History of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas | Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino
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History of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas
November 21, 2019

History of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the National Finals Rodeo, or NFR, it is the biggest and most anticipated rodeo championship event in the world and held each year in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) campus. And for those of you who know all about the NFR, we’ll see you in December! We know die-hard rodeo fans never miss this one. If you’ll be in town for the rodeo, be sure to check out all the entertainment, food, and drink specials offered at Downtown Grand. Just for fun, here’s a quick look back at how it all started and how it grew to be what it is today.

Early Days of the NFR

Cowboy at a rodeo

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) established the NFR in 1958 as a way to determine the undisputed champion in the most popular rodeo events every year. The original seven events were calf roping, steer wrestling, steer roping, team roping, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, and bareback bronc riding. The top 15 professionals in each event are invited to compete for the world championship title.

Dallas hosted the first NFR in 1959 and continued to host the event until 1961. For the next two years, Los Angeles hosted the rodeo competition before it moved to Oklahoma City in 1965 at State Fair Arena. For the next 20 years, Oklahoma City was home to the NFR, bringing in thousands of fans every year to cheer on their favorite cowboys and enjoy the competition.

The NFR Makes a Move

In 1984, the City of Las Vegas entered a bid to become the host city for the NFR. Needless to say, it was a tough pitch with the rodeo competition being held in Oklahoma City for so long. Las Vegas casino developer, Benny Binion, and the Las Vegas Events president, Herb McDonald, drove the initiative to bring the NFR to Sin City with McDonald guaranteeing a prize fund of $1.8 million to the winning cowboys.

Both McDonald and the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce presented their arguments to the PRCA Board of Directors before they made their final vote in December 1984. Unfortunately, the outcome was a tie vote with five against five, and the fate of the NFR was still undecided.

The president of the PRCA in 1984, Shawn Davis, was given the final vote to decide where the NFR would be held the following year. As a member of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and with a substantial rodeo career under his belt, others expected him to vote for the traditional cowboy town of Oklahoma City. However, he cast his vote for Las Vegas, and the rest is history!

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas

In 1985, Las Vegas hosted its first NFR championship competition. Back then, it was a very different city than what you see today, with a population of only 590,000 people! Compare that to today’s 1.7 million Sin City locals and you can get an idea of how much Las Vegas has grown and evolved since then. However, one constant remains, for more than three decades, Las Vegas still hosts the NFR every year during the first full week of December.

With thousands of cowboys flocking to Las Vegas every December for the NFR, many of the Las Vegas casinos feature the live rodeo events in their sportsbooks and bars. Downtown Las Vegas even hosts an annual Downtown Hoedown on Fremont Street to kick off the rodeo with free live performances by some of country music’s biggest artists. If you happen to be in Las Vegas during the NFR, you’ll find a rodeo celebration just about everywhere you turn.

The NFR Competition Structure

The NFR goes for 10 consecutive days with each day featuring a competition (referred to as a “go-round”) in each event. Every competition has its own prizes, but there is also a separate set of prizes for the best overall scores in each event over the 10 days of competition (referred to as “the average”). This means cowboys can win a prize for a single competition and also win for having the highest overall score in that category during the entire NFR run that year.

Prize payouts depend on the total prize pool for that year. The NFR continues to break earnings records year after year with the total NFR prize purse for 2019 at $10 million! Overall, the PCRA has awarded more than $182 million to cowboy competitors throughout NFR history.

Notable NFR Events Throughout Its History

There are some exciting and memorable events in the NFR’s history in Las Vegas. Here’s a quick look at some of those moments:

  • 1988 – NFR history is made with Jim Sharp becoming the first bull rider to ride all 10 bulls.
  • 1989 – Ty Murray becomes the youngest all-around world champion at the age of 20.
  • 1990 – Team roper Allen Bach makes an incredible comeback from 15th place to win the world title.
  • 1994 – Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper set a record of 59.1 seconds on 10 head in the team roping competition.
  • 1997 – Fred Whitfield sets a record for tie-down roping with a 6.9-second run only to be broken by Jeff Chapman immediately after with 6.8 seconds.
  • 1998 – Ty Murray breaks the world all-around title win record with his seventh win.
  • 2001 – Rope Myers sets an NFR earnings record of $117,774 and season earnings record of $176,584.
  • 2005 – An agreement was struck between LVE and PRCA to keep the NFR in Las Vegas through 2014.
  • 2006 – Trevor Brazile breaks the single-season earnings record with $320,766.
  • 2007 – Brooks & Dunn’s song “Cowboy Town” is adopted as the official song of the NFR.
  • 2008 – The NFR celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  • 2009 – The NFR celebrates its 25th year at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
  • 2011 – The NFR records show 260 consecutive sold-out performances.
  • 2014 – LVE and PRCA agree to extend the NFR in Las Vegas through 2024.
  • 2015 – The NFR purse reaches a record-breaking $10 million for contestants.
  • 2018 – Trevor Brazile breaks PRCA records with his 14th All-Around Gold Buckle and 24th overall PRCA championship

Check Out Downtown Las Vegas

When you’re in town for this year’s NFR, be sure to swing by Downtown Grand. We’ve got everything from the best slots, video poker, and table games to our own William Hill Sports Book featuring all the NFR events and a full betting menu. Also, be sure to check out our stunning accommodations and award-winning restaurants.

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