Every night as the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo takes place in the Thomas & Mack Center, a steely-eyed woman sits focused and intent crunching away on a computer in the belly of the building.
Tucked away out of sight and safe from distraction, Wrangler NFR Secretary Sunni Deb Backstrom works with her talented team to process the rodeo’s results as they happen. Distributing accurate information in a lightning-fast way is their game, and they do it better than anyone.
This year’s Wrangler NFR marks Backstrom’s 12th time serving as secretary of the world’s richest rodeo, and she has the job down to a science. Along with Assistant Secretary Jackie Higlin, office manager Vickie Shireman and timers Sherry Rice Gibson, Tammy Braden and Jessi Franzen, Backstrom processes the times and scores instantaneously as the rodeo action unfolds, and moments later, the information is ready for the rest of the world.
Rodeo fans will never see Backstrom at work, and that’s just fine with her. It is an often thankless and supremely stressful job, but one that Backstrom truly treasures.
“It’s a stressful job, but it’s very rewarding,” said Backstrom, a 10-time PRCA Secretary of the Year. “I love it. I love the NFR and love doing what small part I can to contribute to our industry, albeit being behind the scenes and running a computer.
“I’m thankful every time I get to come here.”
Backstrom and her team are tasked with recording and processing each run and ride, and mistakes are not an option.
“When I hit enter on my computer, it goes everywhere,” Backstrom said of the information. “It’s got to be right, and there’s no saying ‘Oops.’ You can ‘Oops’ at a regular rodeo – even though you don’t want to – but there’s no ‘Oops’ here.
Backstrom’s day begins at 8:30 in the morning, when she heads to her office inside the Thomas & Mack Center to process information for the daily programs and determine the bucking order for the night’s performance. After two or three hours there, she returns to her mobile home near the stock pens to rest and get ready for the upcoming round.
Backstrom is back at the office mid-afternoon before teaming with PRCA judges to do the timed-event stock draws at 5:15 p.m. At 6:15, it’s time to head into the lower halls of the building, where she will eventually hunker down behind the computer and knock out the results with precision.
After the rodeo, Backstrom does the roughstock draws and distributes those to a long list of people who badly need the information to distribute themselves. Her team scrutinizes every piece of information and cross-check everything with each other before releasing any information to the world.
“We hand-check everything,” said Backstrom, who said she works 130-140 rodeo performances a year. “The assistant secretary, her job is to do everything by hand so if we do go down (on the computer system), you’re never going to know it because we’re going to keep rodeoing. We’re very, very thorough, and we double-check each other.
“I don’t send out something that’s wrong, unless I’ve been given wrong information. I want it to be right, but I also want it fast. (The rodeo is) very fast, and we have to be spot on.”
Backstrom is part of the rodeo’s overall production staff, and that team mentality that is passed down from General Manager Shawn Davis is something she buys into wholeheartedly.
“You have to be a team player, and you’ve got to be part of a production team,” Backstrom said. “At a regular rodeo, I am part of a team, but not to this extent. We work as a team, and anybody who’s here to be in the spotlight or pat themselves on the back, this is the wrong job.”
Backstrom and her crew have Davis’ utmost confidence.
“I trust her completely, because she knows rodeo. It’s been her life,” Davis said of Backstrom. “She prides herself on not making any mistakes, and what more could you ask for? She also has a great background and great history and understands not only her job, but the rodeo business and the people involved.
“She’s a real asset to what I do, because I don’t have to worry. It’s a job I know is taken care of and not one I have to look after. I don’t have to look over her shoulder for anything.”
You won’t find Backstrom out late at night in Las Vegas casinos, or even at Cowboy Christmas during the day. She has a supreme focus and sticks to a strict schedule that ensures that she’ll be sharp for each night’s performance.
“I’m not here to shop or party,” Backstrom said. “I have a job to do, and I have to make sure I do everything I can to make sure I do it to the best of my ability.”
A regular at PRCA rodeos since she was “three days old,” Backstrom has seen the sport from virtually every angle. She served as a timer at the NFR in Oklahoma City in 1975, 1980 and 1984 and also carried flags there, then worked as Davis’ assistant the first five years it was in Las Vegas.
From there, Backstrom graduated to secretary of the 10-day season-capper, serving in that role in 1991, 2000, 2003 and every year from 2006 to today. She has only missed two years in Las Vegas and has been thrilled by how the rodeo has evolved with the city in its 30 years here.
“I don’t know that we’ve actually taken advantage of everything we could have, but I think we’ve built a new fan base because it is here,” she said. “There are so many people who are here because they have a vacation planned, and they walk by one of the TVs and see the rodeo on. They’ll sit down and watch it and will say, ‘You know, they have a rodeo just down the road in the summer, and I think I’ll go to it because this is cool.’
“I think we’re developing a new fan base just from the fringes of the activity that goes on here. We couldn’t do that somewhere else. Since we can’t fit everybody in here, those watch parties have become so popular.”
And watching rodeo grow and evolve is a treat for Backstrom, a rodeo “lifer” who adores the sport more than anything. Her career is truly a labor of love.
“I just do my job because this is what I do. This is who I am,” she said. “I’ve been in the rodeo business my whole life. It’s just who I am.
“Because I’ve invested my entire life in this business, I want it to be successful and to continue to be successful 20 years from now. It has my heart.”