The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo that fans see inside the Thomas & Mack Center or on television is just a sliver of the overall production scope of the monumental rodeo, and there are hundreds of dedicated workers toiling away daily behind the scenes to make the event a success.
Like an army of ants, they weave their way through the stock pens, warm-up areas, back alleys and the belly of the 17,000-seat arena, all synchronized by the organization of General Manager Shawn Davis and a carefully orchestrated plan that has grown more precise throughs time. Experienced crews navigate through crowds of personnel, moving stock in and out of the building, lining up contestants, specialty acts, flag bearers, a stagecoach and several other moving pieces of the world’s greatest rodeo.
There is a method to the madness, a precise and practiced production schedule that must be followed to the minute in order to bring the rodeo to millions of people through live television in a timely manner. Davis is the conductor of the symphony, but he relies heavily on the expertise and talent of a crew that numbers in the hundreds to pull off the performance each night.
“There are a lot of people who work hard, and that’s what makes it work,” said Davis, who has been the rodeo’s GM since 1986. “They’re unsung heroes and nobody knows they’re there, but without them, it wouldn’t work. There are a good percentage of them who have been there for 25 years.”
Many of the staff members – from livestock workers, security guards and gate operators to chute bosses, feed crews and production assistants – work the Wrangler NFR on their own time.
“Most of those people take their vacations (from work) to go there and do that job,” Davis said.
For the Wrangler NFR crew, the 10 performances are just a small portion of their job responsibility. They arrive weeks before the event to prep and plan for the world’s richest rodeo, and their work is a full-time responsibility.
“There’s something going on 24 hours a day for the NFR,” said Livestock Superintendent John Barnes, who worked on the feed crew the first year the Finals came to Las Vegas in 1985. “One thing the fans don’t realize is that the time we have to run the performance is what we’re all working for. We may be doing something three days in advance and not realize what we’re doing it for. But then all of a sudden, boom, the light bulb goes on and (you realize) we had to do it in that timeframe to make it all fit together.”
Attention to detail is key, and if one crew hits a snag or performs poorly, it has much larger ramifications in the bigger picture.
“We have a timeline for everything, and if the timeline is changed, then that snowballs everything,” Barnes said. “There’s only a certain way you can get the stock to the building, only a certain way the contestants can get to the building and certain ways they can get in to work the ground. You have to pay attention to the timeline that’s given to you, or you can mess everybody up.”
It’s tough work, but is a labor of love for the employees.
“We’re very proud to be selected to take care of some of the best animals in the world of rodeo,” said Barnes, a member of the PRCA Board of Directors. “The spotlight is on the contestants, but when the stock sets an arena record, ties an arena record or performs well, we like to stick our chests out like we had something to do with it. Our crew takes a lot of pride in what they do.
“We live, eat, sleep and drink rodeo 24/7 in Las Vegas when we’re in town.”
Long days are common, but the staff digs deep to make sure their work is done each day.
“I get to bed around midnight, and I get up at 4:30 or 5 the next morning,” Barnes said. “Then, I’m at the stock pens all day.”
The crew is a tightknit bunch that, in many cases, has been together for decades.
“Everybody is real close, and we’ve been together for years, so it’s always like a reunion when we meet back there every year,” said Assistant Timed-Event Chute Boss Jimmy Powers, who has been working at the Finals for more than 30 years. “There’s not a guy back there who’s not worth his weight in gold, and Shawn Davis will tell you that.”
Davis trusts his co-workers greatly, and the size and scope of the event makes it necessary for him to place that trust in the people he employs.
“For me to go around and remind everybody of everything they have to do daily is impossible,” said Davis, a three-time world champion saddle bronc rider. “For it to work like it does, they have to make a lot of (their own) decisions. They know how I want things done, and you have to give them the freedom to make decisions.”
Powers, who served on the NFR Committee and PRCA Board for two decades, agrees.
“I’ve been there for so long, I know how Shawn thinks and what he expects of me and my men,” said Powers, who has been to the Finals as a hazer in the bulldogging. “He’s the man. I’d probably give more credit to him than anybody.”
Davis prefers instead to praise his staff.
“Here’s what you know with the crew we’ve got,” he said. “If you ask them to do something, they’re going to do their very best to get it done. They try to improve themselves all the time, then there’s the fact that they’re really interested in making the rodeo successful.
“A lot of them have a lot of rodeo knowledge, and you just can’t pick people off the street and say there’s a job (available). There’s way more to what they do. We felt they were the very best people we could get when we hired them, and then they get better with experience.”
Powers’ crew of nearly a dozen people is tasked with keeping the timed-event end of the arena running smoothly, a difficult job, to say the least.
“Each calf and each steer have their own pen, and I have people who are designated to be back there sorting them all,” Powers said. “You don’t even see them, and they’re not there to watch the rodeo. They’re there for the production of the rodeo for the fans.”
The amount of detail that goes into each worker’s job is staggering, with every hour of every day planned beginning weeks before the event.
“The animals aren’t trained, so knowing how to handle them and my personnel knowing how to handle them means that the production goes on,” Powers said. “Shawn Davis demands that kind of production, which I really like. We’ve got to meet deadlines because of television times, especially on live broadcasts.
“Everything is coordinated, from the time the steer or calf goes in the chute to the time the contestants come in the (grand) entry.”
For Barnes, his staff is responsible for the care of hundreds of rodeo animals that will filter their way through the Thomas & Mack Center during the 10-day rodeo, an immense responsibility.
“Our No. 1 goal is to have the livestock comfortable and well-cared for, the gates are swung wide and the talking is kept low so they’re comfortable,” Barnes said. “We don’t have time to fight or bicker, because, if we do, the livestock is in harm’s way. It’s up to us to know if the animals are sound and feeling good.
“They’re not like people who can tell you when they’re not feeling good. Being livestock people, we have to know if they’re not feeling well or are acting different. We have to stay on our toes.”
Seeing the event grow from an idea to a reality is a thrill for Wrangler NFR personnel.
“To me, it’s like a dream come true,” Barnes said. “When we get to town, there’s nothing set up. We get the pens set up, the feed comes in and we get the tanks and fill them with water. With each step of that, it just gets more and more exciting.
“You’d think after years and years of doing it, it would become routine, but it doesn’t. Then the stock comes in and we tag them, and then the dirt comes into the building. Then your heart starts pounding and you’re like, ‘Ok, now it’s really starting to get serious.’”
Fitting the performance into a two-hour time window to accommodate television broadcasts is a challenge, but Davis and his staff prepare tirelessly and have dozens and dozens of planning meetings in order to make sure nothing is left to chance.
“Every day, I meet with Shawn Davis prior to the event, and if there are any problems, we go through it all right then so there won’t be any problems when we get in there to start the production of the rodeo,” Powers said. “If we have a problem during the rodeo, we meet after the performance and we go over the problems. That’s the reason why the production of that rodeo is the way it is. It’s timed to the second.”
There is little to no room for error, and Davis has set high standards for his crew.
“All of my employees know exactly where to be and what to do at all times, and Shawn Davis as the General Manager demands we put the production on that way,” Powers said. “If you can’t do that, you’re going to be gone. If you don’t do your job, you’re not going to be there.”
The Wrangler NFR staff takes immense pride in the work they do, and, as consummate professionals, they are endlessly looking for ways to make improvements to streamline the process.
“The thing that’s really unique about the NFR is that, every year when we do our reports, we do something to make it better for the next year,” Barnes said. “For instance, a few years ago, we started renting a tent so the tie-down calves can be out of the weather 24 hours a day. Last year, we brought in sand, because while the grass is soft, the horses feel so much better if they can roll in sand.”
As the saying goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and many rodeos around the country attempt to duplicate the Wrangler NFR’s production.
“Everybody asks, ‘How do ya’ll do that?’” Powers said. “You’ve got to take everybody Shawn’s hired and hire them, or it’s not going to be that kind of production. Everybody in the country tried to mock it, but nobody can do it because everything is so coordinated.”
Often imitated, but never duplicated: it’s the Wrangler NFR.