Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021 | 2 a.m.
After a remarkable 35-year ride, Las Vegas was bucked from hosting the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But just like a cowboy thrown from the back of a bucking bronco, the city has dusted itself off and is ready to get back in the saddle.
More than 168,000 rodeo fans are expected to pack the Thomas & Mack Center Dec. 2 to 11 for the annual event that moved to Texas last year because of COVID restrictions here.
“Of course, we’re going to take all the proper precautions, but there’s no intention of scaling back,” said Allen Rheinheimer, general manager of the NFR. “I think everything is on track to be one of the better events we’ve ever had.”
The return of the rodeo during a traditionally slow tourist period will mean packed hotels, casinos and bars, concerts and other special events, such as Cowboy Christmas, a Western shopping extravaganza.
“Everyone is excited to be back in Las Vegas — from competitors to spectators, staff, contractors and everyone else,” Rheinheimer said. “There’s no town like Las Vegas to host this event.”
Kaycee Feild, a champion bareback bronc rider, said the Thomas & Mack is an incomparable setting for the rodeo, with the fans seated seemingly right on top of the competitors.
“Las Vegas is its own animal,” said Feild, noting the city’s excitement and energy.
Ryan Growney, general manager of the South Point, said the resort will once again be “Vegas cowboy central” for the rodeo.
Several rodeo events will take place at the South Point, including the $15 million World Series of Team Roping, along with a number of entertainment offerings, Growney said.
“We are thrilled to be welcoming back the National Finals Rodeo to Las Vegas,” Growney said. “We believe this will be the largest year yet. We plan for these two weeks all year long because it means so much to us as a property, as well as to the city of Las Vegas.”
Earlier this year, the National Finals Rodeo Committee, which oversees the NFR, came to terms with Las Vegas Events, a nonprofit organization that works to bring sporting events to the area, to have the rodeo here through 2025.
Each year, the NFR welcomes the top 15 contestants in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding to compete.
Aside from the competitions, the NFR can be described as a wider “Western lifestyle festival,” which attracts a segment of consumers not afraid to spend money, Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson said.
“The (NFR) customer spends almost 50% more than the average visitor,” Christenson said. “What’s great about Vegas is that it’s so value driven. You can get great value, or you can stay at one of the higher-end hotels. If you don’t have a ticket to the rodeo, you can go to a viewing party.”
Cowboy Christmas, a Western expo and interactive experience, will run in conjunction with the rodeo at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Some rodeo fans will also attend country music concerts scheduled for early December.
Acts include Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn at Caesars Palace, the Just Dave Band at Treasure Island and George Strait at T-Mobile Arena.
“There will be over 200 events with this, and 65 of them are concerts,” Christenson said. “Nobody can duplicate what Las Vegas has to offer. Nobody knows better how to take care of the NRF fans or visitors in general. If we’ve done one thing well, it’s to continue to grow the event outside of the arena.”
The purse for this year’s rodeo will be more than $10.2 million, nearly 10 times what it was in 1985, the first year the rodeo took place in Las Vegas.
Along with the rodeo, Las Vegas has grown over the years as a city and a tourist destination.
In the mid-1980s, Las Vegas boasted about 50,000 hotel rooms. Today, it has close to 170,000 hotel rooms, two major professional sports franchises and welcomed over 42 million visitors in 2019.
“Vegas rolls out the red carpet for NFR,” Rheinheimer said. “It’s been a great marriage over the years. We hope to just continue to improve this event in Las Vegas every year. I’m over the moon about being back.”
Because of the continuing pandemic, fans will be required to wear masks, but there is no vaccine requirement.
After missing out on the rodeo in 2020, Christenson said Las Vegas tourism officials and business owners are ready to put on a great show.
“There’s going to be a lot going on,” Christenson said. “We’re going to serve a lot of whiskey and beer, shine a lot of boots and sell a lot of cowboy gear. I think having two years to prepare to host again, we’re ready. This is their Super Bowl, and Las Vegas is the place to have it.”
For more information about the rodeo and associated events, visit www.nfrexperience.com.