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Silver and gold

12/9/2009

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ESPN.com columnist Ed Knocke has attended and covered every National Finals Rodeo since the 10-day event moved to Las Vegas in 1985. Here, he reflects on the move that almost didn't happen, and how the event has changed over the course of 25 years.

LAS VEGAS — The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is celebrating its 25th anniversary in Las Vegas this year, and the move has drastically changed the WNFR's landscape — though some weren't so sure about the idea at first.

The biggest impact created by the move has been the money offered to contestants. This year, the cowboys and cowgirls will be competing for a record $5.75 million, something even the visionaries in 1985 would have had a hard time comprehending.

When the event first moved to Las Vegas from Oklahoma City, where it had been a staple for 19 years, money was the big drawing card. Many of the Las Vegas naysayers were silenced when the 1985 prize money was announced at $1.79 million, which was double the purse of the 1984 event and more than the combined total of the first 19 NFRs.

Despite the giant leap in the money offered, debate among the traditional and progressive factions of rodeo over the move remained heated. Not everyone was in favor of it.

In fact, it was not until then-PRCA president and current WNFR general manager Shawn Davis cast the deciding vote that the move became official.

There was a great concern rodeo would be changed at its core. The fear was that the glitz of Las Vegas would transform the sport into something that would not reflect its western heritage.

Some pointed to the Las Vegas concept of using powerful music, not traditional country and western, laser light shows, fire and smoke during the NFR's grand openings at the Thomas & Mack Center as an example.

It was totally different from the NFR's openings in Oklahoma City where they used a dark house with a spotlight to enhance the late Clem McSpadden's western heritage-style show.

The Las Vegas presentation was something that a majority of the fans had never witnessed at a rodeo. There was some concern, at first, of its effectiveness. Many said this wasn't real rodeo, and this type of presentation would water down the sport. I was one of those who believed that at the time.

Although the NFR still featured the world's top cowboys competing against the most powerful livestock, it wasn't your grandfather's rodeo. But in reality, it was just a different method of production. In the end, rodeo hasn't undergone as big a metamorphosis as many had feared.

Today the horses and bulls still buck, the ropes still swing and the chute gates open about the same way they always did. In many ways rodeo at its core hasn't changed that much over the years.

But the WNFR has become more popular. Virtually every ticket sells out several months in advance. Las Vegas turns into "Cowboy Town" for two weeks every December as tourists and fans descend on the desert oasis to witness rodeo's greatest stage. The event's staggering prize purse makes it possible for contestants to earn more than $100,000 during the 10-day event.

"In my biggest year in 1973, I won $6,000 at the NFR, and that was in three events,'' remembers six-time world all-around champion Larry Mahan. "Now at the Finals, they can win so much more.''

The fear that the crowd wouldn't be as educated in rodeo as it had been in Oklahoma City was also quickly quelled. The belief the audience would mostly be made up of tourists or a crowd from casinos who were given comp tickets, and didn't know the difference between a cow and a horse turned out to be untrue.

Today, rodeo fans come from all parts of the United States and Canada to watch this fast, furious and dangerous sport presented in a spectacular fashion. Many take their vacations during that time of the year to attend the WNFR. It's the hardest ticket to obtain in Las Vegas.

In the past 25 years, more than four million fans have watched contestants compete for a combined purse of more than $81 million. The 10-day event has been sold out for more than 15 years, and continues to set attendance records on a yearly basis.

The city of Las Vegas had a lot to do with dispelling many of those initial fears. I was stunned to see how the Strip and the downtown businesses went all out to cater to the rodeo crowd that first year, and have continued to do so ever since.

Many of the hotels' employees were decked out in hats and boots, and went out of their way to welcome the rodeo crowd. Many of the hotels brought in top country and western entertainers to fill their ballrooms. Those first years in Las Vegas, the signs on the Strip resembled Nashville, Tenn., more than Sin City.

Las Vegas continues to capture the fans' imagination as the city where anything is possible. With its world-class hotels, award-winning restaurants, luxurious spas, the finest golf courses and spectacular entertainment, it remains one of the most electrifying destinations in the world.

Although the city doesn't have the Western lore of the Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days or the pageantry of the Calgary (Alberta) Stampede, Las Vegas has always seemed to make sure the city was ready to embrace the Western way of life during the 10 days of the WNFR.

Las Vegas, like no other city, is well prepared to receive a rodeo crowd that enjoys a good party. It offers rich entertainment on a grand stage. Its commitment to extravagance, service and luxury has made it a city that glows in the dark.

Ed Knocke is a Texas-based writer who has covered rodeo for over 30 years. He also is a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.

The WNFR will be televised nightly on ESPN Classic and ESPN2. At the conclusion of the 10th performance on Dec. 12th, the contestants with the highest earnings in each event will be crowned as the 2009 world champion.

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