Economic Impact Events Horse Happenings Western

Las Vegas’ gold buckle — the NFR — is likely here to stay

By John Katsilometes (contact)

Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 | 2 a.m.

You might expect the head of an operation that pours tens of millions of dollars into the Las Vegas economy would hit town by landing his personal means of transportation at McCarran International Airport.

Well, Karl Stressman hit town in a personal means of transportation all right. But you can’t very well land a 2011 Dodge Ram pickup at the airport.

Nope, the head of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association made the 13 1/2-hour drive from his home and PRCA headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., straight through to Vegas.

The overriding reasons: The trip was too long, and maybe too cold, to make it on horseback. And heck, flying is faster, but where’s the adventure in that?

“We left at, what, 6 a.m. on Saturday, Mountain time, and got here at 6:30 p.m. Vegas time,” Stressman said during a phone interview Sunday, a day after he arrived for this year’s 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center. The event begins today and runs through Dec. 10.

“We hit some snow coming over the Vail Pass, but otherwise it was great,” was Stressman’s travelogue of his drive along Interstates 70 and 15 to Vegas. Certainly, the Resistol-donning PRCA official was not difficult to spot on the freeway, charging along in his white Dodge “dually” with Dodge Ram Rodeo logos affixed to the sides.

This is sort of how it works in the world of rodeo. Probably more than any other sport, it remains organic, true to its roots, largely unchanged through several generations of competition. You would never run across artificial turf, or artificial anything, in the sport of rodeo. Sometimes the most direct route is the one closest to the ground.

That sentiment is reflected in the informally direct manner in which PRCA officials conduct business, and how Stressman and his associates view their relationship with Las Vegas Events and Las Vegas tourism officials. The contract that keeps the event in Las Vegas, where it has been hosted since it was corralled from Oklahoma City in 1985, is due to expire after the 2014 event.

Is it conceivable that Las Vegas might be left clutching at air as the NFR turns to a more appealing partner? Conceivable, maybe.

But is it likely? The answer is nope on a rope.

As we enter this year’s NFR, the idea of the event seeking a new home as the current contract deadline looms is highly improbable. What makes it such: The 250 consecutive sellouts at the Thomas & Mack and more than $50 million in nongaming revenue spent by rodeo fans in Vegas during the nearly two weeks of NFR activity.

“The PRCA is very happy in Las Vegas. We’re treated very, very well the whole time we are here,” says Stressman, the sport’s top administrative ranch hand and road warrior. “From the cabdrivers to the card dealers to the waiters and waitresses in the restaurants, the casino owners — you name it, we’re treated wonderfully. I don’t think there is anyplace that would treat us the way we have been treated in Vegas.”

“We’ve had a contract agreement for 27, 28 years,” Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson says. “We’ve never let a contract run out.”

Don’t expect this deal to time out, either. Christenson and Stressman both say the plan is for PRCA and Las Vegas officials to meet in the spring to initiate formal contract talks.

The PRCA “wish list” entering these talks seems not a list at all.

“One of the members of the Las Vegas (NFR) board has said to me, ‘I’m assuming you’re looking for more money, Karl,’ and we just laughed and shook hands,” Stressman says. “You know, I would not be telling the truth if I told you that my priority is not for our contestants to have a bigger payoff … This is the Super Bowl for us, we bring quite an economic impact to Las Vegas, and we just want to share in the revenue and have our contestants, who work so hard all year long, to be part of a huge payoff here in Las Vegas.”

As it is, the total payout for this year’s NFR contestants is a record $6 million, up from $5.9 million last year. Prize money was the primary reason NFR officials moved the event to Las Vegas in 1985, as the city offered a purse totaling a then-record $1.8 million.

As for priorities other than a boost in paychecks, nothing leaps to Stressman’s mind.

“I’m not sure we have any other real objectives,” he says. “We feel like we are the kings of the castle when we arrive here in December.”

Says Christenson, “Everything comes down to money.”

Speculation about the NFR possibly leaving Vegas at the end of this contract percolated in March 2010, as the big ol’ barn that is Cowboys Stadium opened. Just weeks prior, Stressman toured the facility.

Soon after that visit, comments by Dallas Cowboys Director of Corporate Communications Brett Daniels that the stadium execs were “interested in finding out more about (the NFR),” helped spark conversation around Las Vegas and the NFR community that the event was in danger of being hogtied by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Pure speculation, Stressman says.

“I actually visited the stadium when they were building it, almost at its completion date, and it is a phenomenal facility in terms of just being inside a building that seats 100,000 people, but that was more to just see the stadium than anything else,” he notes.

“From that point forward, I haven’t had any communication, frankly, with anybody from Dallas. When we decide to start communicating with anyone but Las Vegas, it would be only because it is in the best interest of the PRCA to at least listen, but in terms of actively pursuing anything up to this point, no, I have not.”

Cowboys Stadium drew more than 46,000 fans to a Professional Bull Riders event in February (a show boosted by a Toby Keith concert), proving it can fill seats for a rodeo-fashioned showcase. Even so, Jones himself has declined to comment on the matter before this year’s event, keeping a pattern in which he also declined to talk about the NFR in November 2010.

Jones is more focused on Cowboys than cowboys during the NFL season. His most recent, specific comments about the rodeo were during an interview in March 2010, during the week of the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey title bout at Cowboys Stadium, when he said, “I will say that rodeo is part of the heritage of this area. We have huge Dallas Cowboy fans who are rodeo fans, and certainly we have the potential to be aligned with those types of events. But Las Vegas has such attractiveness to the people of rodeo, coming out there having worked a year to get there. Las Vegas has worked to build that into such a major event, and I recognize that … (The NFR) is way out ahead of anything I’m about right now … It is a great product, but I feel much more comfortable about doing fights here.”

Crucial to any conceivable negotiations between PRCA officials and Jones is that the Cowboys owner won’t interfere with his team’s schedule, which would force the rodeo execs to consider moving the event off the calendar in December.

“I never say never, but I can tell you that is not going to happen,” Stressman says. “The dates are not going to move for the NFR.”

Those who remember the rodeo pre-Vegas agree with the feeling that the event and city are as good a match as Wrangler jeans and Justin boots.

NFR General Manager Shawn Davis, the man who cast the tiebreaking vote among NFR board members in 1984 to move the event from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas, said before the 2010 event, “The main reason that I moved it (to Las Vegas), and why I would recommend that we leave it here, is when people come here, the rodeo is the main attraction, but they want to be entertained. If they are tough enough to be here for three days, they want to leave satisfied that they were entertained. I don’t know if any other city can provide that.”

A total of 21 hotels are official sponsors of the NFR, and each has some variety of rodeo-related activity during the week. Each year, in what was previously a notoriously soft period for tourism in Vegas, the city turns into a sea of hats during the NFR’s stay.

“It seems like we control the city for those 10 days,” Stressman says. “We’ve used the (Brooks & Dunn) song ‘Cowboy Town’ as our official song, and Vegas still is a cowboy town. It still has a cowboy flavor, and I think we’re the cause for a lot of that.”

Photo: Bareback rider Clint Cannon hangs on to Joy Ride during the last night of the National Finals Rodeo on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun