11/07/2003 1:00AM

Bull riders lasso the hip crowd


There used to be a time in Las Vegas when the town was thin in activity and bodies from early November through Thanksgiving and Christmas - so much so that many of the Strip's showrooms took the holidays off and closed down. Hotel rooms were a dime a dozen, and those who came at that time of year paid just about as much for them.

Of course that was when you could drive from one end of town to the other in seven minutes. Not anymore.

Now, Las Vegas is vibrant through the holiday season.

The turning point for keeping Las Vegas hopping during the holiday season was the acquisition of the National Finals Rodeo, the Breeders' Cup of the professional cowboy circuit. The NFR relocated here from Oklahoma City in 1985 and the town has never been the same. Rolling into town early December, the NFR brings needed holiday cheer, and bodies, to that sleepy time on the Las Vegas calendar. The two-week cowboy confab fills the city with folks from America's heartland who are ready to spend and party.

And now another cowboy convention has rolled into town.

The Professional Bull Riders tour rolled into town Thursday with approximately 67,000 fans in town. The new PBR event, which runs through Sunday, filled host property Mandalay Bay and sister properties Excalibur and Luxor to their 13,000-room brim. The PBR tour is expected to get bigger in the coming years.

Randy Bernard, the PBR's chief executive officer, will be the first to tell you the PBR is as different from the NFR as Formula One racing is to NASCAR.

And, he says, there is plenty of room in Las Vegas for both. A 36-year-old Californian, Bernard believes the PBR attracts a younger, more hip audience. A quick look at those in the arena during a PBR event would confirm that, Bernard said.

"You'll see a lot of ball caps with their fan's favorite cowboy on it," Bernard said. "[That is] unlike NFR, where almost everyone wears a cowboy hat."

Bernard suggests that bull riding appeals to the younger audience because it is the ultimate extreme sport. That demographic is not lost on television networks, either. PBR events have been televised on NBC, Telemundo, and the Outdoor Life Network. The PBR is a 10-year-old tour that yields more than $34 million in annual revenue and has more than 100 million televisions viewers.

PBR fans are well heeled, too. According to a report in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 46 percent of PBR fans report household income of $50,000 per year, and over 11 percent said they earn more than $100,000 yearly. While the 45 cowboy finalists compete in the Ford Tough Series World Finals at Mandalay Bay over this weekend, there will be plenty to do for their fans.

Along with the usual Las Vegas amenities, related events include shows from the International Chili Society and the Kansas City BBQ Society. The Western Gift Expo is expected to draw more than 80,000 people - ready to shop, no doubt.

Next year, Bernard said, the finals will begin on Oct. 22. It will run for three days at the 11,000-seat Mandalay Bay event center, break for a few days, and wrap up for four days at Thomas & Mack arena. The weekdays between the two go-rounds will be filled with related events such as country music concerts.

Down time in Las Vegas? Not any more.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.