The busiest people at Strip hotels and casinos in early December 20 years ago weren't dealers, bartenders or valet parking attendants.
Among the few who put in long hours were maintenance workers.
It was the time of year when traffic into those venues was so slow the pre-holiday lull afforded opportunities to paint and change carpeting without disrupting business.
"You'd roll up the streets around here," said Michael Gaughan, chief executive of Coast Resorts. "You'd furlough your employees. You'd half close down the joints. You'd change the carpets, paint the walls and do your annual maintenance for those three weeks."
That all changed in 1985, when Las Vegas began hosting the 10-day National Finals Rodeo, which opened Friday. The event is in its 20th year at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Today, it's a bevy of cowboys and cowgirls in their boots, hats and jeans, along with thousands of others with a passion for one of America's oldest sports, who put considerable jingle in the britches of workers on casino row.
Through 19 National Finals in Las Vegas, 3.1 million people have paid to attend, including around 687,000 visitors who have made an estimated $507 million in economic impact on the area, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Only a few casinos were prepared for the crowd that visited town for the first NFR.
Rick Rosen, 51, was a dealer at the Silver Slipper in 1985, but grew up near Pueblo, Colo., where he was a rodeo fan. He knew what was riding in on the horizon.
"December was always a very slow month for gambling, so slow that the Slipper and most of the casinos had a policy that you could get off from the day after Thanksgiving until the day after Christmas," said Rosen, who had a sports talk radio show at the time.
"Sure enough, when the Finals came to town, we were doing double shifts and we had pit bosses dealing blackjack. We didn't have enough people," he said.
"Everybody got taken by surprise. The next year, they were prepared."
That first year, 140,000 attended 10 NFR performances over nine days. It became a sellout after the first four years and has sold out every year since.
Economic impact has nearly tripled from the first year, when the LVCVA reported $14 million in added nongaming revenue from the nine-day event, which expanded to 10 days in 1990.
Last year's rodeo set records for single-day (18,104) and 10-day (175,903) attendance. This year's event has been sold out for nearly a year.
And those figures don't account for what many in the resort industry estimate are another 50,000 people who converge on the area to be part of the event but don't attend the rodeo.
The current contract between Las Vegas Events and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association runs through 2009, and talks are under way to extend the agreement through 2014.
The LVE was created in 1983 as a private, nonprofit entity funded by annual grants from the LVCVA to bring in events to aid tourism.
The PRCA is the largest rodeo organization in the world with some 7,500 members who participate in nearly 700 rodeos from the NFR to small-town events across the United States.
The NFR also was highly successful in Oklahoma City, where it was held for 20 years before big money lured it to Las Vegas.
The NFR is enjoying its 20th year in the city because the late Benny Binion convinced LVE officials that it was worth committing $1.79 million for prize money. Binion believed that would be enough to convince the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which owns the event, to head west to the Thomas & Mack Center, which opened the previous year.
"Benny decided he wanted the rodeo here," said Gaughan, a longtime LVE board member and former chairman. "He had a great deal of foresight, and he was a cowboy. Getting the (NFR) here was the biggest thing he ever did that everyone profited from. It's the best thing he ever did for this town."
Binion, who died of heart failure on Christmas Day 1989, had an infamous background from his days as a bootlegger and illegal casino operator around Dallas, where he was convicted in 1931 of murdering a fellow bootlegger but received a two-year suspended sentence because of the deceased's bad reputation.
After moving to Las Vegas, he opened Binion's Horseshoe on Fremont Street in 1951. The Horseshoe became one of the biggest supporters of the Finals until this year when the name "Binion" will exist only in memories.
After racking up considerable debt, the Horseshoe was sold earlier this year to MTR Gaming Group and is being managed by Harrah's. The sale ended the Horseshoe's 19-year run of paying each contestant's entry fee, estimated to total about $24,000 for the 120 NFR qualifiers.
Though it was Binion's business acumen that helped transform the Strip and downtown from an early winter ghost town to a 10-day moneymaking festival, his checkered past and somewhat questionable reputation among some in the casino industry led many in Oklahoma City to suspect corruption when Las Vegas representatives began work on taking away their biggest event.
According to some in the rodeo industry, the PRCA was nearly broke when Las Vegas made an offer it couldn't refuse.
Getting the PRCA to move the NFR to Las Vegas turned into a bidding war, and Oklahoma City couldn't match Herb McDonald, the first president of LVE, and his Las Vegas bankroll.
"I suckered" them, McDonald said of the other delegation during a 2001 interview. He died in 2002 at 83.
McDonald, former president of the Sahara and other Del Webb-owned hotels, was the first to make a presentation to the PRCA board at a meeting held during a snowstorm on Dec. 12, 1984, in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the PRCA is based.
The Oklahoma committee paid $901,550 to contestants in the 1984 Finals. McDonald offered the $1.79 million.
Stock contractors earned about $200,000 in Oklahoma City. Las Vegas offered nearly four times that amount.
Las Vegas offered free rooms for NFR contestants, officials and workers, totaling about 2,000 room nights. That contrasted with what NFR participants were accustomed to in Oklahoma City, where hotels were known to jack up room rates and increase restaurant prices.
The final bid from the Oklahoma group was only $50,000 less than Las Vegas' bid.
McDonald, however, revealed his ace in the hole.
"I told them I had to change our proposal," he said. "They thought we were going to lower our offer, but instead I said I'd increase our purse each year. They couldn't believe it."
McDonald recalled that then-Gov. Richard Bryan was in Denver on other business but rented a car and made the 90-mile trip to Colorado Springs in the snow because he heard the Oklahoma governor was going to attend the PRCA meeting.
A straw vote early in the presentations had the members of the PRCA board overwhelmingly opposing the move. When the sales pitches were completed and the final vote was taken, the board voted 6-6.
Shawn Davis, a four-time saddle bronc world champion and then-PRCA president, cast the tie-breaking vote to relocate the NFR in Las Vegas.
"Oklahoma City had done a lot to make the Finals happen, but I had to look at it from a business standpoint," said Davis, who won his four championships in Oklahoma City. "Las Vegas was more capable of doing that than any other city we'd been approached by."
Although influence of organized crime in the casino industry was virtually nonexistent by 1984, it didn't stop some opposing the move from alleging that mob money influenced the vote.
Davis was the main target of the accusations because his vote ended the rodeo's run in Oklahoma and he had known Binion for several years.
Davis, who is in his 20th year as the NFR's general manager, recalls FBI agents searching his and other NFR officials' rooms during the last Oklahoma NFR.
"They said we were cohorting with Benny Binion," Davis said. "I caught all kinds of grief.
"There are still accusations that I was influenced financially, and that was absolutely untrue," said Davis, who has attended every NFR since the inaugural event in 1959, either as a contestant, official or administrator.
Clem McSpadden, a longtime Oklahoma legislator and rodeo announcer who was instrumental in getting the PRCA to move the Finals to Oklahoma City from Los Angeles in 1965, said he heard the rumors, too.
"There was some talk, but nothing I could ever prove or tried to pursue," he said.
While the move from Oklahoma City saddened those in the city who had developed it into a sellout for 15 years, the shift to Las Vegas was soon accepted by most, even McSpadden.
In the past
"We raised the child and got it healthy," said McSpadden, 79, who continues to announce rodeos part time and has held box seats every year the rodeo has been at the Thomas & Mack.
The first NFR was held in 1959 at the Dallas State Fairgrounds, where McSpadden said it enjoyed a successful three-year run. The rodeo moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum from 1962 through 1964, where it didn't fare as well, especially in 1963, when it was held on the weekend after President Kennedy's assassination.
"You could have shot guns off in the Coliseum and not hit anyone," he said.
The NFR was created in 1959 with a plan of holding it in one city for three years before moving to another.
"They wanted to use the Finals to spread rodeo around," McSpadden said.
After returning to Los Angeles in 1964, the NFR moved to Oklahoma City, where it remained for 20 years.
Darrell Barron, 52, has been a marketing director for one of rodeo's major sponsors, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, for nearly 28 years and the "chute boss" at the NFR since 1982. Even though the rangy Texan felt a kinship to his neighboring state, Barron felt the decision to move to Las Vegas was a wise one.
"Oklahoma City was the first place (the PRCA) found a home where they had success," Barron said. "They worked very hard in Oklahoma City in putting the National Finals Rodeo on somewhat of a worldwide map where people realized what a spectacular event it was and that it was a culmination of a year's competition."
However, if McSpadden, NFR general manager from 1967-84, and other Oklahoma City power brokers had had their way, the rodeo wouldn't have left.
"It was disappointing to see it go, but you live in a practical world and many of the cowboys, especially the young ones, were ready for a move. The older ones might have thought a little different. They'd seen how it grew here."
Though no one could have foreseen the population boom Las Vegas would experience in the 1990s, even Las Vegas of the mid-1980s was perceived as fertile ground for rodeo.
"We were going from a pretty much rural city to Las Vegas, where we could really make the sport known worldwide," Barron said. "Some people resist change, but this was the right thing to do for the rodeo industry."