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Big Hats, Big Bucks—The Real Extreme Sport Rides into Vegas to Reinvent Itself

Stacy Willis

The giant bull called Speck is simply going to toss this little cowboy off his back. You know it. In fact, you've come to watch it. Although you may be rooting for the human, kind of hoping he can ride the animal for the full eight seconds, score big points, win the rodeo, make some money, be a big star, you've really come to see him get bucked, go flying, crash land. You're pulling for Speck.


So Speck snorts and throws his weight around inside the pen. The skinny cowboy, hat pulled tight over forehead, sweat on his upper lip, straddles the beast and tightens his grip on the rope. He gives the nod. The gate is pulled open.


Speck lunges out into the arena, a Mack truck of muscle wrapped in hide. The cowboy's flimsy body jerks backward. Speck—more than 1,300 pounds of bull—twists sideways, bucks high, jerks his head around. The man hangs on, flopping like he has no bones for three seconds before Speck sends him flying, 17,000 people at the Thomas & Mack watching, waiting. Approving. The cowboy crashes into the dirt, shoulder-and head-first, rolls.


But he's not out of danger yet. Speck is still pissed, still thrashing about, threatening to bring down a ton of buck on top of the fallen cowboy. The bull rider tries to roll away in the dust, and two other cowboys on horses come between him and Speck. They shepherd the animal away. The cowboy rises and runs to the gate. Three seconds will get him nowhere. But he'll be back to ride again and again and again.



• • •


The Lone Ranger sallies into the Las Vegas Convention Center. He's a little paunchy—it's hard to hide a middle-aged belly in a full-body blue leotard. He's sporting a black mask and pistol holsters.


"I have to ask: Are you the real Lone Ranger?" a curvaceous woman who's wearing tight—very tight—Wrangler jeans asks him. She holds a wide-mouthed bottle of Coors, has pink, glossy lips and hot-rollered hair falling down her back from under a white cowboy hat.


If this lone ranger were ever going to lie, if he were ever going to say, "Why, yes—yes I am," this might be the time.


Instead, he says—in a jarring Philly accent—"Nah, I'm just a look-alike, y'know? We just do this for fun, y'know? We're just having a good time. Annie Oakley is around here somewhere, too."


Turns out the cowgirl is from Phoenix; she works at a bank. The Lone Ranger and his buddy the Gene Autry look-alike are in real estate. And they're all at the Cowboy Christmas Gift Show, drinking beer at noon, standing next to a stage full of Miss Rodeo America contestants who wear sashes and rhinestones and are auctioning off round-trip tickets to Salt Lake City and sketches of turkeys. The place is packed.


Nearby, dozens of cowpeople are admiring chandeliers made of deer and moose antlers, next to a booth displaying "practice mechanical calfs."


Around the corner a merchant hawks cowhide beer coolies, silver-plated Skoal cans and a sign that says, "Good cowgirls keep their calves together." Across the aisle, cowboys check out a 2004 calendar called "Racks" that features hot babes in bikinis holding, yes, deer antlers. Racks.



• • •


Welcome to the National Finals Rodeo. Forty million dollars in nongaming revenue is expected come into Vegas as a result of the NFR and surrounding hoopla: "Everybody wins!" says Las Vegas Events Project Director Zandy Carnes, who's been working the rodeo since it moved to Vegas from Oklahoma City in 1985. "This community has really taken to the rodeo. They see what it is doing. We have businesses thank us. This rodeo keeps people employed when it would be quiet here."


Sure enough, pedicab pedalers are carting cowboys to the convention center; cabbies are driving them to the Thomas & Mack; bars and casinos are selling a peck of country acts—Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis, LeAnn Rimes; restaurants are full; strip clubs are touting "exotic bull-riding" (Club Paradise)—and all in all, cowboys are shaking Vegas' money-maker. Some 170,000 fans will watch 119 contestants vie for nearly $5 million in prize money through Monday.


If it seems like cowboy culture is an anachronism in the 21st century, something resurrected from American folklore or Oklahoma, take heed: This isn't the old rodeo. Not if you ask promoters who want to recast it as both traditional and hip, and rope in some sort of hyper-renaissance fans who are lured by a perplexing combination of livestock, reality TV, Christian values, Jack Daniels, patriotism and/or, most importantly, extreme sports.


The aw-shucks cowboy shuffle is being mixed with the big-money, extreme-sports entertainment industry in an ongoing attempt to enhance the multimillion dollar pro rodeo season that every year culminates in, appropriately, Las Vegas—another place that constantly revamps its image without actually straying from its old-boy, never-gonna-be-politically-correct DNA.


Take your "new rodeo" cues from a Twenty X apparel ad in the Miss Rodeo America souvenir booklet: It shows a cowgirl with a pierced bellybutton, and the copy says, "Because rings aren't just for fingers any more—it's a whole new rodeo." They're pitching rodeo as something akin to motocross or skateboarding—racy and trendy, yet still rooted in tradition.


The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association ProRodeo Tour, a major catalyst for all of this, was established in 2000.  This year, about 11,000 contestants have competed for more than $34 million in PRCA prize money. The organization sanctions more than 700 rodeos annually in the U.S., with sponsors such as U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, Jack Daniel's, Dodge Rodeo, Justin Boots, Coors, Pace Picante Sauce, Resistol Hats and Wrangler. NFR prize money has gone from $500,000 in 1980 to $5 million, PRCA officials say the event is sold out through 2009 and the tour has been expanded for 2004.


Cable and network TV have begun showing more interest in broadcasting rodeo events—this year, ESPN2 is broadcasting from the Thomas & Mack. Clear Channel Communications recently entered negotiations to invest in the Professional Bull Riders Inc., an organization formed by top bull riders 10 years ago with $1,000 each that now hauls in about $34 million a year. Three bull-riding events aired on NBC this year, drawing an average audience of 2.3 million households—more than the average National Hockey League games, according to Bloomberg News.


And let's face it, for the average, freak-show-drawn, reality-TV-loving, thrill-seeking viewer, rodeo offers a lot more to watch than hockey: There are giant, genetically altered animals expressing anger and fear, dapper cowboys in tight jeans risking life or death, quick success and failure, scantily clad but plentifully coiffed women, songs, boots, hats that fly off and clowns who drop their pants during downtime. It's Fear Factor meets Hee-Haw meets a million sponsors, somehow packaged for easy consumption. At least, that's what promoters hope.



• • •


Out in front of the Thomas & Mack, in a crowd of hundreds, there's a man sitting on a saddle on top of a barrel. He's trying to rope a giant mechanical chili pepper with horns. People are standing around wearing huge, yellow foam cowboy hats that say Pace Picante Sauce. Others are eating barbecue ribs and dancing, simultaneously. The band is twanging through some country classics—right now it's "Amarillo By Morning." A cowboy-event promoter is sitting on a nearby wall talking about the growth of the sport.


"It's growing because people's interest in extreme sports in general is growing, and it seems to the mainstream like something a little new and dangerous," says Todd Wenger, a bull-riding promoter for Wild Thing Productions in Gallup, New Mexico. He's squeaky clean and has a broad-brimmed white hat.


"And compared to skateboarding, rodeo is a little more interesting to watch," he says.


He's a former bull-rider himself. "I've broke my nose, cracked my chin—that's part of it."


Justin Boots Inc., which sponsors the sports-medicine team, handed out a flier that says, "It isn't if they'll get hurt, it's when and how bad." Rodeo cowboys have an 89 percent chance of sustaining injury if they compete in at least 10 rodeos.


Justin Boots' PR materials note that the company used 2,150 rubber gloves last year—"enough to outfit an entire cruise ship, including crew and passengers" in treating wounded cowboys. It doesn't say whether the company plans to send the wounded cowboys on a healing cruise or how, exactly, rubber-glove usage translates into injury, but it does say how cowboys break down: 17 percent spinal injuries, 16 percent arm and hand injuries, 14 percent head and face injuries, 14 percent foot and ankle injuries, 12 percent knee injuries; 11 percent shoulder, 8 percent groin, 8 percent miscellaneous.


The injuries are all a part of the extreme-sports appeal—the marketability of the sport, Wenger says. "It's a big, big business. I think the American mainstream is coming to the light. They're amazed that there's people doing this—riding on bulls!—and they think they ought to be doing it too …


"I think we ought to do a Rodeo Survivor TV show—see how long people could last. Probably not too long," he says.


"But people like to watch it. It seems new to them."



• • •


Or does it?


Inside, the Thomas & Mack smells like manure. There's dust in the air. Every seat is full. Cowboys keep their hats on for the show, so pity the short guy behind a tall-hatted guy. The show starts with a performance of "How Great Thou Art"—a Christian hymn. The crowd gets on its feet to applaud, and the announcer says, "Only in America can you pray like that."


The national anthem is next, followed by a sudden and short-lived digression into a not-so-country light show with Matrix-like green laser beams that criss-cross all over the dark arena to the tune of "Check it out now, funk soul brother." Then, as easily as it all shifted out of tradition, it slips back in: a bucking horse is released, a cowboy gets thrown, there's dust a-flyin' and fans a-hollerin.'


The announcer introduces each cowboy to the audience before their event and then quips about them afterwards. One cowboy flies off a saddle bronc and loses his hat, revealing a tuft of bleached hair. The announcer aks, "Is that Cyndi Lauper? Or Slim Shady?" The audience eats it up. There's a distinct lack of eye-rolling in this crowd—everybody's on the same page, into the main event.


Out on the mezzanine by the snack bars, Jack Daniels shots are going for five bucks. Beef jerky is selling for $14. A $10,000 rifle is being auctioned off to benefit the Boulder City High School Rodeo Club, and there's a guy getting his picture taken with the Jack Daniels' babes—three hotties in black leather chaps and tight JD half-tops. Miss Rodeo Alabama and Miss Rodeo Oklahoma are wearing their sashes over more conservative garb, walking around saying "Hey" to dozens of cowboys they seem to know.


After their events, contestants with numbers on their backs do the same—they join the fans on the mezzanine, have a beer, talk livestock. "He was a rank bull," or "That piece-of-shit [bronc] had no business in there." It's as if Brett Favre were to walk into the Packers' stadium and hang out at halftime.


Champion roper Rich Skelton, 37, is mingling. He has just finished his ride and is fumbling with a wad of cash—there' s a hundred dollar bill on the outside—trying to pay the beer guy for two cold bottles of Bud.


"Yesterday, I dropped one foot on a steer that I shouldn't have," he says. He's a team roper—his event consists of two cowboys on horseback chasing a calf thru the arena. One lassos its head and the other its heels, and they yank the animal to the ground as fast as possible—right around five or six seconds typically.


"But other than that, it's going OK," Skelton says. "It's a great sport. I don't think we'll ever get it to the spot other major sports are. It's just, well, I don't know, something. I think it should be as good as other sports, though—it's a family event."


Trevor Brazile, 28, is down the hall signing the inside of a fan's cowboy hat. Coming into the NFR, Brazile is the favorite to win All-Around World Champion cowboy because he's made about $200,000 in winnings this year, roughly $70,000 more than the next cowboy on the circuit. Skelton is nine back at $125,700. The median annual earnings of the contestants—who are the best of the best—is $63.981.28. At the bottom of this all-star field is a cowboy who earned $25,709.18 this year.


But Brazile says he does it for the thrill, not the money.


"Is  it dangerous? Well, I don't guess I'd do it if it didn't get my adrenalin running. And the way I look at it is, it's all a crapshoot. Any day you couldget hit by a bus—."


Brazile stops and points to the TV monitor. "Ouch! Oh, my god! Look at that!" he says. A flag girl on a horse in the arena has just knocked down a guy who was raking the dirt.


"See there? That's just what I'm talking about. The guy's raking the arena, and the flag girl ran over him. Now that's dangerous. That guy's got a dangerous job. You think my job is dangerous? Look at that guy. See what I'm talking about? Depends on how you look at it."



• • •


The calf that Brazile ropes also has a precarious working life, as is noted by the small group of protestors lined up on Swenson in front of the Thomas & Mack.


One woman refuses to talk to the press because, she says, the press takes things out of context. The next two—a young guy and girl—are friendlier. The girl says they're not a part of any animal rights organization: "We're just some kids who disapprove. We just came down to protest the treatment of the animals."


The girl is holding a hand-written sign that says "Get a Life," and she's waving it at the cars and trucks—mostly trucks—making their way into the rodeo parking lot. People yell back at her, "You get a life!"


Further down the line, Megan Dean, a spokeswoman for the United Animal Rights Coalition, says that a few cowboy fans took and tore up their protest signs on Friday night, but that Metro has since provided them ample protection. Two Metro cops are atop horses now, patrolling the line of animal rights advocates.


"Everything in the rodeo is just cruel and unnecessary," Dean says. "I'd like to see it dwindle down and lose popularity."


The literature she hands out says that in calf roping, the "young animals, running up to 27 miles per hour, often sustain severe bruising, broken bones and internal bleeding; some have become paralyzed from spinal-cord injury." It also explains the potential injuries posed to bulls and steers, which can be as severe and as fatal as cowboys' potential injuries.


This is all lost on the rodeo crowd, which contends that the animals are treated exceptionally well by the 56 stock contractors supplying them.


Skelton says, "They're fed real good and if something does happen to them, there are vets right there to help."


During calf-roping, when the chute opens and the calf sprints across the arena, chased by two men on horseback with ropes, the DJ plays Blondie: "One way … or another … I'm gonna get ya', I'm gonna get ya' getcha getcha getcha …"



• • •


So now, Miss Rodeo America 2004—who was three days ago merely Miss Rodeo California, Miss Darci Robertson—is posing for pictures by the beef jerky stand. A man stops and asks her to autograph his rodeo ticket.


"My wife was Miss Rodeo California 1987," he tells her. They instantly bond.


She poses for another picture. She has the look—long, blond, loose curls, matte-finish make-up, pleasant smile and tight cowgirl jeans.


She says of her new title, "This means so much to me." Indeed it does. In fact, Miss Rodeo America will receive a $10,000 scholarship and, according to her bio, plans to go to "Stanford School of Medicine to receive a Ph.D. in anesthesiology and continue on to Santa Clara University School of Law, specializing in malpractice suits and scientific/intellectual patents."


"I've been around horses since I was 3," she says. "But I got involved in this [pageantry] three years ago because I needed some money to go to school.


"I think the sport is popular because I think extreme sports is popular, and this is the ultimate extreme sport," she says. "You can only do so much with a motorcycle."


Also, she says, "Especially in a time of war, rodeo is the most patriotic sport."


How's that?


"It's a very patriotic crowd. And it's a family event."


That it is. Everywhere, toddlers in cowboy hats run along behind dads in hats—little western Mini-Me's. In fact, the NFR's run in Vegas was started and is maintained in part by family tradition—the Binion family tradition.


"Benny [Binion] brainstormed this," says Carnes, who was around when Benny courted the NFR. "Benny was a cowboy, with a ranch and horses and the stagecoach. He just thought it would be a good thing to have here." Now his daughter, Becky Behnen, still rolls out the stagecoach at the start of the National Finals, and in a move that is not typical at other rodeos, Binion's Horseshoe Casino pays the entry fees for all the cowboys and cowgirls in the competition, Carnes said.


And, traditionally, that's how rodeo got its fan base: family tradition. "I was always raised a cowboy," says Skelton.


"I never thought of doing anything else," says Brazile.


Only about 7 percent of the spectator tickets are bought by locals—everybody else comes from around the nation, tracking their sport. One twenty-something cowboy from Flagstaff in the stands said, "This is my first time being here, and it's the best day of my life, because I've watched these guys my whole life," just before telling his stubble-chinned friend that there were two really hot, drunk girls on the mezzanine. These cowboys headed outside.


The question for the rodeo is whether it will succeed in drawing more than country fans, whether it will create larger fan base through broader marketing and image stretching—whether it will meld with pop culture the way country music has, in some ways, melded with pop music.


Carnes guesses yes.


"Back  in 1985," Carnes says, "There were a lot of seats left open at the NFR. By the third year here, though, you couldn't find one. It has grown." On opening night, guys in hats and boots stood out on the curb in front of the Thomas & Mack holding signs that said, "Need Tickets."


Carnes herself didn't know much about rodeo in 1985 when she got tapped to organize the NFR. Now she likes cowboys so much, she says, she "imported one" to be her husband—a cowboy from Texas.


"My husband still stands up when I leave the table. He tips his cowboy hat when he meets a lady. He opens the door for me. I like that," Carnes says. "The rodeo people are just nice. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the Southern way they're raised. Cowboys are pretty laid back, they take things easier—they're just different."


At the convention center this week, people from two other conventions—a wrestling competition and a construction-industry event—came through the Cowboy Gift Show, Carnes said.


"I'd listen to all the [non-cowboy] people at the front when they left. And they're just like, 'Wow, they are so nice. It's almost like they're alien,'" Carnes says. "And it's true, it is almost like they're alien."

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