Every year in December, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo comes to Las Vegas. This year, the rodeo ran between December 1 and December 10. The rodeo, along with its trappings and surroundings, is many things, but primarily it is a place for the cowboy games. Each evening, 16,000 or so fans gather at Thomas and Mack Center to watch cowboys ride bucking horses — with and without a saddle — and bulls, rope calves, and wrestle steers. NFR is a kind of Super Bowl of cowboying. It brings with it lots of heart-stopping moments, injuries, great rides, disappointing throws, and close finishes. And like the famous line from Rush Limbaugh, they mostly do it with one hand; the other is held in the air. That’s a kind of bravado that only another cowboy can truly appreciate.
For the city of Las Vegas, it is a two-handed affair that takes lots effort and has many moving parts. The city’s rooms are filled at premium rates; casinos and shops are jammed with cowboys, cowgirls, and would-be-cowboys and girls. The rodeo was expected to attract 170,000 fans and have an economic impact of $180 million. It also takes up 440,000 square feet of space at the Las Vegas Convention Center filled with vendors hawking hats, boots, shirts, belts and the other trappings of cowboying. Looking like bareback, saddle bronc, and bull riders is part of the charm, not to mention the economic success of Cowboy Christmas at the Convention Center.
It is not hard to put on a rodeo: Just offer a little prize money for the best cowboy in each category and the cowboys will show up. The prize pool this year was $11 million. Compare that to the total prize money in 1985 of $1 million. Rodeo cowboys travel the country in pickup trucks, hauling trailers with their horses, on the lookout for another ride and a little prize money. It is a way of life, at least until injuries end their careers. Lots of small towns have rodeos, but so do cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Amarillo. Many bill themselves as being championship rodeos and they are, but Las Vegas is bigger than a championship.
Coming as it does at the end of the year, it has turned itself into the de facto championship of the year, the Super Bowl. It also fills a huge hole in the calendar for Las Vegas. For the casino industry, the worst three weeks of the year are those between the end of the Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Gamblers have to do their Christmas shoppers without the time or money to visit a casino. Las Vegas hit on the rodeo solution in the mid-1980s. At the time, casinos existed only in Atlantic City and Nevada. But even without other jurisdictions as competition, Nevada and New Jersey casinos competed against retail malls to attract customers. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo had its own national customer base and those fans had no other rodeo to attend. Sitting on Santa’s lap was not the same.
At the same time that Las Vegas found that the rodeo fit perfectly into early December, in Reno, we were desperately trying to find a solution to the same “no-customers” problem. We tried all the marketing ploys in our arsenal: food and room specials, gaming bonuses and tournaments, décor, music, and gimmicks galore. Nothing worked. People had neither the time nor money to invest in our casino, regardless of how gorgeously we decorated it. It was a dismal time of year to be in the casino business. Eventually, the seasonality of the casino business, the dramatic increase in regional competition, and its meager resources caused our casino to close. It wasn’t alone. Since then, nearly 30 casinos have closed in Reno.
Reno’s problems were not all related to December, but it is a reminder every year of the frailty of the casino industry in small seasonal and regional markets. Las Vegas has had a completely different fate. Again, December and the rodeo were not the only reasons Las Vegas prospered. But they are indicative of the reasons the city has been so successful. Las Vegas has always found bigger, better, and more imaginative solutions, regardless of the ever-increasing competition.
The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo has turned out to be more that a way to fill the empty days of early December. It is a great solution, one that adds to the city’s allure, while adding to its coffers. Vegas values the cowboys as much as the cowboys value the rodeo. South Point is one of the casinos that cater primarily to the citizens of the Las Vegas Valley. But it also has its own equestrian facilities and thinks of itself as being rodeo central all year long. During NFR, South Point ups its game and, apparently, it works. South Point General Manager Ryan Growney calls this time “the best two weeks of the year.” The rodeo has taken those two weeks from being the worst of the year to being the best. In the casino world, there is no higher praise for any event.