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Howard Stutz

In talks over keeping National Finals Rodeo, Orlando, Dallas never had a chance

3 February 2014

LAS VEGAS -- Did you seriously think Las Vegas was going to lose the National Finals Rodeo to Orlando, Fla., or Dallas?

After six weeks of back-and-forth rhetoric, a new 10-year agreement was announced Jan. 24 to keep the NFR in Las Vegas — its home for 29 years — through 2024.

Cowboys and stock contractors will get about $6 million more a year in prize and sponsorship money.

The hotel-casino industry kept a firm grip on the 10-day event, considered the Super Bowl of professional rodeo, which this past December was worth almost $88 million to Las Vegas in nongaming economic impact. That figure is expected to grow over the life of the contract.

Orlando and Dallas never stood a chance.

The combined efforts of South Point owner Michael Gaughan, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President Rossi Ralenkotter, Las Vegas Events Chairman Bill McBeath and representatives of the Strip’s largest hotel-casino operators sealed the deal with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the NFR’s sanctioning body.

Mickey Mouse and Big Tex couldn’t pick Vegas Vic’s pocket.

“Orlando was never really in play,” Gaughan said matter-of-factly last week. “Dallas doesn’t even have a hometown rodeo.”

One person absent from the final round at the negotiating table was Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson. The nonprofit group, funded by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, promotes the rodeo.

Christenson earned few accolades from his bosses in mid-December when he released a statement saying the NFR was headed to Orlando.

The PRCA had rejected Christenson’s initial offer to extend the current NFR agreement, which expires after the 2014 event. The organization then reached a memorandum of understanding with Florida officials to negotiate a move to Central Florida. Christenson interpreted that as Las Vegas being out of the NFR business.

Strip casino executives and tourism officials — who oversee Las Vegas Events — first saw Christenson’s comments in media reports.

Even the PRCA reacted angrily to Christenson’s assertion that Las Vegas had lost its favorite rodeo, and said the vote was only a rejection of Las Vegas Events’ initial offer, not the end of the dance. The PRCA board voted unanimously to make a counteroffer.

With hindsight being 20-20, Christenson admitted this past week that his press release might not have been the best idea. He was frustrated because the PRCA rejected the Las Vegas bid and brought Orlando into the picture while saying nothing about a counteroffer.

To Christenson, who has headed Las Vegas Events since 2001, “there didn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.”

He learned one thing about the NFR over the past six weeks.

“I always thought the NFR was one of the top three events in Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s clearly the most important event to our hotel partners and the LVCVA.”

Despite favorable media reports that Christenson saved the NFR, the reality is Ralenkotter, McBeath and other gaming industry executives stepped in to keep the cowboys in Las Vegas.

This wasn’t the first time Christenson got into hot water with his bosses.

In 2005, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that he was a partner in an-Idaho based training program. Christenson was advertised as the instructor of a five-day management training course for event planners staging special events, including rodeos. He resigned from the program before teaching the course when it was deemed a conflict of interest with his job at Las Vegas Events.

Christenson wasn’t alone in the heat over the potential NFR debacle.

The PRCA found itself in the firing line over the rodeo’s possible departure from Las Vegas. In early January, several prominent rodeo cowboys threatened to defect from the organization and form their own rodeo sanctioning group.

The talks between the PRCA and Las Vegas intensified when it was learned Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry wanted the rodeo in the Lone Star State.

Texas was more of a threat than Florida. Perry has an economic improvement fund that could have been tapped to win over the cowboys.

Ralenkotter and McBeath did the heavy lifting in the talks with the PRCA, traveling to Colorado Springs, Colo., to seal the deal. Major hotel operators, including MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Corp., kicked in the extra money. The new contract guarantees $16.5 million annually in purse and sponsorship for the NFR.

In the end, the boards of Las Vegas Events and the PRCA voted unanimously to accept the new contract. The convention authority board unanimously approved the agreement Thursday.

Few insiders ever thought the rodeo would leave Las Vegas.

The NFR has grown since its first go-round in 1985. The entire city embraces the early-December event, which includes country-western acts in most showrooms, an NFR “fanfest” and the Cowboy Christmas retail bazaar.

The NFR has sold out 270 consecutive performances. The 2013 NFR drew an attendance of 176,558.

One Strip hotel executive said rooms are booked by rodeo fans who don’t even buy tickets for the competition. They just want to be in Las Vegas for NFR-related events.

Gaughan was part of the original team that helped lure the NFR away from Oklahoma City. The group, which included casino pioneer Benny Binion and former Las Vegas Events President Herb McDonald, guaranteed a prize pool of $1.8 million for the cowboys and $700,000 for stock contractors — more than double the Oklahoma City purse.

Binion, the legendary owner of Binion’s Horseshoe, paid the entry fees for the NFR contestants that first year.

Gaughan said this past week that visitation from NFR is worth $750,000 in revenue to the South Point alone during December.

That’s one reason he was involved in the negotiations. Las Vegas tourism and gaming leaders took the lead and ended worries the NFR was headed out of town.

In that arena, Orlando and Dallas were simply pawns in the game.