Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo was event officials deciding it would be a good idea to make the nightly go-rounds available on a live TV feed to hotel properties all over Las Vegas.
After all, for the last 33 of the Wrangler NFR’s 35 years at the Thomas &Mack Center, selling out the arena hasn’t been a problem. But there are thousands upon thousands of fans who travel to Las Vegas every year who don’t have tickets each night and want to see the rodeo.
The live feed has become a spectacle unto itself, creating viewing parties all over town, some quite large. And the viewing parties then turn into after-parties, where the cowboys and cowgirls really kick up their heels.
This intrepid reporter took it upon himself to hit four venues for viewing parties and after-parties on Friday night. From north to south, from downtown to the South Point, here’s how that raucous evening unfolded.
6 p.m., Downtown Las Vegas Events Center
The huge enclosed white tent a block south of Fremont Street Experience is a semi-hidden gem, a fantastic spot to take in the NFR each night. The room is spacious, with massive rustic round tables that can seat perhaps a dozen people, so the setup is perfect for groups.
The food and beverage options — including drinks of the adult variety — are plentiful. And because Derek Stevens’ fingerprints are on this space, of course his new Circa Sports sportsbook has a presence too, in case anyone wishes to get a little action down. In this case, before the second go-round of the rodeo gets underway, the Oregon-Utah Pac-12 championship football game is on a few screens around the venue. But bettors inclined to do so can also bet on the bull riding each night.
Bill and Julie Moore, with son Kyle Moore and his fiancée, Katie O’Leary, are here from St. Clair, Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis. They arrive early to make certain they’ve got a good table. In fact, Bill reserves the space, leaving nothing to chance on his second trip to Vegas for the NFR.
“My neighbors have been coming out here for 10 years, and they told us the best viewing parties to come to. They always come to this one,” Bill says, while marveling at the massive screens at each end of the room. “It’s just like being at the rodeo.”
Adds Julie: “It’s comfortable and it’s safe, and everybody you see is so excited. The excitement is contagious.”
For O’Leary, enjoying her 29th birthday Las Vegas style, the NFR wasn’t really her plan, but she’s thrilled to be here for it.
“My soon-to-be father-in-law, he’s obsessed with rodeo,” O’Leary says. “I said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll go to Vegas.’ There really wasn’t any hesitation.”
The quartet attended the first go-round at the Thomas &Mack Center and is now testing out the viewing party waters. Julie notes this and other viewing parties help stretch the budget, allowing fans to watch the rodeo every night, even if they don’t have tickets. Kyle is certainly satisfied with the Friday night option.
“This is incredible. It’s almost like we’re there because the screen is so big,” Kyle says. “Lotsa space, and everything you need. Free seats, food and beer is close, very group friendly.”
And of course, one more important if oft overlooked element:
“The bathrooms are close and spacious,” Kyle adds.
7:05 p.m., Gilley’s Saloon &Dance Hall, Treasure Island
The viewing party is underway, and Gilley’s is absolutely slammed. There’s a line probably 200 deep stretching into the casino, hoping to get in at some point. And I’m in that line. So it’s time to call an audible and look for someone interesting in line with whom to discuss this viewing party.
Ryder Young and his handlebar mustache are the big winner. He’s here with family from Boise, Idaho, and because he’s fairly close to the front of the line, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll get in soon enough. It’s his second NFR trip, and he’s no stranger to Gilley’s.
“They’ve got good drinks, a big screen to watch the rodeo, and you don’t have to spend as much money to get in,” Young says. “It’s just a good experience with good people. You’ve got rodeo and gambling. I love it!”
7:40 p.m., The Mirage sportsbook
The Mirage offers one of the most unique viewing parties/after-parties, as the Wrangler NFR takes over the sportsbook for 10 nights. The seats and dance floor are packed with rodeo fans all night long, first watching the rodeo on the massive screens, then enjoying a live concert with a band performing on an elevated stage set up in the sportsbook’s VIP area.
Everybody who wants in can get into this spacious venue — but not everyone can get a seat. That’s no problem for Lane McGill, of Powderville, Montana, and his cousin Amy Riley, of Volborg, Montana. The two make do by kicking back on the floor as the second go-round unfolds.
“For the rodeo to get a stage like this is pretty dang cool,” McGill says. “And it’s the same kind of crowd that’s at the rodeo.”
Riley is no stranger to rodeo. She’s a second cousin to Jess Lockwood, the reigning Professional Bull Riders world champion, and Lockwood is married to Hailey Kinsel, the defending world champion in barrel racing. But rodeo Vegas style, in a sportsbook no less, is new to Riley.
“I think it’s awesome,” she says. “Coming from small-town Montana, this is crazy for us!”
10:15 p.m., South Point
After each night at the Thomas &Mack Center, many in the rodeo crowd crush into the South Point Showroom for the buckle presentations to winners of each event in that night’s go-round, followed by a late-night country music concert. Seats become quite a hot commodity.
Karson Morgan and his crew from Nephi, Utah, figure out a way to make sure they have seats for the buckle presentation and the concert: Show up early in the evening, well ahead of the go-round, grab a prime table just off the dance floor and camp there all night. It’s the move of a veteran, no doubt, as Morgan is attending his 13th NFR.
“You get everything in one here. We got the rodeo, the buckle presentation and the concert afterward,” says Morgan, joined by wife Linzy and friends Colby and Natalie Park. “Last night, we went to the rodeo. This is a great alternative.”
For Linzy, this particular viewing party site is not only entertaining, but sentimental.
“One of our first dates was coming to the NFR. It’s been a tradition ever since, our Christmas present to each other every year,” she says. “We’ve tried other parties, but we always come back to the South Point. Nothing compares to it. It’s second-best only to being at the rodeo, especially when your pockets are a little empty.”
Says Colby: “It’s the closest thing to being in the arena. This is the atmosphere that the NFR is all about here in Vegas. And I don’t think any other city could provide that atmosphere.”
And even perfect strangers connect and have a great time together at these parties. Chance Hill, of Glendive, Montana, and Gina Elmore, of Kingman, Arizona, are scooting boots on the dance floor before the buckle presentation begins, looking like dance partners of years. Not so.
“We don’t know each other. We just met,” Hill says. “I wanted to dance, she wanted to dance.”
Indeed, when you’re at the Wrangler NFR, you’re always among friends — even those whom you just met.