Las Vegas has long been known as a town built on odds. Then again, it’s also been known to buck them from time to time – as when it lured the National Finals Rodeo from Oklahoma City more than 30 years ago.
Still, it almost didn’t happen.
Perhaps it’s best to say that the process began in 1983, with the formation of Las Vegas Events, a group founded to attract and present events in order to draw tourists to Southern Nevada – essentially, to complement the efforts of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
From the beginning, Las Vegas visionary Benny Binion, along with Las Vegas Events and its then-president, Herb McDonald, had an eye on bringing the NFR to Las Vegas. But Oklahoma City, which had hosted the event for 20 years, was not about to let it go without a fight. It helped that McDonald and LVE guaranteed the rodeo a prize fund of $1.8 million to the cowboys and $700,000 to the contractors – compared to the $900,000 and $200,000, respectively, that was paid in Oklahoma City in 1984.
In December of 1984, McDonald and the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce each made their final pitches to the PRCA Board of Directors. The vote was a 6-6 tie. Thus it was left to then-PRCA president Shawn Davis, a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, to cast the deciding vote. He cast it for Las Vegas.
The NFR’s move to Las Vegas in 1985 helped take the event to another level. In the meantime, Las Vegas itself was about to go to another level – to enter a new era of megaresorts. In just a few years, The Mirage and Excalibur would open, followed a few years later by the MGM, Luxor and Treasure Island.
There was no doubt that, with the National Finals Rodeo, Las Vegas had hit the jackpot. For years, December had been a soft month for the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” a time that hotel operators endured with an eye toward a big buildup on New Year’s Eve.
The rodeo changed all that. It infused new electricity in a city famous for it, and at the same time reacquainted Las Vegas with its Western roots. For many years, beginning in 1936, one of the biggest events of the year in Southern Nevada was the annual Elks Helldorado, a celebration that featured a rodeo, carnival and parade that once rivaled the pageantry of the renowned Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California.
For a couple of weeks each December, the NFR blissfully transforms the look and feel of the entire city. Thousands of men and women decked out in jeans, boots and hats fill hotels, casinos, restaurants, shopping malls and showrooms. Hotel marquees are splashed with the names of the brightest stars in country and western music. The Cowboy Christmas Gift Show held during the rodeo attracts tens of thousands of people in its own right.
Rodeo fans certainly live life to the fullest, and they can do just that in Las Vegas. The NFR’s economic impact on Southern Nevada’s economy has been enormous. In fact, since 1985, the NFR has had a non-gaming economic impact of more than $1.9 billion.
In 2019, the NFR celebrated its 35th anniversary in Las Vegas and continues to be one of Las Vegas' most important special events.
It just goes to prove: To win big, sometimes you just have to buck the odds.
Claim to Fame: The NFR has sold out more than 340 consecutive performances.