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July 28, 2014

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Kats Goes Cowboy: To Michael Gaughan, NFR is a can’t-miss event

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John Katsilometes

Michael Gaughan: Big hat, lotta cattle.

Entering this year’s National Finals Rodeo, a total of 250 sessions -- or nights of rodeo action -- have been staged at the Thomas & Mack since 1985.

Of those events, Michael Gaughan has missed only six, which is coincidentally the number of bullets that fit in the chamber of a Colt .45.

“I am there, always, at the NFR,” he says. “You can find me there every night.”

In rodeo terms, Gaughan is the NFR’s head honcho among Las Vegas resort executives. His legendary family, led by resort trailblazer Jackie Gaughan, helped shape the Las Vegas we know today. Gaughan also is owner of South Point, which is the busiest of Vegas hotels during the full run of the NFR from Thursday through Dec. 11 at the Thomas & Mack.

Though the rodeo itself is days away, it formally started today with a meeting of the NFR Committee at South Point, where Gaughan says about half of the NFR’s ancillary events will be held (go to VegasCowboyCentral.com for information).

Among those on hand during the hourlong session were officials from the NFR (including General Manager Shawn Davis), Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (including Chairman Karl Stressman) and Las Vegas Events (including President Pat Christenson, board member and County Commissioner Tom Collins and board member and security chief Bill Young). Also taking part were stock contractors and officials charged with staging the NFR’s specific riding and timed events and the barrel racing competition.

Gaughan felt right at home. While some of us don the cowboy garb seasonally to get into the rodeo spirit, Gaughan wears the hat (metaphorically speaking, mostly) year-round.

“I remember when Las Vegas was a wild west town,” he says, seated at a folding conference table after the meeting. “It’s been a long time, though. Las Vegas was a wild west town in the 1940s and ’50s. It hasn’t been a wild west town since before 1960.”

Naturally, the rodeo has blossomed into one of the city’s most important citywide events since it was moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas for the 1985 event.

“In terms of total hotel rooms, it accounts for 5,000 to 6,000 rooms per night, which is not a lot in Las Vegas, but it has been really important in drawing interest in the city and creating business around town,” he says. “I remember 15 to 20 years ago, when the (Las Vegas) Hilton wasn’t even a (sponsorship) partner in the NFR, and they saw a huge increase in business from people who were in town for the rodeo. So they started putting country acts in the theater there, so it looked like they were actually part of the event.”

The business at South Point spikes in December, too, though Gaughan says, “We had a good news, bad news thing last year,” he says. “December was our best month. That’s the good news. But the bad news is December is never supposed to be your best month.”

Gaughan, who was born in Omaha, is well-versed in the whole of rodeo culture. He says that crucial to the success of the NFR in Las Vegas is the quick pace of the event. To make a comparison -- one that at first blush might seem slightly preposterous -- the NFR in Las Vegas is akin to “Phantom -- the Las Vegas Spectacular.” The original version is a lot of fun but fairly bloated; the Vegas version scoots right along.

“When I first saw the NFR in Las Vegas, I was impressed with the pacing,” Gaughan says. “It really moves fast, 2 hours, which is pretty quick for a full rodeo.” It’s not uncommon for some single rodeo nights to stray past 3 hours, with cowboy-hatted fans nearly dropping off from fatigue.

Another difference, says Gaughan, is that cowboys across the country have a better chance today to work with the best stock in the country (“stock” is the term for the equine and bovine participants in rodeo). “In the old days, you might see only two good rides a night,” says Gaughan, noting that contestants usually rode the best horses and bulls only at the NFR and were thus overmatched in competition. “But today, there is a better balance, more good rides, and that’s better for the fans.”

Gaughan’s favorite sport is saddle bronc, in part because among the half-dozen horses he owns, one is an NFR saddle bronc ride. Or, will be, if it recovers from some mysterious and ill-timed sickness it fell victim to last week.

Fortunately, the NFR in Las Vegas is in better health than Gaughan’s horse.

“We used to have three bad weeks in Las Vegas, in December,” Gaughan says. “Now we have just one, and that’s because of the success of the NFR.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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