RIDE ’EM VEGAS: National Finals Rodeo gallops back to town. Here’s a primer on the cowboy cornucopia that lassoes Las Vegas

Ropin’, ridin’ and line-dancin’ … wait, do bulls line-dance?

We’d love to see that, though they’ll likely save their fancier footwork for grittier activities — say, wrasslin’ with cowpokes — inside the Thomas & Mack Center during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (aka NFR), a Las Vegas staple stampeding back to our city for its annual 10-day hoedown, Dec. 5-14.

Galloping along concurrently with the competitions, the popular and interactive gift/activities/exhibits show Cowboy Christmas takes over the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily — and it’s free! (This year’s show includes the Junior World Finals, hosting more than 850 youth contestants.)

Following are fast facts, figures and stray historical tidbits on NFR. (Story continues below gallery.)

Lowdown on the hoedown, 2019

Estimated attendees: 171,000

Estimated visitor spending: $110.9 million

Estimated economic impact: $187.5 million

Estimated households viewing, via CBS Sports: 55 million

Impressive moniker:

“The Super Bowl of Rodeos”

Contestants’ mission (and they choose to accept it)

The top 15 contestants in the nation fling themselves into bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding.

Las Vegas legacy

Now in its 61st year overall, the NFR — produced by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) — is marking its 35th anniversary here this year. In 2014, the NFR inked another contract with Las Vegas that keeps the event here through 2024.

In the beginning …

Time travel back with us to what is believed to be the first rodeo, held in Deer Trail, Colo. in 1869. That’s when two groups of cowboys from neighboring ranches met to settle an argument over which group was best at performing daily tasks — including breaking wild horses for ranch work.

Just after the beginning …

Western towns in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Nebraska and Wyoming hold the first official rodeos with cash prizes in the 1880s and 1890s.

Organizin’ and formalizin’:

By the 1920s, the Rodeo Association of America was formed as promoters banded together to create contests that would lead to the naming of national champions.

Hold your horses!

Kickin’ up their boots in protest, a group of cowboys and cowgirls boycotted a rodeo in Boston in 1936 over complaints about how contests were judged, as well as insufficient prize money. They even named themselves: The Cowboys’ Turtle Association — in honor of how slow they’d been to act, but stuck their necks out for the cause.

Lookin’ out for livestock

Renamed the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA), the new overseeing organization implements rules in 1947 regarding the welfare of rodeo livestock.  (In its current iteration, the PRCA enforces 60 regulations governing the care and treatment of livestock in sanctioned events.)

Goin’ nationwide

In 1959, rodeo as an official national event was christened the National Finals Rodeo. Headquartered in Dallas for its first three years, it then moved to Los Angeles for another three, before settling in at Oklahoma City from 1965-’84. Midway through that 20-year run, in 1975, the RCA morphed into the PRCA, boasting 3,700 members.

Enter the Entertainment Capital — and soon-to-be Rodeo Capital — of the World

What Las Vegas wants, Las Vegas does its damndest to get. And Vegas visionary Benny Binion wanted the NFR. To that end, in 1984, Binion and then-Las Vegas Events President Herb McDonald, fought for their prize by outbidding Oklahoma City, whose city council considered building a new $30 million arena to keep NFR.

But in the end, Binion and McDonald guaranteed the rodeo a prize fund of $1.8 million to the cowboys (compared to Oklahoma City’s offer of $900,000) and $700,000 to contractors (as opposed to Oklahoma City’s $200,000).

 A vote to remember

When each city made their pitches to the PRCA board of directors, it resulted in a six-to-six tie — broken by PRCA President Shawn Davis. A former saddle bronc-riding champ and Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame member, Davis gave the nod to Vegas. In 2001, Wrangler hopped aboard the NFR train as its sponsor.   

Age is just a number

Youngest NFR qualifiers ever: Ann Lewis, 1968 (10 years and 6 months old); Rachael Myllymaki, 1988 (11 years and 11 months old); J.D. Yates, 1975 (15 years and 4 months old); Ace Berry, 1962, (15 years and 11 months old).

Oldest NFR qualifiers ever: Mary Burger, 2016 (68 years and 3 months old); Dan Fisher, 2013 (62 years and 4 months old)

Money is honey

Prize total in 1959: $50,000

Prize total in 2018: $8.8 million

2019 prize purse: $10 million

Individual top-career earnings: $1.9 million (Trevor Brazile)

Who’s there?

Attendance in 1959: 54,000

Attendance in 2018: 169,171

Attendance record set in 2014: 177,565

Can you top this? (2018 winner highlights)

Trevor Brazile: Won his 14th-all around world championship and 24th gold buckle

Sage Kimzey: Won fifth consecutive bull-riding world title, joining four other bull riders (Smokey Snyder, Harry Tompkins, Jim Shoulders and Don Gay) in the record books.

Tim O’Connell: Won third consecutive bareback riding world title

Clayton Biglow: Set new NFR record for highest bareback riding score

Clay Smith and Paul Eaves: Set NFR records in team roping

Stuffing your pie-hole (i.e., snacks sold over 10 NFR days, on average) while ogling highlights

Popcorn: 7,000 bags

Hot pretzels: 6,800

Nachos: 4,500

Pizzas: 5,000

Sodas: 26,000

Facts that may (or may not) impress people at an NFR party

Turning the Thomas & Mack Center into the NFR battleground requires …

Tons of dirt: More than 2,000 for outside stalls

Dirt thickness: 12 to 15 inches

Heads of livestock: 700-plus

Categories of livestock include: flag and grand entry horses (50); horses for contestants (90); steers (120); calves (75); bucking stock (310)

Food required for livestock: 120 tons of grass or hay; 60 tons of grain

Grasp of rodeo lingo that may (or may not) impress people at that same NFR party

“Barrelman”:  A entertainer who, after a bull ride, uses a barrel to distract the bull and protect the cowboy

“Bulldogger”: a steer wrestler

“Hooey”: The knot a cowboy uses to finish tying a calf’s lets together in tie-down roping

“Piggin’ string”: In tie-down roping and steer roping, the small rope used to tie the animal’s legs together.

“Pigtail”: a piece of string attached to the barrier that breaks if a timed-event contestant’s horse exists the box too soon, not giving the calf or steer enough of a head start, as per rodeo rules.

Get up and boogie (country-style)

2019 scheduled entertainers around town:

Reba, Brooks and Dunn (Caesars Palace); Dwight Yoakam and the Bakersfield Beat (Encore at Wynn); Old Dominion (Hard Rock); Chancey Williams (South Point); Terri Clark (Golden Nugget); Doublewide (MGM Grand); Rodney Carrington (MGM Grand); Mitchell Tenpenny (Mirage); Chase & The Pursuit (Eastside Cannery); Felice Garcia (Orleans); SJ & The Ruckus (Sam’s Town); Scott Alexander (Treasure Island); Aaron Watson (South Point); Ned LeDoux (Silverton); Shania Twain (Planet Hollywood); George Strait (T-Mobile Arena); Jason Aldean (Park Theater); Clay Walker (Golden Nugget); Ghost Town Riders (Eastside Cannery); Charlie Daniels (Golden Nugget); Ronnie Milsap (Golden Nugget); Josh Ward (South Point); Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan (Golden Nugget); Chad Prather (Treasure Island); Voodoo Cowboys (Silverton)

Can I get your John Hancock, pardner?

Eager to see your fave cowpokes chicken-scratching their names on NFR memorabilia? Here’s your chance, from noon to 2 p.m. each day:

Dec. 6: Barrel Racers @ Golden Nugget Grand Foyer

Dec. 7: Tie-Down Ropers @ MGM Grand main lobby

Dec. 9: Team Ropers @ Cowboy Christmas/Las Vegas Convention Center’s NFR Central

Dec. 10: Steer wrestler @ Cowboy Christmas/Las Vegas Convention Center’s NFR Central

Dec. 11: Bull riders @ Treasure Island’s Gilley ‘s Saloon

Dec. 12: Bareback riders @ New York-New York’s Brooklyn Bridge

Dec. 13: Saddle bronc riders @ Harrah’s Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill

We leave you with this musical/philosophical thought that elevates this rugged pursuit to a metaphorical, even poetic plane:

“It’s bulls and blood. It’s dust and mud. It’s the roar of a Sunday crowd. It’s the white in his knuckles. It’s the gold in the buckle. He’ll win the next go-’round.  It’s boots and chaps. It’s cowboy hats. … It’s the ropes and the reins. And the joy and the pain. And they call the thing rodeo.” — Garth Brooks

On second thought … we leave you with this more practical life advice:

“Don’t squat with your spurs on.” — Will Rogers 

For more information on activities, schedules, locations and costs, visit www.ProRodeo.com or www.NFRexperience.com

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.

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by Steve Bornfeld/Las Vegas Newswire

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