After being bucked out of Las Vegas by COVID-19 in 2020, the National Finals Rodeo is back for what is expected to be a triumphant return.
“I think I can speak for most cowboys in the fact that there’s only one home for the NFR, and that’s definitely in Vegas,” world champion bull rider Sage Kimzey said during a recent promotional appearance at Caesars Palace.
“We’re super excited to be back. You think of the NFR, and the first thing that pops in your mind is the city of Vegas and Thomas & Mack Center.”
Local COVID restrictions forced last year’s NFR to switch to Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, the home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. But based on ticket sales and requests for hotel rooms — the 2021 NFR sold out in March, and the city’s resorts are charging premium rates for lodging — it’s the return to Las Vegas that has been classified a home run before it even begins.
It all starts Thursday with the first of 10 performances at the Thomas & Mack Center. Here are three things to look for:
1. The Wright stuff
Stetson Wright’s goal is to become one of the “greatest cowboys who ever lived.” While not exactly a modest objective, the 22-year-old from Milford, Utah, appears to be well on his way to achieving it.
Last year, Wright became the first cowboy to win the all-around gold buckle in back-to-back seasons since Trevor Brazile in 2014 and 2015. With $320,482 in season earnings, his third straight coronation is all but a formality.
The saddle bronc and bull rider is within $136,000 of breaking Brazile’s record for single-season earnings. After pocketing more than $300,000 at last year’s NFR, Wright easily could surpass that mark during his 10 days in Las Vegas.
2. Making (more) history
A year ago, tie-down roper Shad Mayfield became the third Black cowboy to win a pro rodeo world championship. The Clovis, New Mexico, youngster joined 1982 bull riding champ Charles Sampson and Fred Whitfield, who won seven tie-down roping titles during the 1990s and early 2000s as well as the all-around championship in 1999.
Mayfield’s title came 35 years after his father, Sylvester (also a tie-down roper), became the first Black cowboy to qualify for the NFR in a timed event. Should Shad Mayfield repeat as champion at age 20, he will have to overtake overall championship leader Shane Hanchey and two other Black cowboys for the honor, as Mayfield, Cory Solomon and John Douch qualified for the finals.
“I know rappers who have bought ranches not far from me,” Solomon said of introducing the sport to a potential new fan base.
3. Rookie spotlight
The NFR will feature 21 first-time qualifiers, including 34-year-old bull rider J.B. Mauney — though the North Carolina native is not a rookie in the traditional sense.
Mauney spent most of his career competing on the Pro Bull Riders circuit, where he won two world titles and was one of three competitors to ride the mighty bull Bushwacker.
Another first-time participant worth keeping an eye on is bareback rider Zach Hibler of Wheeler, Texas. He grabbed the final qualifying spot by $683.
What: National Finals Rodeo
When: 5:45 p.m. Thursday-Dec. 11
Where: Thomas & Mack Center
TV: The Cowboy Channel; Channel 603 (DirecTV), Channel 232 (DISH Network); RFD-TV; Channel 345 (DirecTV); Channel 231 (DISH Network)