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Alan Snel

Las Vegas is title town for many niche sports, games

7 January 2013

LAS VEGAS -- Las Vegas may not see a World Series or an NBA Finals soon, but the city known worldwide for its events does host a stunning number of championships for a slew of niche sports that make Vegas America's ultimate Titletown USA.

The secondary sports run the gamut from motorcycle racing, table tennis, senior softball, bowling and triathalons to rodeos, paintball, outdoor paddleball, equestrian and monster trucks.

Even the World Series of Beer Pong inaugurated the New Year in Las Vegas with a $50,000 grand prize. (Imagine, a three-day Beer Pong event pass was a mere $50.) FedEx is shipping horses from Saudia Arabia to Las Vegas for the Arabian Breeders World Cup in April. And the world's premier curlers are slated to descend on Las Vegas for a unique title event that pits North America's best curlers against the best from the rest of the world in January 2014.

Las Vegas' own version of the Wide World of Sports Titles is an economic driver that includes events ranging from the World Paintball Championship, which generates $2 million for the local economy, to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which generated $60 million in local spending in 2011. The numbers for the 2012 NFR event are still being crunched.

"The city struggles to support a daily routine team, but as far as championship events, this city is the place to be," said Mike Newcomb, executive director of the Thomas & Mack Center, which hosts championship events from rodeos to motorcycle races. "Tell me what championship doesn't want to be here."


Feld Motor Sports returns year after year to stage the Monster Jam World Finals, the Monster Energy Supercross Finals and the Monster Energy Cup. In 2012, the three title events attracted more than 65,000 out-of-town visitors, with each averaging more than $1,600 in spending during their stay, said Mark Abernethy, senior director of brand marketing for Aurora, Ill.-based Feld Motor Sports, which stages the monster truck and motorcycle championships in Las Vegas.

"It's a great season-ending destination. People who buy these tickets enjoy going to Las Vegas," Abernethy said. "It's a live-event town."

Hardly a week passes without some sports governing body staging a championship event in Las Vegas.

In December, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo sold out the Thomas & Mack Center daily for 10 days, and even drew 186,100 fans to the related Cowboy FanFest and the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is still processing economic impact numbers for the 2012 NFR, which concluded Dec. 15. But in 2011, 45,000 out-of-town visitors came for the Super Bowl of rodeos and generated $60.1 million in spending, said Dawn Christensen, an authority spokeswoman.

Besides the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association staging its NFR event in Las Vegas, the Professional Bull Riders also has its World Finals headliner at Thomas & Mack every year.

"The majority of people who are attending these sports events are coming to town for that championship," said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events. "This is a championship city, both from a participatory standpoint and from the fans standpoint."

Thomas & Mack was booked 10 days for the NFR, five days for the bull-riding championship, a day for the motorcycle supercross event and five days for the Mountain West college basketball championship tournament in March, Newcomb said.

While Las Vegas has never hosted a college basketball Final Four event, three other college basketball conferences besides the Mountain West are staging their title tourneys in Vegas during a two-week stretch in March - the Pac 12 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena and the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference at the Orleans Arena.

Only three days after the country's premier cowboys rode their final horse at the NFR on Dec. 15, the nation's best pingpong players came with their paddles to Las Vegas for the 2012 National Table Tennis Championships at the Las Vegas Convention Center Dec. 18-22. USA Table Tennis attracted 788 competitors, up from 560 for the 2011 championship staged in Virginia Beach, Va., USA Table Tennis CEO Michael Cavanaugh said. They ranged from youngsters to oldsters and Olympians, too.


Sports economists say it's hard to determine the net impact of sports events because many venues and events are subsidized by public money and taxes. The convention authority didn't offer economic impact numbers on many of the niche sports championship events, but reported that, in general, there were 330,000 sports-related visitors who spent $400 million in the 12 months ended in October .

The money spent in connection with the championships transcends the specific events. For example, Abernethy said there are golf tournaments, pool parties and awards ceremonies that accompany the monster truck and motocross events that fill Sam Boyd Stadium.

"If we weren't in town, some of these other events would go away, as well," Abernethy said.

In most cases, championship events forge alliances with hotels. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which stages the National Finals Rodeo, cut a deal with the MGM Grand for the hotel to be an official ProRodeo partner. The 3 Wall Ball Championships has a partnership with the Stratosphere, which provides the championship venue in a parking lot across the street from the hotel tower. The host hotel for the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships is the Las Vegas Hotel, which is next door to the table tennis title venue.

Feld Motor Sports uses Hard Rock Hotel for its motorcycle and monster truck championship events. In 2012, the Monster Jam brought 28,000 out-of-towners, the Monster Energy drew 26,000, and the Monster Energy Cup attracted 12,000, Abernethy said. The three Feld motor sports events drew fans from 15 countries, as well as from all U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

The Monster Jam, an annual championship staple at Sam Boyd Stadium, has grown so big that the oversized-truck event could attract a crowd that's twice as big as the number of fans who fill the Sam Boyd venue, Abernethy said.

"We have talked to people in Las Vegas about stadium plans and we can go to much bigger stadiums," he said. "Therein lies a big challenge for us as far as moving forward."

The September and October period is popular for championships in Las Vegas as organizers for sports as diverse as triathlons, paintball and senior softball all have their world titles on the line.

The Ironman World Championship 70.3 is slated for September in the Henderson area. About 2,500 triathletes, including the world's elite, are scheduled to spend three to five days with their families and help contribute $5 million in spending to the local economy in connection with the event, said Steve Meckfessel, managing director of global operations for Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based Ironman.

The geographic location is ideal because the hilly terrain in the Lake Mead area will help break up the groups of bicyclists that were bunched together on the flat terrain of Clearwater, Fla., the event's previous home. There are also many convenient and direct flights to Las Vegas from Australia, Asia, Europe and points across the U.S., Meckfessel said.


September is also circled by Senior Softball USA, which is staging its Senior World Masters title championship in Las Vegas from Sept. 27-Oct. 6. Terry Hennessy, the Sacramento, Calif.-based senior softball organization's CEO, expects as many as 500 teams with an average of 15 players per team. That's 7,500 softball players - plus another 7,500 spectators, he said.

The 15,000 visitors are projected to pump $20 million into the local economy during the 10 days, Hennessy said.

"The reason why the turnout is so big in Las Vegas is that the players like the gambling, shows and entertainment," Hennessy said. "And the wives come, too."

Meanwhile, the world's best paintball teams will decide a championship Oct. 12-14 in Las Vegas. The 150 teams with 1,500 athletes from across the United States and a dozen other countries are expected to spend $1.5 million to $2 million in the valley, said Chuck Hendsch, an owner and chief operating officer of the National Professional Paintball League, which is staging the world championship event.

"It's Vegas. People like to recreate, see shows. It's a destination point. We try and create a lot of memories," Hendsch said. "We try to provide not just a paintball tournament but a total experience."

The professional paintball league will spend $250,000 to convert the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot into a world title venue complete with outdoor stands and tents.

"Vegas in October is a great time to be there," Hendsch said.