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Cowboy Christmas gets official sponsor in NFR’s return to Las Vegas

As Las Vegas Events pursued a title sponsor for one of its marquee events, Cowboy Christmas, the first thought was of course to find a brand associated with the Western way of life. Perhaps a clothing company or another entity in the cowboy/cowgirl merchandise space, looking to up its profile and strengthen its connection to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

But in putting together proposals, Las Vegas Events vice president of marketing Bo Gardner got an unexpected opportunity: a chance to partner with a company that would showcase every aspect of Cowboy Christmas, rather than a partner that might be in competition with some of the exhibitors.

So as the NFR returns to Vegas, so too does the massive expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls, under the moniker: Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas.

“It’s the first time that Cowboy Christmas has ever had a title sponsor,” Gardner said, pointing to Patrick Gottsch, CEO of RFD-TV, which owns the Cowboy Channel, as key to forging this partnership. “It’s just a perfect fit, because in the overall scheme of things, it brings such strong value to Patrick’s brand and our brand. He has the opportunity to inherit 230,000-plus attendees, and it benefits all our exhibitors and sponsors to know the Cowboy Channel is there.”

The Cowboy Channel took over NFR broadcast rights last year, replacing CBS Sports Network, and actually had a very good go under the circumstances. Because of pandemic restrictions, the NFR had to take a one-year leave from Las Vegas and was held in suburban Dallas. But the Cowboy Channel improved the NFR’s TV ratings.

Still, Gottsch and his peers at RFD-TV — which has long been involved with Cowboy Christmas — were eager to get back to Las Vegas, while seeking ways to have a larger presence on the massive Western lifestyle expo.

“Cowboy Christmas has always been something we’ve looked forward to every year,” Gottsch said, before acknowledging the rebrand. “I don’t know how it can get any more perfect. Getting to sponsor it and have it called the Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas, it’s a no-brainer. We can get so much benefit all year along.

“It’s a great marketing opportunity for both organizations. We can market it all year long and get people excited.”

And keep in mind that it’s not just the Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas. Much of the second floor of the expo is occupied by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Hunter and Outdoor Christmas.

“We do overlap with Cowboy Christmas. The live stage is downstairs, and we produce half the content on that stage. We’re 100 percent partners on that,” RMEF CEO Steve Decker said, noting that just like everyone else involved, he’s eager that the expo is back in Vegas. “It’s just the semblance of getting back to normal. Being away for a year, we’re really pushing the consumer experience. It’ll be everything it has been historically, and more. And for those who have never attended, it’s an experience everyone needs to see.”

Decker promised that Hunter and Outdoor Christmas expo-goers will be met with an expanded experience on both floors of the convention center.

“Every vendor is returning, plus some, and (we’ve got) a couple of new interactive events,” Decker said. He specifically noted the new Cowboy Revival each afternoon on the main level’s live stage, hosted by country music writer and artist — and former rodeo cowboy — Shane Minor. The show will focus on the history of traditional country music.

In the wake of a lost year, Decker is pleased that Hunter and Outdoor vendors can get back on track.

“It’s an opportunity for our exhibitors to get down there and do what they do. These are a lot of small businesses, and this expo is a big part of their success,” Decker said. “A lot of these small businesses depend on it. It’s a critical source of revenue. It’s a great way for these small businesses to end their year.”

Likewise, the Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas as a whole has expanded. Gardner and Gottsch echoed Decker’s enthusiasm over the live stage schedule: The Cowboys for Conversation Calcutta, which kicks off the day at 10:15 a.m; followed by the long-running and popular Outside the Barrel with Flint Rasmussen at 11:15 a.m.; then the Cowboy Revival at 12:30 p.m.; and each afternoon wraps up with the all-new Cowboy Channel NFR Tailgate Party, starting at 1:30 p.m..

“We’re copying GameDay on ESPN,” Gottsch said of the Tailgate broadcast. “It’s a couple of hours before the rodeo, and it starts our broadcast afternoon. We’ve got the pregame show, then the rodeo, then the postgame show, then the gold buckle ceremony.”

Added Gardner: “We were trying to find a location for that Tailgate Party in Vegas. With the attendance at the Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas, it just made sense to have it there, building up to the festivities of the rodeo each night. The live stage is completely renovated, it’s upscale, and the overall production will replicate what you see on a regular TV show. It’s a first-class stage.”

The NFR Tailgate Party wraps up each day at 4 p.m., as does Cowboy Christmas, giving rodeo fans enough time to get to either the Thomas &Mack Center or a viewing party before the new nightly NFR start time of 5:45 p.m. That’s an hour earlier than the decades-long precedent, an adjustment that Gottsch expects will further boost TV ratings.

Cowboy Christmas has more vendors. Gardner said that through relationships built in Texas at last year’s one-off NFR, Cowboy Christmas found a home for 35 vendors that previously weren’t in the expo. Among the newcomers is King Ranch, a renowned leather goods, Western apparel and outdoor products company based in Texas, where it has a 160-year history.

“We’ve been to the NFR a few times and have looked at Cowboy Christmas,” said Lance Hancock, retail operations manager for King Ranch. “Last year, with the NFR coming into our backyard in Texas, it kind of connected all the dots. We’re really excited about going to Cowboy Christmas. We think it’s a logical fit for King Ranch to be in Las Vegas, to catch a customer base we currently don’t have. A lot of folks visit Cowboy Christmas from the West Coast, from California and Oregon and Washington.

“So this is another touch point for us to engage customers and tell them the story of King Ranch.”

King Ranch is hardly alone in that objective, joining more than 350 Cowboy Christmas exhibitors, plus hundreds more at the Hunter and Outdoor Christmas. In fact, there are more exhibitors wanting in than space will allow, a sure sign that vendors — much like millions of people across the country — are eager to travel and get on with life.

“This is the largest waitlist we’ve ever had, close to 200. It’s a good problem to have,” Gardner said.

A better problem: an extra day — or at least a few hours on that day — for shoppers, rodeo fans and vendors alike. This year, Cowboy Christmas kicked off Wednesday, one night before the NFR, with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and the opening of the entire expo floor.

“That (creates) a whole new experience. We (wanted) to make a big spectacle,” Gardner said.

Thanks to a year well spent brainstorming, and to the key partnership with the Cowboy Channel, that spectacle will run right through the NFR’s culmination on Dec. 11.

“I’m really excited about Vegas in 2021. I think it’ll be the best-attended ever. We’re seeing it everywhere we go,” Gottsch said, noting high turnout at many rodeos broadcast by the Cowboy Channel. “People have come out of COVID with a new appreciation for rodeo. I think they’ll show that appreciation by coming to Vegas. The Western lifestyle business is not just up, but it’s exploded this summer, and rodeo is rural America’s sport.

“We’re gonna put everything we’ve got behind this. Having a rocket ship at Cowboy Christmas is what we’re pointing toward, and we’re looking forward to doing it for many years to come.”

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