Youngsters these days have never had more options when it comes to playing sports. Football, basketball, softball, baseball, soccer, lacrosse and more have all extended their reach to the youngest possible participants, even as young as 5 or 6 years old.
And in an age of sports specialization, where these kids often focus on just one activity, that activity often gets their support for life. One sport that didn’t have such reach, and therefore wasn’t attracting many of those kids at the beginning of their athletic endeavors, was rodeo.
Thanks to a speedy progression over the past three years, the Junior National Finals Rodeo is becoming a program that attracts kids early, with a goal of making them rodeo participants for years and likely rodeo fans for life.
Last year, the inaugural Junior NFR was held in the Cowboy Christmas Wrangler Rodeo Arena at the Las Vegas Convention Center, featuring six events — tie-down roping, bull riding, bareback riding, barrel racing, team roping and girls breakaway. The competition took place for six days in the midst of the 10-day run of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, just down the road at the Thomas &Mack Center.
This year, the Junior NFR expands to run through all 10 days of the Wrangler NFR, adding steer wrestling and saddle bronc riding, with multiple age groups in all events. There are ostensibly two five-day rodeos — Dec. 7-11 for rough-stock events and Dec. 12-16 for timed events — with competitors in each event going through two qualifying rounds. The top qualifiers in each event and age group will move on to the championship short-go on the final day of each five-day rodeo.
It’s the culmination of what started in 2014, when the Roy Cooper Junior Roping Invitational and the Chris Shivers Mini Bull Riding Invitational were held in the same arena. Through the efforts of many in the rodeo community looking to boost junior rodeo, and the support of Las Vegas Events, things quickly blossomed.
“It means the world,” said Kirby Cannon, who chairs the mini bareback and mini saddle bronc riding competitions for the Junior NFR. “It’s especially important in the rough-stock events — bulls, barebacks and saddle broncs. Our numbers are plummeting, and that was the whole reason I got involved. Kids go into one sport, and that’s all they do. Rodeo was losing kids. Parents said their kids can’t do more than one sport and that they don’t have time for rodeo.
“But now we have an option for them, even at that age of 5-6 or 7-8. Rodeo can compete against football and Little League baseball. We have a Super Bowl, a world championship. That gives parents and kids a reason to go into rodeo.”
And fans can expect to see the best of the best, including ropers who will be future professional rodeo standouts.
“I promise you, there’ll be two and probably three in this year’s NFR who’ve roped in my contest the last three years,” Cooper said.
Kelly Kaminski appreciates how the Junior NFR has bolstered barrel racing, the event she oversees. Last year, there were six qualifying events in barrel racing for the Junior NFR. This year, there were 11, spread not only across the United States, but including one in Mexico and one in Australia.
“Last year was the first year, so a lot of folks didn’t really know about it,” said Kaminski, a two-time world champion. “This year, it’s really grown. It’s been a little bit better this year, because we have that year under our belt. It’s just gonna do nothing but grow, but we’re growing it responsibly so it doesn’t get too big, too fast.”
In 2016, 60 barrel racers qualified to come to Vegas, split between two age groups: 12-16 and 11 and under. This year, there will be 128 competitors.
“We’re growing our next generation of barrel racers,” Kaminski said.
Ote Berry, a four-time world champion steer wrestler, will see his event make its Junior NFR debut this year. The Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer said he’s excited for the steer wrestlers to share the Vegas stage, and he’s not alone.
“The response I received on the very first day I announced this year’s inaugural Ote Berry’s Junior Steer Wrestling World Championship was amazing,” Berry said. “Kids, parents, producers, fans, sponsors — everyone in the rodeo world wanted to know how they could help and partner with me to give the kids an event that’s truly world championship caliber. An event like the Junior NFR, which already has 10 (steer wrestling) qualifying events in seven states, will do nothing but elevate the level of commitment and competition.”
Berry said the competition itself will surely benefit all contestants. Just as importantly, it will create more opportunities for these kids. College rodeo coaches will add the Junior NFR to their recruiting schedule, and, of course, some of these bulldoggers will end up in the Wrangler NFR one day.
Saddle bronc riding also makes its Junior NFR debut this year, which thrilled event organizer Lacie Demers, who is also overseeing bareback riding. In both events, riders will be on appropriately sized horses, based on their age groups: 6-8, 9-11 and 12-14. In the past, junior cowboys often rode steers up until high school, which Demers said contributed to a decline in saddle bronc and bareback riders once they hit high school.
“This is pretty much paving the way to a new sport in junior rodeo,” Demers said. “Bringing rough-stock events back into junior rodeo is going to help the contestants, the fans and the rodeo industry a lot. What’s gratifying for me is bringing a new event to the table that’s been dying in junior rodeo.”
Bret Beach, a three-time Wrangler NFR qualifier, manages team roping for the Junior NFR. He sees having such a direct tie to the Wrangler NFR just down the road as a huge plus.
“When you’re in junior rodeo, all you do is dream about going to Vegas. Now, with the Junior NFR, we’re giving these kids the opportunity to be in Vegas before their time,” Beach said. “It’s a big lift to give these kids something else to try to achieve.”
Cirildo and Lillie Leal manage the bull riding, partnering with Shivers, again using age-appropriate stock. The Leals came away from the 2016 Junior NFR more than impressed, and they’re very optimistic about the long-term impact of the event.
“This is gonna be huge,” Cirildo said. “I’m really excited about going back to Vegas this year. Everybody loves kids, and they’re gonna love this. These kids can go from this to the NFR one day.”
They might be competing on TV before that, though. Bo Gardner, vice president of corporate marketing for Las Vegas Events and a key cog in the creation of the Junior NFR, said before last year’s competition that there was already plenty of corporate interest in the event.
“We could sell as much sponsorship for the Junior NFR as we do for the Wrangler NFR,” Gardner said. “We’ve got all these companies that want to be involved with these kids.”
That can provide further inroads toward making rodeo the sport of choice for these kids. The Junior NFR and its qualifying events around the nation — and beyond — provide something new and exciting for young cowboys and cowgirls. And as Cannon reiterated, it’s not just about getting them active in the sport. It’s about making them forever fans.
“A few years back, when Bud Selig was commissioner of baseball, he said 90 percent of players never sniff the pro or college level, but that they’ve created fans for life,” Cannon said. “Now, we’re getting more kids involved and making young fans who are fans for life. A few years ago, we had nothing with this kind of prestige. Now, we’re riding in Las Vegas during the NFR.”