Well, we’re off and running, ladies and gentlemen.
Thursday morning, the Las Vegas Convention Center was buzzing and alive with activity as the 55th Wrangler National Finals Rodeo festivities officially got under way. The North Hall’s doors opened at 10 a.m., and thousands of rodeo fans made their way through the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show and Cowboy FanFest for the first of 10 straight days of frenzied fun.
World Champions Trevor Brazile, Kaycee Feild, Mary Walker and Cody Teel attended the second annual FanFest’s kickoff celebration at the Boot Barn Rodeo Saloon, and it was a nice beginning to what will be 10 amazing days in Las Vegas. Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson, RFD-TV President Randy Bernard and Las Vegas Convention Visitors Association Chair and Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins were also in attendance at the kickoff event.
Christenson talked about giving fans a top-notch experience at Cowboy Christmas and FanFest.
Since 1985, there is one common thread that’s been woven through the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo,” he said. “No event treats its fans like the National Finals Rodeo. What we want to do is make this a truly memorable experience.”
The quartet of champions gave some fans memorable experiences by posing for photos and signing autographs after the kickoff press conference. Brazile was asked about chasing down his record 19th gold buckle, which he’s on pace to win in the all-around in a matter of days.
“I’ve still got that fire,” Brazile said. “I reached my all-around championship goal a few years back, but the bottom line is I love being able to do what I love and make a living from it, be a part of this sport and come and be a part of this experience here. The NFR is something you dream of as a young boy, and that never goes away.”
I asked each of them what they think about Cowboy Christmas and FanFest and what the two do for fans at the Wrangler NFR each year.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world, and this is a great way and great opportunity to give back to them,” Brazile said. “It’s evolved from shopping to an actual fan experience.”
Feild, who is going for his third straight bareback riding world title, is always interested in seeing the new additions Cowboy Christmas and FanFest have to offer.
“Every year I come here, there’s new booths and new products, but on top of that, it’s good for the cowboys,” he said. “It helps us get a lot more endorsements and sponsors get involved in rodeo, get their eyes on contestants and hopefully help the cowboys out.”
Walker, 54, is competing in her second career Wrangler NFR and has been impressed by what she’s seen at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
“FanFest is for everyone – men, women, children – and there’s something for everyone here,” Walker said. “It’s awesome, and to be here signing autographs and getting to meet all the family, friends and fans who are here, it’s amazing. You see people you never think you’re going to see here at FanFest who you haven’t seen for years.
“All the contestants are here signing for their sponsors, and it’s a great experience to get to come meet anybody and everybody. It’s a lot of fun here.”
Teel, the reigning world champion bull rider, is also at this second Wrangler NFR and agrees with Walker about Cowboy Christmas and FanFest.
“It’s amazing,” Teel said. “Last year being my first year, it was quite an experience being out here. It’s way more than I ever imagined, and you’ve got everything you need right here. We have to come here during the day for (autograph) signings, and it’s fun to just kind of relax and check everything out.”
It was a hoot walking past booth after booth, never knowing what you’ll see around the next corner. Every Western product under the sun and a plethora of other products can be found there, and it’s always entertaining to wander around taking in the sights.
I ran into Flint Rasmussen, who hosts his daily “Inside the Barrel” show on the Rodeo Live stage at noon, and got his thoughts on the evolution of Cowboy Christmas and FanFest.
“The big thing I noticed is that, I’m standing here on Thursday – the first day of the NFR – and when it was just shopping, we used to notice that this was the day there just weren’t that many people here,” Rasmussen said. “I just went for a walk, and there are thousands of people here. With promotions, what everyone has done is just jacked up everything that goes on besides the rodeo, and this is a big part of it.
“The feel at Cowboy Christmas is sharp, professional and spaced out where you don’t feel crowded, and with FanFest, there’s just lots to see.”
There were numerous Wrangler NFR contestants signing autographs at the LVCC Thursday morning, including four-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho, three-time World Champion Bull Rider J.W. Harris and World Champions Shane Proctor and Jason Miller. I also saw saddle bronc riders Cody DeMoss, Heith DeMoss and Cort Scheer and bulldogger K.C. Jones at autograph tables, and five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Billy Etbauer was making his way through the crowd as well.
Visiting Cowboy Christmas and FanFest is a great way to spend a few hours or the better part of a day, and I’m sure glad I went. Any fan in Las Vegas would be doing themselves a disservice by missing it, especially since the admission is free.
Here is a cool time-lapsed photography series showing how the LVCC was transformed for this year’s Wrangler NFR.
So, get your boots on and get out there! You never know what you’ll see.