NFR’s Departure Would Leave a Big Hole, But Nature Abhors a Vacuum

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On Sunday, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association board, in a 6-3 vote, chose to say goodbye to Las Vegas after 29 years of the National Finals Rodeo being a December mainstay for the city. The group is pursuing an offer made by Osceola County, Florida, located south of Orlando.

If the NFR does leave town after next year’s event, it will leave a steer-size gap in Las Vegas’ tourism calendar. More than 45,000 people travel here for the NFR each year; each of those people needs a place to stay, food to eat and something to do while they’re not at the Thomas & Mack Center. Estimates of the total non-gaming economic impact of NFR are typically in the $60 million range.

What do these numbers mean? Comparing the number of visitors with the total number of hotel rooms yields the insight that, at its peak, rodeo guests occupy about 15 percent of Las Vegas’ rooms. With December being such a challenging month for hotels, losing that 15 percent would be terrible. Of course, the casinos would remain open, but it’s likely that workers would have their hours reduced considerably, and those reliant on tip income would see their take-home pay fall. This would suck much-needed dollars out of the city’s retail ecosystem during the peak holiday shopping season, so even businesses that have nothing to do with the Strip have something to fear.

Which is why the news release sent out by Las Vegas Events, the company that produces the NFR, is instructive.

The first point it makes, that the increase in ticket prices required by the move to Osceola, is “not sustainable,” is a shot across Orlando’s bow, beginning the argument that Florida will be more expensive for visitors. It makes sense; a stroll through the parking lots of UNLV and casinos while the rodeo is in town show plenty of vehicles from the Western U.S. A trip to Florida will be longer and costlier for many of these rodeo participants and fans, and that is even before getting to town. Once there, they will have to fight for hotel rooms with tourists who want to see Walt Disney World pleasantly bedecked with Christmas decorations.

Will the NFR be the “big game” in Central Florida that it is in Southern Nevada? Maybe, but it’s unlikely that the new host will offer a more accessible—in terms of both price and convenience—experience for rodeo fans. The three decades of buy-in of local hotels have smoothed off most of the rough edges for the rodeo—by necessity, there will be a great deal of reinvention in Florida, which will be time-consuming, inconvenient and likely costly.

Which is why Las Vegas Events didn’t wait long to drop the second shoe: It is moving ahead full bore with plans to begin its own “Series and Finals” that will culminate in a new December event that will continue, apparently in all but name, the excitement (and economic boon) that NFR has long brought to Las Vegas. There’s simply too much at stake to let the rodeo go.

By the same token, the combined weight of familiarity, convenience, geography and economics will make Las Vegas an appealing destination for rodeo participants and fans should LVE’s new series come off as planned. Wherever the PCRA hangs it hat in 2015, it’s likely that plenty of cowboys will still be calling Las Vegas home in early December.