National Finals Rodeo features 10 riveting days of ultimate rodeo—and all things Western, including John Wayne—in Las Vegas.
Written by Constance Dunn
Consider the first 10 days of December to be the most important in rodeo anywhere on Earth, when the stars of the sport, from bull and bronc riding to steer wrestling, roping and barrel racing, and fans descend on Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for Nationals Final Rodeo (NFR). Held yearly by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) since 1959, NFR will feature the top 15 winners of the season competing from December 1-10, with separate prizes given to those with the best average from each day’s go round—and the optimum title of All-Around Cowboy bestowed on the competitor who’s earned the most prize money during the season in two or more events. (The current honor rests with Utah’s Stetson Wright, still in his early 20s, who’s held onto the prestigious gold buckle for the last three years, and as of this writing, has more than double the season earnings of his closest competitor.)
Being held at the same time as the Super Bowl of rodeo is Cowboy Christmas, a massive gift show held at Las Vegas Convention Center featuring more than 350 exhibitors showcasing a colorful spectrum of Western-themed goods, boots and rodeo gear included. The world’s most famous cowboy, John Wayne, will be represented at the event at Booth 2539, and via a special retail pop-up by John Wayne Stock & Supply. Other Wayne-related happenings include appearances and book signings by members of the Wayne family and, in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Cowboys (1972), appearances and autograph signings from the cast of the beloved Duke film.
Celebrating Western music and culture is an essential part of NFR, so there will be a full schedule of festivities happening at big and small venues all over town. This year’s musical lineup is heavy on iconic names like Tanya Tucker, Lynard Skynard and George Strait, with newer stars like Luke Bryan, Easton Corbin and Lainey Wilson also part of the bill. Western action brand Hooey is throwing their annual Hooey Party, which has grown to two events due to its popularity and will feature singer-songwriter Elle King and the Oklahoma sextet, Turnpike Troubadours. “It’s a great experience for our fans,” says Hooey founder Joey Austin, who’s been coming to NFR every year since he was born. “We try to approach opening acts we are passionate about, but don’t necessarily have a wide audience.
There’s a dizzying number of nightly events and happenings—from MGM Grand’s Gold Buckle Zone and the Ram Rodeo Tailgate Party at South Point Convention Center—and NFR viewing parties held at off-site venues each day. (If you’re not able to make it to Vegas this year, you can always watch wall to wall coverage of NRF on Cowboy Channel, which also has an app.) Back at Thomas & Mack Center, on Thursday, December 1 doors will open to welcome in the first night’s eager crowd. More than 170,000 fans are expected to attend during the 10 breath-baiting go rounds of performances, when 120 of the brightest, most ardent practitioners in rodeo will be calming their nerves and gathering their reins in pursuit of a golden buckle, a cash purse and the ultimate honor in a time-honored pillar of Western life.
Photographs courtesy of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (except where noted). Homepage image: Specialty act trick rider. PRCA photo by Rod Connor.