By ALAN SNEL
Dressed in jeans and a ball cap in the MGM Grand lobby, the 67-year-old man with the lengthy mustache could have been mistaken for a truck driver or a stock contractor since the National Finals Rodeo begins its 10-day annual run at Thomas & Mack Center Thursday.
But this was no NFR grunt worker strolling to MGM’s iconic lobby lion, which was decorated with a big ol’ cowboy hat.
The angular-built man in jeans and cowboy boots was none other than Karl Stressman, the retiring chief executive of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which sanctions 650 rodeos a year, including the multi-day Super Bowl of them all — the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas Dec. 7-16.
It’s Stressman’s tenth and final NFR as PRCA commissioner, and there’s a certain relaxed feel to the man this year. Stressman’s strength is his diplomatic ability to balance the agendas of cowboy contestants, stock contractors, rodeo support staff such as announcers and the rodeo committees.
It’s not an easy job. Sometimes, Stressman has to even deal with the differences among the cowboys because they’re split into seven categories of competition. It’s not like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dealing with a monolithic players association. In Stressman’s case, he’s working with seven sub-groups of contestants, from the team ropers and steer wrestlers to the bronc and bull riders.
“It’s agenda driven. There are so many moving parts. It’s hard to coordinate everybody’s interests,” said Stressman, as he led a writer to his MGM Grand Skylofts suite Wednesday afternoon. “You lose friendships, but that’s the nature of the beast.”
But it’s a job that will be over soon. The gig ends Dec. 31.
Stressman, wearing a ball cap bearing the Cactus Ropes Texas logo, leaned back on a sofa as his more than half-dozen cowboy hats in varying colors from black to tan sat upside-down on a suite window ledge. He’s proud the rodeo cowboy organization has grown into a $25 million-a-year association that has seen the number of sanctioned rodeos grow from 565 to 650 during his decade-long tenure. He noted 750,000 TV viewers watched the CBS Sports telecasts of NFR last year.
Stressman sold his house in Colorado Springs a week ago, and he and his wife have set up shop in a spread north of Phoenix in his native Arizona. He grew up in Tucson, where he loved the rodeo and still is a recreational team roper.
The former Wrangler jeans marketing executive said the 10-day NFR event is sold out again and the 16,300-seat Thomas & Mack will be filled with the country’s most loyal rodeo fans. The average ticket is $90 and PRCA is partnering with Las Vegas Events, the event organizer arm of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA).
Stressman is leaving the job on friendly terms with Las Vegas Events leaders and Las Vegas’ Mr. Rodeo himself, Michael Gaughan, after negotiations turned hot and bitter in 2013 when Stressman and Las Vegas went toe-to-toe on renewing a deal for NFR to continue in Sin City.
Stressman was also negotiating with Osceola County, Fla. officials in the Orlando area and rodeo leaders in Dallas about hosting the coveted NFR in those markets. But in the end, Las Vegas Events and the PRCA reached a 10-year, $175 million agreement for the rodeo to stay at Thomas & Mack through 2024.
“It was strategic and a battle of wits,” Stressman recalled of the intense NFR negotiations. “Those kind of things should be difficult. In the end, everybody got what they wanted.”
The allure of NFR for Las Vegas is that it comes to town during a slow hospitality industry stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy.
And the event itself has remained rather ageless at Thomas & Mack, where the 120 contestants vie for gold buckles during nightly two-hour sessions that are run efficiently and smoothly.
While the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) attracts a younger demographic at T-Mobile Arena for its world championship event and is owned by entertainment powerhouse WME/IMG, the National Finals Rodeo brings an older Western lifestyle crowd that continues to drink Coors beer, wear Justin Boots and dons Wrangler jeans year after year after year.
The PRCA’s biggest tech move was to develop a ProRodeo TV Mobile App in September to stream rodeo content on a subscription basis for about $8 a month, Stressman said. “That’s our next big revenue source,” he said. It’s kind of like UFC’s monthly subscription Fight Pass.
Stressman said he has purposely stayed outside the process of the PRCA’s nine-member board picking his successor. A search agency was hired to help find a new commissioner and a PRCA board sub-committee has monitored the candidates, Stressman said.
“The new CEO should have a clean slate working with the board of directors,” Stressman said. “This has to be their person.”
This might be Stressman’s final NFR as commissioner, but he said he looks forward to returning as a rodeo fan. He has three horses in his stable and plans to do some recreational team roping.
And his final bit of advice for the PRCA board is to pick a new commissioner “for the entire professional rodeo and not just one group.”
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