No longer a symbol of frugality, BYU faithful showing up in droves and spending lots of cash in an unlikely destination for LDS visitors
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LAS VEGAS - Decked out in his BYU T-shirt, jacket and cap, Mark Dickson of Morgan tilted his head one way and then the other to get a better look at the bands, cheerleaders and football players from BYU and Oregon during Tuesday night's Las Vegas Bowl pep rally on Fremont Street.
He lifted his similarly clad sons - except for 10-year-old Dallin, a self-professed Utah fan - above his shoulders so they could soak in the experience as his wife described the goings-on to the others.
About 30 feet to Dickson's left, alcohol flowed freely at the Golden Nugget Casino, where the team and hundreds of BYU fans are staying this week, around the usual assortment of slot machines, craps tables and roulette wheels. Just over the BYU cheerleaders' heads, Dickson could plainly see, if he wanted to, a sign that screamed "Topless Girls of Glitter Gulch," though the famous strip club is, ahem, closed this week for renovation.
You got a problem with this?
"Not at all," said Dickson, like most BYU fans, a member of the LDS Church, which shuns alcohol and gambling and owns BYU. "My belief is that people from Utah tend to take themselves too seriously when it comes to Las Vegas. We love coming here."
The father of three is not alone, judging by the number of BYU fans expected to be part of the biggest crowd to watch a football game in Nevada history tonight at Sam Boyd Stadium when the 10-2 Cougars meet the 7-5 Ducks. Nearly 45,000 tickets, well past a sell-out, have been sold, according to Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the game's executive director. She estimates that between 36,000-38,000 of those seats were sold to BYU fans, many of whom were here last year when the Cougars lost 35-28 to California.
"They come in droves, and they really seem to have a good time," Kunzer-Murphy said. "BYU does present an interesting aura, but Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world, and there's something here for everyone."
Another BYU fan at Tuesday's pep rally, Dean Wright of Provo, said he had "no qualms whatsoever" with coming to Las Vegas and vowed after last year's trip to make it an annual tradition.
"We have our own standards, but we are not here to put our standards on anyone," he said, noting that he and his wife were going to spend their spare time Christmas shopping and eating at fine restaurants. "There are a lot of good people here."
People say Mormons spend as much money here as anyone else.
Kevin Bagger, director of internet marketing and research for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said last year's bowl game pumped $11.2 million into the local economy, and more is expected this year. Last year, fans stayed an average of two nights each and spent an average of $375.
Tracking what Mormons alone spend is impossible, he said, but he noted he has never heard hotel and casino owners complain about their supposed thriftiness, either.
Of course, former BYU coach LaVell Edwards fueled that notion more than 20 years ago when he noted that BYU fans bring the Ten Commandments and a $50 bill to bowl games and break neither.
But Jeremy Aguero, principal analyst for Applied Analysis Inc., a consultation firm catering to the tourism industry, said "that's a pretty myopic view of what goes on now" when Mormons hit the Strip.
"Do BYU fans tend to utilize more of one aspect of Las Vegas' offerings than another? Probably. Do they spend money on food, shopping and other forms of entertainment? Absolutely. . . . Putting heads in beds is a large part of the economy here."
Certainly, thousands of BYU fans already live here. The Las Vegas area is home to nearly 140,000 Mormons and the third largest branch of the Cougar Club outside of Utah. Thousands more will drive here today and leave the state tonight.
But Guy Hobbs, managing director of Hobbs, Ong & Associates, a public finance firm, said business owners he has talked to prefer BYU because it sells out the stadium more than the hometown team, UNLV.
"They gamble less, but spend more on retail," he said. "Most importantly, they bring people to town during the slowest time of the year for Las Vegas, the week before Christmas."
Added Kunzer-Murphy: "Having a sold-out stadium in front of a national ESPN audience is exposure the city can't buy. Everybody wins."
And for Las Vegas, that's really unusual.
Viva the Cougars?
The largest crowd ever to watch a football game in Nevada, close to 45,000, is expected for tonight's Las Vegas Bowl showdown between BYU and Oregon, and approximately 38,000 will be BYU fans.
* Las Vegas and members of the LDS Church, which owns BYU, seem to make an odd pairing. But tourism officials roll out the red carpet for Mormons this week.
* Economists say data indicates Mormons, who eschew gambling and alcohol, spend as much money as anyone else in Vegas.