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History of the National Finals Rodeo

Credit to Oklahoma Historical Society. (23353.08.21B-23353.08.13, Carroll Jackson Collection, OHS)

Every year as thousands of fans flock to the lights of Las Vegas, Nevada for the National Finals Rodeo, we think it’s important to look back to see how far we’ve come in order to fully appreciate where we are. Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we explore the history of the NFR!

1959: The very first National Finals Rodeo (NFR) took place in Dallas at the Dallas State Fairgrounds December 26-30, 1959, featuring competition in bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and bull riding. Steer roping finals have been held separately since the first year. The top 15 cowboys in each event were invited to the finals in Dallas. The Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) figure for prize money won by cowboys in 1959 was $3,137,245, and the top 69 contestants at the end of the year had the chance to compete for an additional $57,500 at the first NFR.

Winners of the first National Finals Rodeo at the Dallas Coliseum in 1959. Credit to ProRodeo Archives.

The average winners of the inaugural event were Jack Buschbom (bareback riding), Willard Combs (steer wrestling), Jim Tescher (saddle bronc riding), Olin Young (tie-down roping), and Jim Shoulders (bull riding). 

1962: In 1962, the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) moved the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) to Los Angeles, California. Here, the event was held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Team roping was added as an NFR event this year.

The average winners this year included John Hawkins (bareback riding), Mark Schricker (steer wrestling), Les Hirdes and Julius Boschi (team roping), Alvin Nelson (saddle bronc riding), Olin Young (tie-down roping) and Bob Robinson (bull riding).

The Top 15 Bareback Bronc Riders of the 1962 National Finals Rodeo. Credit to ProRodeo Archives.

1965: After just two years in Los Angeles, the decision was made in 1964 to move the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) to the State Fair Arena (also known as the Jim Norick Arena) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The first NFR in Oklahoma City took place the following year in 1965. There were 47,027 fans.

The average winners were Dennis Reiners (bareback riding), John W Jones Sr. (steer wrestling), Billy Darnell and Bronc Curry (team roping), Bill Martinelli (saddle bronc riding), Jim Bob Altizer (tie-down roping) and Ron Rossen (bull riding).

1967: Barrel racing was added to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) action in 1967. Frances Smith took the win home in the only women’s event that year.

The other average winners were Clyde Vamvoras (bareback riding), Walt Linderman (steer wrestling), Bucky Bradford Jr. and Ace Berry (team roping), Larry Mahan (saddle bronc riding), Glen Franklin (tie-down roping) and Freckles Brown (bull riding).

 Larry Mahan used champion bucking horse Descent just like he owned him. He hooked the ol’ pony R.C.A. style until the tooter (signal horn), and then he fanned with his hat and stepped off, old-time cowboy style. Photo by Ferrell

1974: It wasn’t until 1974 that the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) was televised consistently. From 1974 through 1986, the event was telecast through syndication; and in 1987, ESPN began broadcasting the event. From 2011 to 2013, the event was televised live; and from 2014-2019, it was broadcast on CBS Sports Network. Now, the Cowboy Channel and RFD-TV televise the event live, as well as stream it on the Cowboy Channel Plus app.

NFR average winners in 1974 included Jack Ward Jr. (bareback riding), Bob Marshall (steer wrestling), Jim Wheatley and John Bill Rodriguez (team roping), Joe Marvel (saddle bronc riding), Ronnye Sewalt (tie-down roping), Colette Grave Baier (barrel racing) and Sandy Kirby (bull riding).

1979: Still in Oklahoma City, the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) moved downtown to the Myriad Convention Center in 1979 to allow for more growth. In the new facility, attendance reached 117,070 fans, an increase of more than 70,000 compared to the first NFR in Oklahoma City.

The 1979 average winners were Bruce Ford (bareback riding), Jack Hannum (steer wrestling), Jesse James and Allen Bach (team roping), Tom Miller (saddle bronc riding), Roy Cooper (tie-down roping) and John Davis (bull riding).

1981-2000: From 1981-2000, there was also American freestyle bullfighting at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). The first winner of the bullfighting competition in 1981 was Miles Hare, and the last winner of the bullfighting in 2000 was Mike Matt.

 Arena being prepped in the Thomas and Mack Center getting ready for the NFR in 1985. Courtesy of Scott Henry

1985: Despite considerations to build a new $30 million arena at the State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) was moved to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1985. Las Vegas Events and its president at the time, Herb McDonald, guaranteed the rodeo a prize fund of $1.8 million to the contestants and $700,000 to the contractors. At the first NFR in Vegas, there were 142,000 fans.

The average winners of the first Vegas NFR included Chuck Logue (bareback riding), Ote Berry (steer wrestling), Jake Barnes, David Motes and Clay O’Brien Cooper (team roping), Bud Pauley and Monty Henson (saddle bronc riding), Mike McLaughin (tie-down roping), Janet Powell (barrel racing) and Ted Nuce (bull riding).

Credit to the WPRA

2001: A landmark sponsorship agreement was made in 2001 with Wrangler making them the title sponsor of the event. Since then, the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) has been known as the Wrangler NFR.

The 2001 Wrangler NFR average winners were Clint Corey (bareback riding), Rope Meyers (steer wrestling), Speed Williams and Rich Skelton (team roping), Scott Johnson (saddle bronc riding), Jerome Schneeberger (tie-down roping), Kappy Allen (barrel racing) and Blue Stone (bull riding).

2020: Amidst a global pandemic and with restrictions on gathering in Nevada, the Wrangler NFR was moved to the newly built Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas in 2020. With recent energy surrounding breakaway roping in the rodeo industry, the women’s event was held in the same facility over the course of three mornings corresponding with the Wrangler NFR. Jackie Crawford took home the first Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping title.

The other average winners in 2020 were Jess Pope (bareback riding), Jacob Edler (steer wrestling), Erich Rogers and Paden Bray (team roping), Ryder Wright (saddle bronc riding), Shane Hanchey (tie-down roping), Hailey Kinsel (barrel racing) and Colten Fritzlan (bull riding).

Ryder Wright on Prom Night. Credit to Ric Andersen

2021: After a year of change in regards to the Wrangler NFR, the event was moved back to Las Vegas and the Thomas & Mack Center in 2021. There were 169,539 fans, and the overall payout climbed to a record $13.3 million. The Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping was held in the Orleans Arena.

The most recent Wrangler NFR average winners include Jess Pope (bareback riding), Will Lummus (steer wrestling), Buddy Hawkins and Andrew Ward (team roping), Brody Cress (saddle bronc riding), Caleb Smidt (tie-down roping), Jordan Briggs (barrel racing), Josh Frost (bull riding) and Sawyer Gilbert (breakaway roping).

2022: This year, the Wrangler NFR will once again be held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, but the Wrangler National Finals Breakaway Roping will now take place days before the NFR at the South Point Arena & Equestrian Center. For more information on the 2022 NFR, visit nfrexperience.com!

Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine

This article was created for the Summer Issue of the Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine which was released in early July. You can catch this article and many more by checking out the full issue. For more information on Cowboy Lifestyle Magazine, visit the website here.

CLN Community & Event Sponsor

Originally from Earth, Texas, a small town in the Texas panhandle, I was raised around rodeo, agriculture, and the western lifestyle. With a degree from Texas A&M University, I have found a passion for promoting the lifestyle that made me who I am today. I am an experienced writer, marketer, and event professional with a strong desire to share the stories of those in our industry. When I’m not busy seeking out ways to promote the western way of life, I enjoy following those I care about around to rodeos, hunting, and going on runs with my blue-eyed, blue-merle Australian Shepherd.

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