A Season of Gratitude

Dec 11, 2020

A Season of Gratitude

There is an unmistakable sense of gratitude surrounding this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

From the contestants, to contract personnel and fans, after the unprecedented uncertainty of 2020 because of the pandemic, everyone is grateful to have any events, let alone one of this size and scale.

It started last March in the middle of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The committee was forced to cancel their remaining activities, get thousands of people and animals off the grounds, and shut their gates. COVID-19 had a domino affect after that and events across the nation were being cancelled, some of them with hundreds of years of history and that had survived spite of wars, dustbowls, and economic depression.

Committees were hopeful that as the seasons progressed and events moved outside this year’s rodeos could come back. Some did. Many did not. Through it all, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association worked diligently trying to keep the sport alive and well. Along with that was finding ways to have championship events.

Kissimmee, Florida could not host the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo last March. So that event was held with limited fans at the home of the Greeley Independence Stampede in Colorado in September.

Fans had made it clear that they wanted to be present at the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Even though Las Vegas has hosted rodeo’s Super Bowl since 1985, long before many of today’s contestants were born, that just wasn’t possible in 2020.

With a lot of searching, negotiating and cooperation a temporary home was found for this year’s events. On September 9th, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association announced that the 2020 WNFR would be held at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

And in less than three months what an event they have put together. The rodeo has been one of the most exciting ever with all of the races coming down to the 10th round.

In addition, the Junior World Finals has given those contestants an opportunity to compete in the historic Cowtown Coliseum. Coverage on RFD-TV and The Cowboy Channel has been unsurpassed and Cowboy Christmas at the Fort Worth Convention Center along with other trade shows have given fans an opportunity to get their Christmas shopping done.

Las Vegas Events has been an integral part of this year’s Wrangler NFR. They are still hosting and operating the Junior World Finals and Cowboy Christmas. And they have marketed this year’s event as if it was their own. 

Celebrating the best in rodeo started in Dallas, Texas, in 1959. The National Finals Rodeo was held at Fair Park, home of the State Fair of Texas through 1961. It moved to California for another three years at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. In 1965, the NFR found a home in Oklahoma that would last nearly 20 years. Oklahoma City saw competition in two arenas through 1984.

In a move that would take the NFR from a year-end championship event to the Western entertainment extravaganza that it is today, Las Vegas, Nevada became the only place to be in December. The Thomas & Mack arena on the campus of UNLV became home for the competition and the city welcomed cowboy hats and boots in a season that was typically their slowest.

They took the bull by the horns, brought in country and Western entertainment super stars, kept the traditional Las Vegas shows, hosted autograph sessions, started go-round buckle presentations and the list goes on. But at the very top is an increase in prize money that offers rodeo contestants an opportunity to make a living in a sport they love.

“When they brought Shawn Davis in as their general manager, and produced that rodeo the way they did, they set a buzz about rodeo that was felt worldwide,” said Bob Tallman who has announced the NFR in Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and now Arlington, Texas. “Rodeos across the country saw that production and it made all of them want to be better.”

As the prize money increased for 10-nights in Las Vegas, the trend for added money to increase at regular season rodeos was seen as well. And some rodeos even got creative and looked for new ways to make their rodeos better. There was a trickle-down effect from what was happening in Las Vegas.

Tallman has had a job of some kind at every NFR since 1972 where he was on the feed crew and flanking horses in Oklahoma City. He’s seen the event from the backside and been on the front row. Right alongside him has been stock contractor Bennie Beutler who has probably sat at more production meetings than any other person involved in rodeo.

“The fact that Texas has pulled this off in less than 100 days is amazing,” Tallman added. “They have mastered the production and the emotion of the NFR like nowhere else.”

Beutler has been a big part of that. So has Randy Bernard, former CEO at the Professional Bull Riders and RFD-TV who has coordinated all of the openings, and Glen Alan Phillips who is the general manager for his first NFR. It has all happened with the blessings and support of Las Vegas Events and many of the loyal backing of the South Hotel, Casino and Spa, Boyd Gaming Group, and other sponsors in Las Vegas.

It has been a big, concerted effort by hundreds of individuals that has come together beyond most people’s expectations.

“We have been so thankful to have the NFR at all, and I think it has been better than any of us expected.” said Blake Knowles, five-time qualifier in the steer wrestling. “We’ve all traveled farther and competed at less rodeos, spent more money and earned less. The competition was tough at every rodeo we went to. I know a lot of committees couldn’t have rodeos at all, and we are so grateful to those that could. I think we’ve shown and learned that the recipe for the NFR, top 15 guys, 10 nights of competition and best stock with the reward of a world title works no matter what oven you put it in.”

“18,000 fans in the Thomas & Mack Center can’t be duplicated,” Tallman said. “Neither can Las Vegas’ 24-hour-a-day hospitality. I grew up in Nevada and live in Texas now. It started here, went to California, then Oklahoma City, Las Vegas took the NFR from being a rodeo to a Western entertainment experience that was beyond what anyone imagined in 1985. This has been a year filled with change and we’ve all learned from that. It will be exciting to see what the next four years bring.”

With unprecedented coverage from the Cowboy Channel, a beautiful venue at Globe Life Field and all the surrounding activities in Fort Worth, the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will truly be one to remember.

“It doesn’t matter what the address is, it’s still the NFR,” said 26-time world champion Trevor Brazile. “It’s the most exciting 10-nights of rodeo action and that will be the case no matter where it is.”

There were a lot of questions in the last 90 days about the 2020 Wrangler NFR. Fans, contestants, stock contractors and personnel wondered if everyone involved could pull this one off. They did, and there is a lot of gratitude being spread around that it happened.

As the NFR Insider, I’m very grateful. The drama that has unfolded over the last 10 nights at Globe Life Field has been both humbling and exciting. The storylines never cease to amaze me, and it has renewed my passion to share those stories.

If we’ve learned anything in 2020, it should be to never take anything for granted, our health, our family and friends, and even our lifestyle. We should appreciate where we’ve been and where we are going, learn from the past and look forward to the future. I’m looking forward to spending December 2021 in the Entertainment Capital of the World, the one and only Las Vegas, Nevada and I know a lot of rodeo contestants are hoping to join me there.

There truly is ONLY one NFR and ONLY one Vegas.