In 1985, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo arrived in Las Vegas, moving from Oklahoma City. And Pat Christenson was here for it. As the event prepares to kick up its heels for the 30th time at the Thomas &Mack Center, he’s still here, gearing up for another raucous, sold-out, 10-day bonanza of riding, roping and wrestling.
It brought to mind an apropos cowboy cliche.
“This is my 30th NFR. This is not my first rodeo,” said Christenson, who worked for the Thomas &Mack when the NFR arrived and for the past 13 years has been president of Las Vegas Events, which along with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association manages the NFR.
“But it was my first rodeo in 1985, literally — the first rodeo I’d ever worked.”
The event has blossomed into something that takes over the whole town, from convention centers to hotel-casinos to concert venues and all manner of nightlife. Karl Stressman, in his sixth year as PRCA commissioner, is eager for the 30th anniversary performance.
“There’s no place like Vegas, when we come here and the cowboy hats are here,” Stressman said. “I can’t go anywhere in town where everybody isn’t continuously saying, ‘When the cowboys come to town, this is the coolest place in the world.’ For the community to embrace it and become Cowboy Town, it’s just electric.
“It creates a whole atmosphere. Nobody can do this like Las Vegas can do it.”
Indeed, Christenson said what started as just an extended rodeo has evolved into a three-pronged festival.
“The last 10 years, everyone is taking these customized Western experiences to a whole different level,” he said. “There are three shifts of entertainment. You’ve got the daytime — the 10-5 shift — with things like the Cowboy Christmas and the Cowboy Fanfest. Then there’s the live shift. You either have a ticket to the NFR or you’re at one of the 40 different viewing parties around town.
“Then, after that, you have all the nightlife, with probably 200 different experiences.”
And thanks to a great outcome to some tenuous negotiations last winter, all those experiences will continue as the NFR gets to 40 years in Las Vegas. The 10-year deal takes the rodeo to 2024 — and just as important, it keeps contract talks from hanging over this year’s event.
“That lets us celebrate the 30 years here,” Stressman said. “We get to celebrate, have fun and put on a great show in 2014. To say we’re excited is an understatement. Seriously, the last couple years were difficult for everybody. But this year, we couldn’t wait to get here.
“We just look forward to making the event better and better. I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is to the PRCA, Las Vegas Events, the contestants — all of us think it’s cool.”
Celebrations aside, there is still the central matter at hand: competition. Will Trevor Brazile add to his record-setting ways with a 12th all-around world championship? That’s as safe a bet as you’ll find in this town. But the title races in all seven events — bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding — are up for grabs, with a total purse of nearly $6.4 million.
“The competition, just in general, is phenomenal,” Stressman said. “The Super Bowl happens in one day. This is 10 days of really tough competition. Whoever performs best has the best opportunity to win that cherished gold buckle.”
Christenson fully expects to impress fans throughout all of the NFR events, be it during competition at the sold-out arena or at all points beyond, day and night.
“What I look forward to more than anything is the satisfaction of meeting these rodeo fans’ expectations when it comes to the Western lifestyle experience in the 10 days they’re here,” he said.
Patrick Everson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0353.