National Finals Rodeo Goes Beyond Local Economics

Why the NFR’s annual visit is about much more than crowning rodeo champions and filling hotel rooms

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

It’s hard not to notice when the National Finals Rodeo is back in town: The whole city, it seems, repurposes itself to cater to rodeo participants and their fans. There’s no denying the economic boost the 10-day event gives Las Vegas during the slowest stretch of the calendar. But the connection between NFR and Las Vegas is deeper than mere economics: The rodeo speaks to fundamental truths about Las Vegas’ identity as an urban area in the western United States.

For the past 30 years, the NFR has brought world-class rodeo cowboys and cowgirls to the Thomas & Mack Center, where the competitors battle nightly in an attempt to claim crowns—technically, gold belt buckles—in a variety of events. Beyond that, it is a chance for rodeo enthusiasts and those in the business to gather, celebrate the best in their sport and have a good time in Las Vegas. We benefit, of course, because those enthusiasts fill hotel rooms during a sluggish month.

But the rodeo is really about something more primal than all that. Whether they are roping, riding or steer wrestling, the participants are demonstrating the peril and thrill of humanity’s mastery over nature. That seems a very 19th-century concept right now, but how else would you define a 180-pound man attempting to stay mounted on a ferociously bucking bull 10 times his weight? There is something affirming in watching people show the physical courage and quick reflexes needed to make large, strong animals comply with their will.

You might find such brute force disquieting in our wonderfully enlightened age of green initiatives and self-conscious carbon footprints, but despite our LEED certifications and curbside recycling, every one of us in Las Vegas is, fundamentally, doing the same thing as the cowboys and cowgirls in the Thomas & Mack. We, too, subjugate nature. We’ve replaced sagebrush with asphalt; we burn through megawatts each summer cooling the air around us; 80 years ago, we tamed the wild Colorado, incidentally creating a 120-mile-long lake. Sure, none of us blasted the tunnels or dammed the river ourselves, but our continued living in the Mojave, at its core, means asserting our defiance of—and dominance over—the patterns of nature. We might not think of it that way—after all, don’t we savor the views from Red Rock?—but building a city of 2 million people in the middle of a desert requires the same willful dominance of nature as bareback riding or team roping.

That’s a theme Las Vegas shares with much of the region. Mostly arid, it wasn’t until the railroad—and several wars of conquest—that the West opened to American settlement. As is obvious in August, we humans—at least in large numbers—just can’t live in this corner of the world without significant help. From the concrete curve of Hoover Dam to the bright lights of the Strip (whether neon or LED), Las Vegas might be the ultimate symbol of how Americans have altered the land to suit them.

Danger lurks, though. Seeing a rodeo cowboy in a hip-to-ankle cast limp down Harmon Avenue, we are reminded that the contest between humanity and nature, though it looks graceful when it’s going well, has an underlying violence. Bellagio’s fountains make our control of the natural world seem effortless, but it doesn’t take more than a broken condenser fan to remind us that, without technology, our West is pretty inhospitable. More pressingly, as our thirst grows and our straws get longer, the limited pool of fresh water is as menacing as any bucking bull.

So, yes, the NFR is about selling rooms during the December doldrums, and yet it is about so much more than that: It is a symbol of who we are and what we are doing and how we are existing in the desert. It should also be a reminder that, no matter how secure our grip may seem, we are holding onto a force that is far, far more powerful than us. And even our incredible ingenuity might not be enough to keep us from being thrown off.