WNFR delights despite missing ERA cowboys
December 6, 2016
The Brooks and Dunn song "Cowboy Town" blares out at the beginning of each night of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, and everywhere you look in "Sin City" cowboy hats and boots abound.
Since 1985, for ten days in early December, Las Vegas turns into Cowboy Town.
But this year, during the 32nd annual WNFR, certain cowboys were missing.
Because they held shares in the Elite Rodeo Association (ERA), such big-time cowboys as Trevor Brazile, weren't in attendance at the WNFR.
The ERA, formed last year, began as a contestant-owned rodeo organization. The PRCA ruled that its members could not be shareholders in a competing organization with two or more events, which prevented Brazile and other cowboys from competing in the PRCA, and thus not being eligible to qualify for the WNFR.
After the busy rodeo summer season heated up, many of the ERA stockholders turned their shares in, in order to be able to compete at PRCA events, and thus qualify for the WNFR.
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But a select few: Brazile, bareback riders Steven Peebles, Kaycee Feild, Bobby Mote and Will Lowe, steer wrestlers Hunter Cure and Luke Branquinho, team ropers Derrick Begay, Clay Tryan, Patrick Smith, Jade Corkill, Rich Skelton and Clay O'Brien Cooper, saddle bronc riders Wade Sundell, Taos Muncy and Cort Scheer, and tie-down roper Tuf Cooper, among others, did not turn in their stock.
The familiar names are missing, but does it make a difference to the fans?
The WNFR, held at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas' Thomas and Mack Arena, has been sold out for 300 consecutive performances through this year's rodeo. Seats were at a premium, with tickets selling faster than in previous years, said Michael Mack, vice-president for Las Vegas Events.
For Shelli Arensdorf, a resident of Hershey, Neb., this was the fifteenth time she has attended the WNFR in Las Vegas. A team roper herself, Arensdorf said she missed the absent team ropers the most. "I've followed those guys (Clay O'Brien Cooper, Clay Tryan, and Kaleb Driggers) since day one, and they are such prominent faces there."
But their absence hasn't affected the rodeo, in her opinion. "Nothing has taken away from the events this year. You're still seeing the best scores and times you've ever seen out there. The times are as good as they've ever been and the scores are as high. The times in the team roping are still in the threes and fours (seconds). The scores are still there, it's just a different face."
Las Vegas has learned how to capture its visitors' attention: there is more to do in town than just two hours of a nightly rodeo. Three huge trade shows take place: Cowboy Christmas at the Convention Center, Country Christmas at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, and the show at Mandalay Bay. Fremont Street hosts an annual Downtown Hoedown on the night before the first round of rodeo. And big name country music stars are in town, to cater to rodeo fans. This year, George Strait, Reba and Brooks and Dunn, Lady Antebellum, Alabama, Dwight Yokum, Charlie Daniels, and more were part of the line-up at a variety of casinos.
Arensdorf and her husband Tom went to the Reba and Brooks and Dunn concert on Dec. 2 and the George Strait concert on Dec. 3. They make a tradition of going to the Fremont Street light show, a couple nights of rodeo, and Arensdorf, who is co-chair of the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, attended the PRCA's national convention, this year held Nov. 29-Dec. 1.
North Dakota resident Mandi Leingang has been to Las Vegas for the rodeo the past five years, and attended again this year.
The New Salem resident grew up in rodeo, competing in play days and loves to watch the saddle bronc riding. Her favorite cowboys: Wade Sundell and Kaycee Feild, won't be competing because of their ERA ties, and she will miss seeing them, but it hasn't changed her mind about attending the rodeo. "There are still a lot of big names there, and a lot of people doing well, so it's just as great to watch." Mandi and her husband Devron always attend the Cowboy Christmas trade show, making sure to hit the different events at the show, including a colt starting challenge and mini bucking bull riding. "If you're tired of shopping, you can check out things there," she said.
Minot, N.D. had about thirty people from the Y's Men's Rodeo committee in attendance at the WNFR and its ancillary activities. Paul Kramer and his wife Lisa spent about a week in town. He's not a "religious rodeo fanatic," he claims, but he follows the WNFR and watches it when he's home. As for Brazile and his ERA counterparts, "you do kind of miss them," Kramer said. "It seems like a different twist, but yet it's refreshing, to know that Trevor Brazile won't sweep (championships) again.
"We're there for the sport and the entertainment value," Kramer said. "If you asked me if the caliber of cowboy was less this year than normal because (the ERA stockholders) are gone, I would disagree. There's always somebody who is going to be the next world champion and will do what it takes to get there."
Attendance at the 2015 WNFR was 170,966 over the ten days of competition. When the rodeo began in Las Vegas in 1985, purse money was $1.8 million; this year, the purse was $10 million.
The nearly 180,000 fans at the Thomas and Mack eat their way through 5,000 pizzas, 4,500 nachos, and 6,800 pretzels. They drink 75,000 beers, 15,000 bottles of water, and 26,000 sodas.
More than 700 head of livestock are housed at the Thomas and Mack. Stalls are built on the parking lot outside the arena, with dirt 12-15 inches deep. The livestock includes 310 head of bucking stock, 75 calves, 120 steers, 90 contestant horses, and 50 grand entry and flag horses.