Nearly 30 years ago, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association board was split 5-5 over whether the National Finals Rodeo should stay in Oklahoma City or move to a new home in Las Vegas.
With a tie, it was up to then-PRCA President Shawn Davis to decide the fate of the Super Bowl of rodeos.
Davis voted Las Vegas.
Three decades later, Davis — who has served as the NFR’s general manager since 1986 — still remembers clearly why he picked Las Vegas.
“They come to see the rodeo, but they also come here to be entertained,” said Davis, a former three-time world champion saddle bronc rider and a Butte, Mont., native, a tireless and enthusiastic producer at 73.
“They want that entertainment,” Davis said at his NFR operations corner office, created by red curtain walls in Cox Pavilion next to Thomas & Mack Center. “You need to have more reasons to attend a rodeo for 10 days. Las Vegas has entertainment options.”
The NFR’s 10-day run is sold out again at Thomas & Mack, and tickets never have been more coveted for the event, which ends Dec. 13.
And the man running the shows gets to the UNLV arena by 5 a.m. daily and stays to 11 p.m. before returning to his South Point hotel room to make sure the horses and cattle are looking good and the venue is ready to host another 18,000 fans the next night.
“Without Shawn and Benny Binion, there would no be National Finals in Las Vegas. A lot of people were upset about that decision at the time, but it proved that it was the right decision,” said Bob Thain, a rodeo producer who, like Davis, is a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. “He’s a workhorse. I can’t even imagine who they would replace him with.”
While it’s still dark in the morning, Davis is checking livestock and examining Thomas & Mack for any facility issues that need to be addressed.
And when the NFR finishes Saturday night, Davis will start the very next day on renewing contracts with his vendors.
“He’s a real production organizer. He doesn’t need to sleep. He stays out there after the rodeo each night, and they do a rehearsal for the next night,” Thain said.
Davis knows a thing or two about putting on rodeos after first organizing rodeos in college. He attended Montana State, Western Montana College and the University of Arizona.
Before becoming the NFR GM, Davis worked on rodeo promotions. “I knew what it took to fill a grandstand,” Davis said.
One of the things that needed to be changed was length of the NFR shows. When the NFR was in Oklahoma City, the rodeo ran 3½ to 4 hours. In Las Vegas, he made sure the nightly show didn’t last more than two hours.
Davis carefully scripts the 120-minute shows, making sure that the rodeo is a seamless flow of music, video and cowboy performances. This year, he is working with CBS Sports Network, which is broadcasting the NFR under a new deal.
The NFR previously was broadcast on the Great American Country network.
When not working on NFR, Davis spends his winters in Arizona and summers in Montana and Idaho. The former NFR competitor still enjoys equestrian life, training and raising race horses as a hobby. He has a son and three grandchildren.
Las Vegas Events, which promotes the NFR under an agreement with the PRCA, hires Davis to manage the rodeo.
“He has no peer in the rodeo world. It was he who designed, and then perfected, 105 rides in 110 minutes. It was he who put the rock in our rodeo,” said Pat Christenson, Las Vegas Events president.
“I can’t imagine the hours he has spent the past 30 years thinking and rethinking the NFR. There is no one like him in professional sport,” Christenson said. “He has the job as long as he wants it. Hopefully, another 10 years.”
Contact reporter Alan Snel at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel