced the carpets, you painted the walls, you furloughed the people, you closed the showrooms and December was just a disastrous month. Christmas and New Year’s could not save December.
It’s not that rodeo brings a whole lot of people to town, because we only put about 16,000 people in there every night (at Thomas & Mack Center). It just keeps the town alive with excitement.
About 12 years ago, I finally got the PRCA (the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which puts on the NFR) to let us have the (televised) live feed to the hotels. That has made a huge difference too. It got people who come to stay and never go to the rodeo. They watch it in the showroom, they watch in the bar and they party with the cowboys for 10 days. Occasionally somebody doesn’t want to go to the rodeo, and they’ll get a ticket.
This has been a two-way street with the PRCA. It’s been great for us, and it’s been great for them.
They make a lot of money off us. It’s been great for their fans, for their committees, for their stock contractors, for the cowboys. When we started 27 years ago, a top cowboy used to finish the season up with $100,000. That was the cowboy goal. If you could win $100,000 after the NFR you’d had a big year. I think the first year there were three cowboys who got over $100,000. Last year, I think there were 91 cowboys who went home with over $100,000 — that’s the money they come with and the money they win here. That’s total, but over 91 cowboys left here with over $100,000 for the year. There might have been 10 over $200,000 and one was over $400,000.
What about the talk about the rodeo possibly moving from Las Vegas when the contract is up in 2014?
Everybody started this nonsense that if we don’t build a new arena, they won’t stay here. That’s nonsense. They’re very happy being here. They don’t care what it’s in. They like being here. It is going to get down to prize money.
We stole it from Oklahoma City 27 years ago — between Benny Binion and doubling the prize money, we got it here. Of all the things Benny Binion did for this town, this might have been the greatest thing he did. I can’t tell you how much this rodeo has meant to this town. It keeps it alive. It keeps people working.
When John Giovenco ran the Hilton, he came to me and said the rodeo wasn’t doing anything for the big Hilton. After a moment I said, “John, here’s what I want you to do: When the rodeo’s over this year, I want you to go back five years before the rodeo got here and compare the figures.” He said, “Well, the rodeo doesn’t do anything for me.” I said, “John, just compare the figures before the rodeo and after the rodeo got here.” He called me back two days later and said, “You’re right, and we’ve got nothing but the rodeo.”
The rodeo has been good for the whole town. Even the hotels that don’t get involved in the rodeo, it still helps the whole town. All of the hotels now take the live feed. We even sell the feed down to Laughlin and we sell it out to Mesquite.
You told the Sun’s John Katsilometes last year that Las Vegas once was a Wild West town.
That was a long time ago, when I was a kid. The old Helldorado Days. I moved here the summer of ’52 but I was here the summer of ’50 and the summer of ’51 visiting my grandparents. Back then, there weren’t 25,000 people in town. Helldorado was a big thing. This town wasn’t Wild West but it was much more Western.
So more people were interested in the Western culture?
Is the rodeo like a return to that? To the town’s roots?
Over the 10 days. Even for people who aren’t involved in it. It just keeps the town abuzz. We don’t want to lose it.
What about the future of the NFR in Las Vegas?
We talked about this in the NFR Committee meeting (Monday), we’ll probably start talking (about the contract) this spring ... I have some pretty fair relationships. We’ll probably have to come up with some more money, but I think we’ll be all right.
What about the competition?
Dallas seems to be our main source of competition (for the contract). I think the rodeo would die in Dallas. It was there before and died.
We brought the rodeo here 27 years ago. They were in Oklahoma City. They raised the room prices on them, they came with different menus for everybody, there was nothing to do in Oklahoma City after the rodeo was over. If you wanted something to eat, you got chicken fingers and popcorn in some bar.
And when those guys (the competitors) went to Las Vegas, they got their rooms free. They thought they had all died and gone to heaven. The first-generation guys and the second-generation guys realize how much better they have it here. We’re now down to third- and fourth-generation guys who don’t remember Oklahoma City and Dallas.
It’s like any major convention in this town. You’re all together in this town.
I do a lot (for the rodeo). The Boyd people do a lot. The Mirage and the MGM, now we’re competing against them.
More and more people have gotten on the bandwagon because it’s good for business.
The thing is it probably only brings 10,000, 12,000 people to town. And we have 140,000 rooms here. But everybody brings in the Western acts, and people come to town. You can’t get a rodeo ticket. The people come and they have a good time for 10 days.