50th Wrangler NFR to have record number of live telecasts
LAS VEGAS — Once just a dream conjured by iconic rodeo cowboys Casey Tibbs and Jim Shoulders, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo celebrates its 50th anniversary Dec. 4-13 with big-name entertainers opening each program, the promise of history-making performances and the largest number of live telecasts ever offered.
ESPN Classic and ESPN2 will air six of the Wrangler NFR’s 10 performances live, starting with the opening session Dec. 4 at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on ESPN Classic. The Dec. 6 broadcast will be aired live at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic. The Dec. 7 performance, also at 9 p.m. ET, will be on ESPN2. The Dec. 10-12 broadcasts all will be shown live at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN Classic.
The remaining four days of coverage will be aired on a taped-delay basis, all on ESPN2. The climactic 10th round of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo will be on a one-hour delay (10 p.m. ET), as opposed to the two-hour delay on Dec. 5, 8 and 9 (midnight ET). The six live broadcasts is twice the number aired last year and is two more than have ever been done.
What the nationwide TV audience and a capacity crowd of 17,500 will see each night is the bright-lights, big-money version of what began 50 years ago in Dallas as a modest $50,000 rodeo that was not even the most lucrative event of the year. With Wrangler as the title sponsor, fan support that has produced more than 200 consecutive sellout performances and a major television contract, the Wrangler NFR now offers $5.625 million in prize money and stands as the Super Bowl of professional rodeo.
From the beginning, the NFR has been about deciding world championships, parsing out who is the best of the best. It began with Shoulders and Tibbs, both of whom won the last world championships of their storied careers in 1959 at the Dallas Memorial Coliseum, and has continued through the years with legendary names like Larry Mahan, Tom Ferguson and Ty Murray.
It continues into this era, to this 50th renewal of the Wrangler NFR, with a roll call of modern greats: Trevor Brazile, Billy Etbauer, Speed Williams, Cody Ohl, Fred Whitfield, Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper, all of whom have seven or more gold buckles to their credit.
Brazile arrives on the big stage in Las Vegas within reach of his sixth all-around world championship, which would tie him with Mahan and Ferguson on the all-time list — just one behind Murray, who won his seventh in 1998. With season earnings of $270,770, Brazile has a lead of $104,156 over second-place Josh Peek in the Crusher Rental PRCA World Standings, and he is the only contestant qualified in more than one event.
The defending World Champion Tie-Down Roper, Brazile was third in the regular-season standings this year in that event and seventh among team roping headers, paired with fellow Texan Patrick Smith.
He is almost certain to pass Joe Beaver and take over the No. 1 spot on the career earnings list during the 50th Wrangler NFR. Anything approaching the $139,704 he earned in those two events last year will make him ProRodeo’s first $3 million cowboy.
Also with an eye on history are saddle bronc rider Etbauer and team roper Williams.
Etbauer, of Edmond, Okla., stands second to Cody Wright by less than $5,000 in the world standings, putting him in strong position to claim his sixth gold buckle. It would tie him with Tibbs and the recently retired Dan Mortensen for the most titles won in that event and extend his own record as the oldest competitor to win the saddle bronc riding championship which he set in 2004, when he was a mere 41.
Williams, who turns 41 the day after Wrangler NFR closes, is looking for an early birthday present at the Thomas & Mack Center, something in gold. With heeler Rich Skelton, he set a record by winning eight consecutive world championships from 1997 to 2004, and he is coming back this year looking for a ninth gold buckle, teamed with four-time World Champion Heeler and partner Allen Bach.
Williams is a little more than $10,000 behind heading leader Matt Sherwood entering the competition in Las Vegas, and with each round of each event paying $16,767 to the winner (per man in team roping) and the average champion in each event receiving $42,999, his bid for history is within reach.
For that matter, seven-time champions Barnes and Cooper are in position to tie the record held by Williams and Skelton with a good 10-day run. Barnes/Cooper are in ninth position, around $40,000 behind the leaders.
The steer wrestling competition appears to be a two-man fight. Wade Sumpter, the former University of Northern Colorado football player, and 2004 World Champion Luke Branquinho both broke Branquinho’s regular-season earnings record and are taking aim at Lee Graves’ three-year-old record for full-season earnings of $205,415.
Already crowned the Dodge Xtreme Bulls Tour, presented by B&W Trailer Hitches, champion, Chance Smart of Philadelphia, Miss., leads the world standings with $160,581 and hopes to follow Matt Austin (2005) as only the second man to win both the Dodge Xtreme Bulls and the world championship in the same season. It won’t be easy. Wisconsin’s B.J. Schumacher, the 2006 world champion, finished the season strong and will be tough to hold off, as well Bobby Welsh, J.W. Harris and defending champion Wesley Silcox, who is coming back from a broken leg suffered in late summer.
Peek took the tie-down roping lead when he won RodeoHouston and has held it all year against challenges from Hunter Herrin, Brazile and Mike Johnson, who is appearing in his event-record 23rd Wrangler NFR.
The most dramatic battle of all may come in the bareback riding, where one of the sport’s rising stars, Steven Dent of Mullen, Neb., will be going head-to-head each night with three-time World Champion Will Lowe of Canyon, Texas, and the two-time and reigning World Champion Bobby Mote of Culver, Ore.
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The road has been long, but saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell hasn’t lost his passion for rodeoing.