National Finals Rodeo may move to Florida in 2015

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By MICHELLE RINDELS, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The National Finals Rodeo is planning to leave Las Vegas for Florida after 29 years, depriving Sin City of an event that ropes in nearly $100 million for the local economy as thousands of cowboys and rodeo fans descend on the city each December.

News of the tentative deal drew groans from Las Vegas' powerful hotel and restaurant workers union and others who benefit from the 10-day event, which takes place in the city's tourism slow season. Tourism officials vowed to launch a competing rodeo.

"We are disappointed that the PRCA has chosen to pursue a completely speculative offer versus Las Vegas' proven 29-year track record," Michael Mack, spokesman for Las Vegas Events, said in a statement. "Now that we know the PRCA's true intentions, we will put our full effort into developing a new series and finals."

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association board voted 6-3 Sunday to turn down Sin City's offer in favor of an agreement with Florida's Osceola County, south of Orlando.

Osceola County commissioners voted 5-0 Sunday to accept a memorandum of understanding that allows 90 days to close the deal. The plan calls for the 2015 event to be held at the nearby Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic; county officials vowed to have a new, 24,000-seat arena ready for the event by the fall of 2016.

The deal also would include $16 million annually for the rodeo association's prize money and administrative costs, as well as revenue sharing.

"I say we've put together the best incentive package for the PRCA," said Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins Jr., who added that he's not ruling out other contender cities just yet. "We have all the venues here to do exactly what the NFR does in Vegas."

The 300,000-person county, home to a rodeo once considered the largest east of the Mississippi, offered about $4 million more than Las Vegas.

"Adding an additional $4 million to the budget would require a 40 percent increase in ticket prices," Mack said. "That is not sustainable. We have to balance the demands of the PRCA with the consequence of pricing our fans out of the market."

The National Finals Rodeo has been an economic boon for Las Vegas, drawing almost 53,000 out-of-town visitors in 2012, according to figures compiled by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau. That was up from about 45,000 in 2011.

More than 175,000 tickets were sold in 2012 for 10-day event at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the overall economic impact on hotel rooms, restaurants and other expenses was estimated at nearly $93 million, authority spokeswoman Dawn Christensen said.

Figures for the 2013 event, which ended Saturday, weren't immediately available.

The event is a big draw for locals and out-of-towners alike, with country music concerts and rodeo-watching parties held at casinos all over town. Ads on taxis welcome the NFR, while hundreds of vendors pack the Las Vegas Convention Center for a giant Cowboy Fanfest and the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show.

"Without question, the economy and Vegas workers will feel the negative impact of losing thousands of rodeo tourists," said Yvanna Cancela, spokeswoman for the large Culinary Union.

Some fans, including Felicia Moore of Naylor, Mo., spoke out against the potential move. Las Vegas is convenient for western cowboys, has hotels close to the arena, and is a better cultural fit, she said.

"I think it fits more — rodeo is a gamble," said Moore, 15, who watched this year's event on TV.

Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who makes some of his public appearances on horseback, took his disapproval to Twitter.

"Extremely disappointed that the #WranglerNFR is leaving the @CityOfLasVegas," he tweeted Monday.

Rodeo officials emphasized the decision is not yet final.

"The PRCA Board did not vote to leave Las Vegas; the vote was made strictly on the content of the current offer," association commissioner Karl Stressman said in a statement, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The PRCA continues to carefully consider offers from all potential WNFR hosts."

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Associated Press writer Ken Ritter contributed to this report.

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