Rodeo has come a long way since a group of cowboys from neighboring ranches in Deer Trail, Colo., got together to settle an argument over whose wrangling skills were the best.
Today, being in Las Vegas in December is the ultimate goal for most rodeo cowboys. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, staged at theThomas & Mack Center, is the Super Bowl of the sport, and for 10 days, Rodeo Nation focuses its attention on the competitors and their bids to prove they’re best.
How did rodeo get to be so big in Las Vegas? Here’s a look at some key events that have helped bring attention to Las Vegas every December.
Way back when
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association said the first rodeo occurred in Deer Trail, a small town on the Colorado plains. The informal gathering of cowboys from working ranches in 1869 was considered the first rodeo.
Early cowboys competed on everyday ranch tasks, including breaking wild horses and roping and capturing calves and full-grown cattle.
Little did those cowboys know that their games still would be celebrated more than 100 years later.
In 1930s Las Vegas, the small rail stop between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City was starting to grow. Gambling had just been legalized and construction workers 30 miles south were working on Boulder Dam, a massive post-Depression public works project.
Hotel proprietors in Las Vegas worked to put together a celebration so those 5,000 or so construction workers could “raise some hell.”
Eventually, the celebration became known as Helldorado Days, sort of a cross between raising hell and Eldorado, a canyon near the dam construction site.
But the original Helldorado Days, first celebrated in 1934, didn’t have a rodeo attached to it. That would come years later.
Setting the rodeo stage
Many considered the Helldorado Days rodeo to be the true predecessor of today’s National Finals Rodeo because it affirmed that Las Vegas had an appetite for hosting a major rodeo event.
Helldorado got a boost from western film star Roy Rogers in 1946 when footage from a Helldorado Days parade was incorporated in the movie “Heldorado.”
In that era, film censors took issue with “hell” being associated with a wholesome family film. Even though the title got the second “L” out of “Heldorado,” all signs in the Las Vegas footage spelled it with two L’s.
Bringing NFR to Las Vegas
In 1984, community leaders boldly decided to bid to move the NFR to Las Vegas. It had been staged in Dallas and Los Angeles before moving to Oklahoma City in 1964.
The group’s founder, Herb McDonald, was one of the first publicists on the Strip. Longtime casino operator Benny Binion and former Sheriff Ralph Lamb were among the leaders who lobbied for the move.
The rodeo’s first year in Las Vegas was 1985.
Not just for tourists
Strip properties quickly embraced the NFR, seizing the opportunity to attract visitors to resorts at a traditionally slow time of the year.
Rodeo organizers sought to build the NFR into an event at whicheven people without rodeo tickets could be part of the experience.
The Cowboy Christmas Gift Show debuted at the Las Vegas Convention Center in 1986. Today, that event is still the premier retail gathering at NFR and has been duplicated at other venues across Las Vegas.
New fan feature
The National Finals Rodeo has become the template for all major events in Las Vegas, but rodeo officials aren’t against borrowing good ideas from other places.
New in 2012 is the Cowboy FanFest, described as an interactive experience where fans can eat themed western food, hear up-and-coming country artists perform, meet rodeo cowboys, and see western exhibits and displays.
Las Vegans are used to seeing activities related to major events held in the city. Most recently, NASCAR kicked off its Championship Week with its own Fan Fest at the Fremont Street Experience.
The NFR FanFest is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Dec. 15 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and there’s no charge to get in.
By Richard N. Velotta (contact)