By ALAN SNEL
Before T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights and the Raiders took root in Las Vegas, there were other big-league sports such as NASCAR, the PGA and the Super Bowl of rodeos — the National Finals Rodeo.
I was always fascinated by the NFR, because it was Las Vegas at its most authentic historical core.
That is, tough-as-nails cowboys kicked up dirt in the community’s first large sports venue on the UNLV campus and what is referred to as America’s “western lifestyle community” descended on Vegas year after year for NFR. It’s Las Vegas as its real cow town, non-showtime roots and Sin City is darn proud to serve as host.
But now an era is ending with the NFR because the man who was the business driving force behind its sanctioning body is hanging up his boots at the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) in Colorado Springs.
PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman said he will retire at the end of this calendar year, but not before he lords over a tenth National Finals Rodeo at Thomas & Mack Center. He was a key player in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys snagging a 10-year, $175 million deal for the NFR to stay in Las Vegas through 2024.
Stressman’s deal-making with Las Vegas Events — the local promoter here in Vegas — did not come easy because the PRCA and Stressman were also talking with Osceola County, Fla. officials outside Orlando and even Dallas as contenders to host the coveted NFR.
“I made as many people mad in Vegas as I could,” Stressman half-joked, when looking back on those heated talks with Las Vegas Events. “This will be my tenth NFR in Vegas. It’s long enough.”
LVSportsBiz.com caught up with the 66-year-old Stressman at his PRCA office in Colorado Springs today. He recalled those negotiations with Las Vegas were among the most difficult deals he had to cut during his tenure.
“It was serious negotiations. It wasn’t a million-dollar deal. It was a $175 million deal. They were difficult times that took a lot of time and took a lot of energy. Those negotiations changed from week to week,” Stressman told LVSportsBiz.com
“It was certainly the most difficult of my nine plus years. Those are long-time friendships that made for strained relationships because it’s about money and the future of the NFR and PRCA,” Stressman said.
Stressman’s last day on the job will be Dec. 31 after starting in September 2008. Stressman said he will eventually sell his Colorado Springs home and return to a house he has in the Scottsdale, Arizona area.
Stressman grew up in Tucson and fell in the love with the rodeo life as a kid growing up there.
The PRCA’s nine-member board of directors will choose Stressman’s successor. At least seven of the nine members must approve the new hire. The PRCA board will likely discuss the topic of replacing Stressman at its meetings Monday and Tuesday next week.
Stressman said he’s not quite sure what he will do as a retired cowboy, who is a former amateur team roper and Wrangler Jeans employee.
As sports commissioners go, Stressman’s profile may not be as large as former NBA boss David Stern or as omnipresent as NFL Commish Roger Goodell.
But he has a lot to do with the economic livelihood of Las Vegas’ casino-hotels every December, when the cowboys and that western lifestyle crowd pack Vegas’ hotels in mid-December during the historically slow time for the local hospitality industry.
It was only a few years ago when Stressman’s name was probably uttered with a few unpleasantries thrown in there when the professional cowboys group was negotiating that deal with Las Vegas Events, the LVCVA’s event-organizing arm.
In late 2013, Stressman was using other hot-to-trot NFR host communities such as Osceola County in central Florida as leverage to negotiate that 10-year NFR deal with Las Vegas Events.
It resulted in a major dustup between Stressman’s cowboys group and Las Vegas Events. But in the end, Las Vegas Events kicked in more money for the cowboys and the NFR stayed in Vegas with an agreement signed by both parties to stage the annual event at Thomas & Mack.
“It has been an amazing run, but certainly not without a few battle scars,” Stressman mentioned.
Contact LVSportsBiz.com founder/writer Alan Snel at asnel@LVSportsBiz.com