Wrangler National Finals Rodeo has taken over a big chunk of Las Vegas, and that’s a much-needed sign of normalcy.
It’s been a tough year for Las Vegas. The 1 October shooting, while its long-term impacts are not yet known, did not improve conditions for the city’s dominant tourist industry. The future looks slightly less certain in December than it did in August, which is why the return of the cowboys is so cheering.
NFR is an old friend. The rodeo has been a December fixture since 1985. Its very existence in a city then better known for lounge singers and green felt than bronco busting is a testament to the pragmatic spirit that has always guided Las Vegas gaming and tourism. December was a bad month for casinos, so Sam Boyd led a group to lure the big rodeo from Oklahoma City. Las Vegas had plenty of empty rooms, and NFR has tens of thousands of fans who needed rooms.
It might have initially been a marriage of convenience, but over the years Las Vegas and the cowboys (and cowgirls) have struck up a genuine romance. The annual year-end boots and belts makeover has become an anticipated end-of-year rite. Las Vegas itself was never a cowtown, though the Helldorado rodeo, starting in 1934, gives the sport some claim on the city’s past. Like NFR, Helldorado was born out of Las Vegas necessity: With work on Hoover Dam cycling down and the Great Depression throttling nongovernment investment, the city needed something, anything, to get the tourists in town. In those pre-Strip days, a four-day rodeo festival, complete with a parade, was as good a ticket as anyone could imagine.
That’s why there is both love and logic in the idea of Las Vegas cowboys, even though the city’s roots lie more in prospecting than range-riding if we’re being romantic, and even more closely with railroading if we’re being honest. Which is ironic in the historical sense, since the railroad helped to end the age of the cowboy in the American West, and railroads are usually the enemy (or allied with hostile forces) in classic cowboy westerns.
NFR’s spread is impressive. In addition to the actual 10-day competition at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, there are satellite viewing parties at casinos around town. That’s in addition to the after-parties and a full roster of country entertainment at casinos around town. The Cowboy Christmas show takes over the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls, with the satellite Cowboy Christmas Too upstairs. The Cowboy Fan Fest is the official NFR music and lifestyle event, with rodeo competitions and poetry readings, along with autograph signings and interactive booths.
And if the addition of Cowboy Christmas Too didn’t reveal the prodigious need for rodeo-related shopping, the appearance of the Cowboy Marketplace Gift Show (Mandalay Bay), South Point Western Gift Show (South Point) and Country Christmas (Sands Expo Center) must.
It takes some doing to wrap one’s head around the proliferation of cowboy-themed shopping expos. There are enough vendors who make enough sales to buy space—which is rarely cheap—and turn a profit.
This year, the sight of all those merchandise-stocked booths is a particularly poignant one for Las Vegas. The deadly shooting at Route 91 Harvest Festival on October 1 is the worst tragedy to strike the tourism industry since the 1980 MGM Grand fire. While November’s Rock ’N’ Roll Las Vegas marathon was the first major event since the shooting and a sign that the city would continue, it isn’t the same as NFR. Though it actually closes the Strip and its 30,000 runners couldn’t fit into the Thomas & Mack, it isn’t the same all-encompassing presence that NFR is.
And, it seems almost too obvious to point out, the entertainment at NFR is, like the music at Route 91, country through and through. While the tragedy was felt by the entire community of Las Vegas and Las Vegas lovers, it happened at a country-music concert.
The gunman stopped the music that night, but this December, stages all over the city echo with the sounds of country again.
After the shooting, the organizers of Route 91 replaced the festival’s website with a simple expression of sympathy for the fallen and gratitude for those who rendered aid. “We WILL persevere and honor the souls that were lost. Because it matters,” concluded Route 91’s Brian O’Connell.
How do we properly honor the dead? That’s a question too difficult for me to answer for you, and regardless, everyone must find their own way. But as I see it, watching Las Vegas welcome back NFR is one small sign that we are on the right track.