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Rocking NFR viewing parties making sleep elusive for fans

There’s no question that the atmosphere at the Thomas &Mack Center is through the roof during the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The energy is pretty hard to top.

But don’t sleep on the more than 20 viewing parties that take place at hotel-casinos all around Las Vegas. Honestly, you couldn’t sleep if you wanted to. It can get pretty raucous during the rodeo, and even more so once the go-rounds end and the party really begins.

A Friday night excursion including stops at three parties over the course of the Wrangler NFR’s second go-round. The three parties — one downtown, one on the Strip and one where all the cowboys and cowgirls congregate — were unique from one another, though there was one overriding theme: a whole lot of people who love rodeo, easy access to good food and drinks, and the camaraderie that comes with the NFR crowd.

5 p.m. Downtown Las Vegas Events Center

Toni Thelmann of Pine City, Minn., certainly put it best as she and her crew settled in at one of the huge, round wooden tables at the Downtown Las Vegas Events Center viewing party.

“I love it. You can see everything going on at the rodeo. I like the way they set up the screens. I love the decorations,” Thelmann said. “And I love that it has food. I’m an eater!”

Indeed, moments after our discussion, Thelmann had a robust piece of beef on her plate.

Marty VanDenEykel of Cambridge, Minn., said the best part of the viewing party is the camaraderie not just among girlfriend Thelmann and all their other Minnesota friends, but with total strangers who become fast friends.

“What I like best about coming here is that these are my people,” VanDenEykel said. “You can strike up a conversation with anyone in here and be best friends in 10 minutes.”

Shawn Rafftery, another Minnesotan in the group, echoed his buddy’s sentiment.

“You’ve got the real grit and the heartbeat of America right here,” Rafftery said, noting that the Wrangler NFR returning to Las Vegas was the necessary incentive for his group to return for the rodeo. “I’m sure glad to be back in Vegas. Not to ditch Texas, but Vegas is better.”

VanDenEykel and Rafftery were impressed with the venue.

“Pretty amazing. You can tell that the sponsors and the hotels back it extensively. They create a country and rodeo theme,” Rafftery said. “As guys who work hard for a living, we were just talking about how this is a lot of hard work to create, to put something together like this. They did a good job.”

6:15 p.m., The Mirage sportsbook

On the Strip, The Mirage has arguably one of the more special viewing party venues. When the Wrangler NFR is in town, the massive sportsbook converts into a cowboy/cowgirl congregation. Rodeo takes over the sportsbook’s giant screens, there are a couple hundred individual seats, and many people just like to stand up at the high-top tables and enjoy a drink while taking in the competition.

Oh, and a sizable chunk of the room is devoted to a dance floor, for post-go-round activities – the sportsbook VIP area transitions into a massive concert stage. The whole venue is pretty hard to top.

Lisa Berg of Chaffee, North Dakota, said The Mirage hit all the targets for her and her crew.

“As long as you can watch the rodeo — they have these big screens — and if you can get your liquor, we’re good. We’re not hard to please,” Berg said.

Berg was with husband Todd, and they were joined by friends Jerry and Lynn Hennessy of Des Lacs, North Dakota. They’ve all been to several Wrangler NFRs, taking in go-rounds at the Thomas &Mack and at the viewing parties. There were very disappointed that Vegas didn’t host the NFR in 2020, and they were thrilled to be back this year.

“We’ve been to a lot of viewing parties. This is the only place to have it,” Jerry said, to which Lisa replied, “Amen!”

Added Todd: “I like that a lot of people can come here, you’ve got room and you can relax a little bit. If you’ve never been to an NFR performance at the arena, you’ve got to go. But these parties are better than going to the arena, if you want to really watch the rodeo.”

Clay Jorgenson is actually a professional rodeo cowboy who was 41st this year in the bareback standings. Though he didn’t reach the top 15 to qualify for the Wrangler NFR, Jorgenson decided it was time for a trip to Vegas to see what it’s all about, and The Mirage viewing party didn’t disappoint.

“It’s awesome. I mean, there are two giant screens! Unless you’re at the rodeo, you really can’t get any better than this,” said Jorgenson, from Watford City, N.D. “The bars are right there, have some drinks, have a great time. Everyone’s into it, everyone’s cheering. It’s almost like you’re there at the arena.”

7:20 p.m., South Point Showroom

Down Las Vegas Boulevard a few more miles, the South Point Showroom was packed for its viewing party. A group of California rodeo representatives crammed into one booth and made a great time of it Friday night. Among that group: Brandy Marquez of Lakeside, Calif.

Marquez proved just how much of a Vegas NFR fan she is, while explaining why last year, she wasn’t in Arlington, Texas, where the NFR was held because of the pandemic.

“I was here in Vegas when they were in Texas. It’s just not December without Vegas and the NFR,” she said, before raving about the South Point party. “Oh my God, I missed it so much last year. Being able to watch it here in Vegas is amazing. The energy in this room is great. We can all be ourselves and enjoy it.”

Rich Hurst, also of Lakeside, Calif., couldn’t agree more.

“You can’t get to the Thomas &Mack for every night of the NFR. The South Point does the viewing party better than anybody else,” Hurst said. “It’s the view and the crowd. These are true rodeo fans. This is Rodeo Central. You can feel it. Even the bartenders and waitresses understand. They get it.”

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