Las Vegas basically has two choices in December: Become a near ghost town up and down The Strip or put on cowboy hats and boots and welcome the rodeo with open arms.
On behalf of basically every hotel and casino in town: “Yee-Haw!”
The National Finals Rodeo begins its annual 10-day stint Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center. The event has sold out every show – all 10 each year – since 1987. It’s considered the Super Bowl of Rodeo.
“The way (the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) is organized, this is the only time each year these fans get to see the 15 top contestants (in each event) against the best stock,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which promotes the NFR and other signature events for the city.
Christenson estimates around 100,000 visitors to Las Vegas for NFR and that the economic impactactually could be as high as $300 million overall for the region. South Point Hotel and Casino owner Michael Gaughan, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer for his contributions to the sport, played a pivotal role in helping Vegas keep the NFR when Dallas and Orlando showed interest a few years ago. A contract was signed to stay here through at least 2024.
The impact is most significant for the South Point, which is a popular hangout because of its state-of-the-art horse facility and commitment to the industry. Instead of suffering through what would be one of its slowest periods of the season, the South Point celebrates “by far our best two weeks of the year,” said general manager Ryan Growney.
All of that comes at a time when most properties otherwise would be “remodeling stuff, cleaning carpets, giving extra days off,” Growney said.
In other words, many casino, bar and restaurant employees likely would be out of work for a while just before the holiday season. The NFR comes to the rescue and saves the day.
This isn’t just a rodeo, either. It’s a flat-out festival with special events scheduled all over town, day after day, for nearly two weeks. A total of 26 hotels get involved throughout the area. Many offer viewing parties of CBS Sports Network’s nightly rodeo telecast with around 5,000 typically watching at the South Point alone in various ballrooms.
It’s also a big 10 days for music fans. There will be more than 50 country artists in town from the Charlie Daniels Band (Sunday at the Golden Nugget) to Florida Georgia Line (multiple dates at Planet Hollywood) and Kane Brown (Dec. 15 at Park MGM).
The South Point is also host to the World Series of Team Roping from Saturday through Dec. 16 with the prize money set at $13 million, more than the NFR’s pool of around $10 million.
“It’s amazing how Las Vegas galvanizes around this event,” Growney said.
The main attraction, though, is the fast-paced, two-hour nightly show at the Thomas & Mack. The nation’s best will compete in bull riding, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, tie-down roping and barrel racing.
Trevor Brazile, the long-time king of the all-around championship, is in a tight competition for this year’s season-long title. His brother-in-law, Tuf Cooper, leads Brazile by less than $6,000 entering the NFR.
Looking to make a bet? Try one of the casinos in the MGM chain or its mobile app. Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports at MGM, plans to put up odds every day for the bull-riding portion of the competition. Sage Kimzey has been by far the top bull rider this year, surpassing his nearest competition by more than $100,000.
“We’ve been booking bull riding for 10 years now,” Rood said. “We do pretty good action to it.”
The nightly handle compares to a normal NASCAR race, Rood said.
While the MGM Resorts properties embrace the NFR on its betting boards, the South Point and other casinos around town typically shy away from taking rodeo bets because of the difficulty in trying to set the odds. That’s about the only way Las Vegas hasn’t totally embraced the event.