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The National Finals Rodeo is back in Las Vegas

NFR gears up to turn the valley into a hardcore cowboy town

2015 Wrangler NFR: Round 10

Tom Donoghue /

Round 10 of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center.

For the 32nd consecutive year, the Entertainment Capital of the World is about to become Cowboy Town. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) takes over Las Vegas Dec. 1-10, with many thousands of Western-clad visitors expected to pull for their favorite athletes at the world’s richest rodeo.

2015 Wrangler NFR: Round 7

Round 7 of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

2015 Wrangler NFR: Round 8

Charlie Daniels performs during Round 8 of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

2015 Wrangler NFR: Round 9

Round 9 of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

2015 Wrangler NFR: Round 10

Round 10 of the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Launch slideshow »

By the numbers

• 4: Countries competing (United States, Brazil, Canada and France)

• 120: Contestants

• 170,000+: Attendees over 10 days

• 290: Consecutive sellout performances (Round 10 this year is expected be No. 300)

• 50+: Sponsors

• 700+: Animals

• 2,000+: Tons of dirt

• 55M+: Television audience through CBS Sports Net

• 150+: Media credentials issued

• 23: Sponsor hotel properties

• 33: Hotel satellite feed locations

• $72.5M: Thomas & Mack Center renovation ahead of NFR

• 75,000: Beers sold each year

Cowboys and cowgirls will kick up dust as they do battle under the bright lights at the Thomas & Mack Center in a quest for gold buckles and glory.

Fifteen contestants in bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding, along with 15 roping teams, will put their talents on display for nearly 18,000 fans a day in the newly renovated sports arena and thousands of others at casino properties all over town as they chase world championships.

“You would think that, after 32 years, it would get old doing the same event, but it’s never the same event,” said Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which co-sanctions the rodeo along with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “There is always something new and fresh, so I’m looking forward to it again. It’s my favorite time of year.

“It’s ironic, because it’s the hardest we work all year. A year’s worth of work and planning comes down to these 10 days for our fans.”

And those fans come out in droves. Last year, 170,966 people attended the rodeo over 10 days at the Thomas & Mack, and a record crowd of 216,292 made its way to the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls.

That’s a far cry from more than three decades ago, when the event arrived in Las Vegas surrounded by plenty of question marks.

Moving the massive rodeo from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas in 1985 was a controversial decision, but it is one that has paid off in record-setting ways. It revived a previously anemic month of December here and has evolved into a force. Try to go anywhere in town the first two weeks of December without seeing someone wearing a Resistol hat, a pair of Justin Boots or Wrangler jeans. It’s simply impossible.

From country concerts and live satellite feeds showing the rodeo at casino properties, to gift shows, daytime events and related nighttime parties, it’s a stacked experience for rodeo fans. Virtually every casino on the Strip has bought into NFR, and the city has embraced the rodeo, especially in the past decade.

“The hotels get better every year at customizing the experiences they’re offering for fans, and some new ones come on board,” Christenson said.

NFR General Manager Shawn Davis — a Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer who cast the deciding vote to bring the rodeo to Las Vegas in 1985 — has watched the event and its backdrop grow together.

“From Day One, we’ve always had great support from Las Vegas. We’ve always worked together, and the event has been very beneficial for PRCA and Las Vegas Events,” said Davis, a three-time world champion saddle bronc rider, adding, “You can never sit still, no matter what you’re doing. If you sit still, you’re going backwards. I hope the future continues to be as bright as the past.”

But in December 2013, that relationship was strained. PRCA leadership voted to pursue a lucrative deal and move the rodeo to central Florida. The offer included administrative costs and $16 million in annual purses, reportedly $4 million more than the offer from Las Vegas Events. The shakeup had Christenson envisioning an independent rodeo event to hold down the same two weeks in December, and the PRCA entertaining another offer to move to Dallas, though after considerable debate and drama, the longtime partners reached an agreement in January 2014 that will keep the rodeo in Las Vegas through 2024.

“We knew all along that the PRCA wanted to be in Las Vegas,” Christenson told the Las Vegas Sun at the time.

Part of that deal was a huge raise for NFR contestants, with the total purse ballooning from $6.5 million to $10 million last year. That opened the door for contestants to come from outside the top 10 and challenge for world titles like never before, and bareback rider Steven Peebles made headlines by catapulting from No. 15 to No. 1 and earning his first career world championship gold buckle.

Unlike the Professional Bull Riders, which moved its PBR World Finals from the Thomas & Mack Center to the new T-Mobile Arena on the Strip, the PRCA decided to keep NFR at the T&M, signing a separate 10-year agreement to stay put through the contract period. Thomas & Mack executives promised $72.5 million in renovations to the facility, making the call to keep the rodeo there much less stressful for the PRCA and LVE.

“As much as we looked at T-Mobile — and I don’t know that we gave it an in-depth look — once they committed to those renovations, it was a pretty easy decision to make,” Christenson said. “We could handle the stock at the other place, but not nearly as well as we do on campus at UNLV. I think the unique sightlines at the Thomas & Mack and the staff there that we’ve worked with for 32 years are two other big pluses.

“Once they did the renovations and addressed all of the weaknesses the building may have had, there really was no reason to leave.”

The big addition to the 35-year-old venue is the ’Shoe, a themed Western hospitality and interactive experience that includes a new entry and escalators at the northwest end of the arena. The 36,000-square-foot add-on also offers fans an unobstructed view of the Las Vegas Strip and will be the site of CBS Sports Network’s rodeo pre-show.

“It’s a tremendous job to adjust to an event like this, and the people at the Thomas & Mack are outstanding to work with. Everything is convenient there, we’ve got enough room for all of the livestock to be taken care of and to be moved in and out. We’ve rehearsed it for 30 years,” Davis said, “so we’ve all grown together.”

New seats, a wider concourse, upgraded restrooms and more concession stands were just part of the renovations. Throw in the addition of large video boards outside the arena, extra televisions and more displays, and the upgrades should make even veteran NFR attendees feel like they’re seeing an entirely new event.

Fans can avoid the stress of fighting traffic by riding free shuttle buses from a host of casinos to the Thomas & Mack each night, then hang out in the ProRodeo Zone and NFR Fan Zone areas outside the building or have a drink and enjoy some music at the Cowboy Corral in the Cox Pavilion adjacent to the T&M before the rodeo begins.

And it’s not just a rodeo. Great shopping at Cowboy Christmas and other gift shows at Mandalay Bay, MGM Grand and the Sands Expo and Convention Center, ancillary rodeo events like the inaugural Junior NFR for top youth competitors at Cowboy Christmas and the Boyd Gaming Chute-Out at The Orleans can help give rodeo fans their Western fixes during the day. Cowboy Christmas is a cornucopia of sights, sounds and interactive experiences, with more than 400 vendor booths, live entertainment, stage shows and a Wild West-themed town.

The rodeo — which is poised to hit 300 consecutive sellouts with the final round on Dec. 10 — ends at roughly 9 each night, but the crowd keeps Las Vegas rocking well into the wee hours. Whether it’s the nightly go-round buckle presentations at the South Point; afterparties at the Mirage, MGM Grand or the Orleans, just to name a few; country concerts featuring the likes of George Strait, Charlie Daniels, Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn; or even the Miss Rodeo America pageant, fans have their own athletic feat to contend with just trying to take advantage.

No two days are the same, and the action never stops. That’s part of the allure of the city and the rodeo.

Considering the length of the event and everything else it brings along, no other city could pull off the spectacle quite like Las Vegas.

“It’s not like the Super Bowl or a one-day event,” Davis said. “You’ve got a 10-day event with 170,000 people coming, and to do it well, they have to be entertained. They have to have a way to be entertained and to participate, and Las Vegas, with all the outside activities, has been great about creating that. ... It just really is a cowboy town.”

A Family affair: The Wrights dominate saddle bronc riding ranks

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Saddle bronc rider Jesse Wright of Milford, Utah competes during the final night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. Wright won the championship in the saddle bronc riding.

Click to enlarge photo

Saddle bronc rider Cody Wright remains tall in the saddle during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Go-Round Day 3 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.

As long as the National Finals Rodeo is around, the Wrights of Utah don’t need to have family reunions.

They’ll all be in Las Vegas, anyway, as six members of the saddle bronc riding royal family have qualified for this year’s 10-day, $10 million event. Led by two-time world champion Cody Wright, the family boasts more than a third of the 15-cowboy field.

Cody, who qualified 11th, is the oldest boy in a 13-sibling family based in Milford, Utah. Cody is making his 13th NFR appearance this year and will be joined in Las Vegas by twin brothers, Jake (fifth in the standings) and Jesse (10th), as well as two of his own sons, Rusty (third) and Ryder (14th), and brother-in-law CoBurn Bradshaw (second).

If that wasn’t enough, the patriarch of the Wright family, Bill, will be in the arena working one of the gates by the chutes as his family members compete for big dollars.

Anyone betting on the saddle bronc riding in Las Vegas would be safe to pick a Wright.

“We’ve put a lot of hard work into it and have been really focused,” said Jake Wright, who is making his fifth consecutive appearance in Las Vegas. “It doesn’t surprise me. Cody pushes his boys to be the best, and he pushes us all to be the best. Between my dad and Cody, I think they’re the heart of all of it that keeps us going.”

Jesse won a world title in 2012, and another brother, Spencer, went from 14th to the world champions’ stage in 2014, but failed to qualify for the finals this year. Counting another brother, Alex — who finished 38th in the 2016 world standings — and Cody’s high school junior son, Stetson, the Wright family could potentially field nine of the 15 spots in a few years.

“I think it’s great,” Jake said. “We push each other to be better, and it just gets better the longer we go on. There’s nothing better than having family doing exactly what you’re doing, and you can put your heads together and talk about things.”

There is no petty rivalry among the men of the family, even though they know they may have to go through each other to realize the dream of becoming a world champion.

“It’s the best man wins,” Jake said. “It depends on the day and who’s got the better horse. As soon as I get off my horse, I’m going to go help Jesse or Cody and all of them. That’s why we all made it — because we’re supporting each other.”

The Wrights’ story is a popular one in the sport, and most agree it is a positive thing for rodeo.

“It’s good for everything, and the good thing about it is they’re people who can be looked up to,” said NFR General Manager Shawn Davis, who coached Cody at the College of Southern Idaho. “They’re role models, and they’re very humble even though they’re very successful.

“That’s what you call a rodeo family.”

Mary Burger: Leading barrel racing standings at 68 years old

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Mary Burger

There will be plenty of grandmothers filing into the Thomas & Mack Center for NFR, but only one is the odds-on favorite to win a world title.

Pauls Valley, Okla., barrel racer Mary Burger will begin the $10 million rodeo atop the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing world standings, and she has a great chance to add a second gold buckle to her trophy case. Burger, who set a ProRodeo record by becoming the sport’s oldest world champion at the age of 58 in 2006, leads the standings by a formidable $74,590 over Jackie Ganter heading into the 10-day extravaganza.

The 68-year-old Burger, who is competing in her first NFR since 2009, simply planned to compete here and there during the 2016 season aboard her still-green 7-year-old buckskin gelding, Mo, but things changed in March. That’s when Burger and Mo struck gold by winning RodeoHouston, an event with a massive $54,750 payday.

That shot in the arm served notice that Mo was for real and made Burger think more about making a run for NFR.

“When Houston turned out real good, it just made it doable to make it this year,” said Burger, who won her 2006 gold buckle aboard two-time AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year Fred. “It’s basically a dream come true.”

Burger and Mo ran at 64 rodeos this season, 36 fewer than second-place Ganter, and set a barrel racing regular-season record with $190,977 in earnings. They paired the RodeoHouston victory with a win at the Calgary Stampede in July worth $122,000 ($72,000 counted for the world standings) on the way to rewriting the record books.

That’s not to say adversity hasn’t paid a visit to Burger’s barn.

She said in mid-November that Mo was in physical therapy for a sore deep flexor tendon, and that she may have to use a backup horse for part or all of the national finals. Regardless, Burger is going to try her best to protect her lead against 14 other talented barrel racers by focusing on the average (aggregate) payout, which awards roughly between $6,300-$67,000 for the top eight finishers.

“I’m not sure he’ll be able to do 10 rounds if he does go, but we’re hoping for the best,” Burger said of Mo. “He’ll tell me if he gets a little sore, and if he does, I’m not going to run him.”

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