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Retiring Christenson amazed at NFR’s evolution in Las Vegas

For 37 years, Pat Christenson’s fingerprints have been all over the Wrangler Nationals Finals Rodeo. So indeed, the 2022 Wrangler NFR isn’t his first rodeo. Far from it.

But it will be his last.

Christenson is retiring as president of Las Vegas Events, a role he has held since 2001. Before that, Christenson was assistant director and then director of the Thomas & Mack Center. Since 1985, when the Wrangler NFR moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas, no one has been more involved in the event’s massive growth or arguably more responsible for its incredible success.

Not that Christenson is seeking credit. Rather, he just marvels at what the NFR has become.

“I don’t think anybody could’ve forecasted the way the NFR evolved. There’s no comparison between 1985 and now, but Las Vegas isn’t the same either. The NFR evolved and grew with the city,” Christenson said. “It happened very organically. All the hotels coming together, booking and producing custom experiences. Other than Cowboy Christmas, the hotels make up almost all of what is the NFR experience.”

Christenson left his post as Thomas & Mack director in 2001 to take over as president of Las Vegas Events, which with the PRCA runs the Wrangler NFR. Christenson accepted the job with a vision of how to take LVE’s premier event to the next level. And bear in mind, it was an event that already had a sellout streak of all 10 nights at every NFR since 1987, a streak that remains intact right into tonight’s 10th and final go-round of the 2022 NFR.

“In 2001, what we wanted to do was make it much more interactive. We wanted it to have a professional sports feel, like an NBA All-Star Game or a Super Bowl,” Christenson said. “But the NBA and Super Bowl are only interactive. Our event is different. It’s a little more shopping and interactive.”

Christenson was speaking to the huge role Cowboy Christmas — which is now officially The Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas, a key sponsorship addition late in Christenson’s LVE tenure — plays in the NFR. It’s not only a massive and ever-expanding shopping experience but also continues to provide more interactive experiences.

Access to performers

Most notable among them is the incredible access rodeo fans get to the greatest cowboys and cowgirls on the planet.

“The NFL and NBA don’t have their superstars out on the floor signing autographs. The intimacy of this event with the stars is like no other sport,” Christenson said. “Walking around (Thursday), I saw 15 autograph sessions. There are autograph sessions everywhere you turn around. NFR cowboys and cowgirls are rubbing elbows with the fans. No other sport does that.”

But it’s not just the athlete accessibility. It’s a full day of shows that Wrangler NFR attendees can take in live at Cowboy Christmas, and those shows are broadcast live on The Cowboy Channel, beamed to rodeo fans across the country.

There’s also the addition over the past decade of the Junior World Finals, held at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena specially built inside the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall, alongside Cowboy Christmas.

New this year is a Christmas Village on the second floor of the Cowboy Christmas expo. Christenson made it a point with his team at Las Vegas Events to keep stretching the scope of the NFR.

“We had to find ways to make this more interactive. It was a concept of let’s do things in each area that will give fans more to do than just shop,” Christenson said. “We are continually upgrading the experience and, when we can, finding new experiences.”

Christenson had a hard time pointing to any one decision, addition or advancement that he has taken the most pride in over his 37 years of involvement with the NFR. But he did say that the rodeo’s partnership with The Cowboy Channel has really taken the NFR experience to the next level.

Cowboy Channel boost

In 2019, the NFR’s TV deal with CBS expired. But The Cowboy Channel stepped up in a huge way starting in 2020, and not just with regard to the 10 nights of live go-round broadcasts from the Thomas & Mack Center. The cable network also airs shows all day long originating from events at Resorts World and, as noted above, especially from Cowboy Christmas — which, by the way, is now branded The Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas.

And The Cowboy Channel has committed to pumping up rodeo in general and the NFR in specific throughout the year.

“I think that’s why The Cowboy Channel is such a big deal,” Christenson said. “For the first time, we are able reach our fans through mass marketing year-round, through The Cowboy Channel and all the things they do.”

So while Christenson won’t call that the crowning achievement of his tenure, it certainly seems to be high up on his list. But rather than pointing to any one of the many successes, Christenson preferred to defer to the people he has had around him, particularly these past 21 years at Las Vegas Events.

“I can’t point to one thing. What I’d say is it’s the focus of our staff on all elements of the NFR,” Christenson said. “Not just the Thomas & Mack and Cowboy Christmas, but working with hotel partners on the viewing parties. The 15 people who work for Las Vegas Events, every one of them is committed to improving the NFR experience.”

Tim Keener now takes the reins as Las Vegas Events president, moving up from his role as vice president of ticket operations. Christenson will remain on as a consultant.

“I’ll peek my head in from time to time,” he said with a laugh on Friday night, ahead of his penultimate go-round overseeing the NFR operation.

But he’s looking forward to backing off, and he thinks now is the time to do so.

“I’m really confident that the NFR will just keep growing,” Christenson said. “It’ll be good for me to just step back and enjoy life a little bit.”

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