Youth will be served like never before at this year’s Cowboy Christmas.
Las Vegas Events, with support from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, has expanded its youth rodeo event schedule and will host the inaugural Junior NFR presented by YETI at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena inside the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Halls. A total of 328 contestants will compete in eight events over the course of six days during this year’s Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, with junior world titles and payouts being awarded to event champions.
The Junior NFR will take place on the second floor of the South Halls, within the footprint of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Hunter and Outdoor Christmas Expo. Talented juniors will compete in Miniature Bull Riding, 14-and-Under Tie-Down Roping, Mini Bareback Riding, 13-and-Under Girls Breakaway Roping, 18-and-Under Total Team Roping, 19-and-Under Tie-Down Roping, 11-and-Under Barrel Racing, and 16-and-Under Barrel Racing.
The event will consist of qualifiers Dec. 2–3 and Dec. 8–9, with championship finals taking place on Sunday, Dec. 4, and Saturday, Dec. 10. Tickets with prices ranging from $10–$35 will be sold for the two championship finals, and all proceeds will go toward added money for the contestants.
It is the latest addition to the ever-evolving Wrangler NFR Cowboy Christmas entertainment lineup and will give the sport’s next generation of stars a chance to shine under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
“We’re continuing to build every opportunity and every asset, and the momentum just continues to grow,” says Bo Gardner, VP Corporate Marketing for Las Vegas Events (LVE). “We want the Convention Center to have better quality events and entertainment than anybody in Las Vegas. Our goal is to continue to make it bigger and better. We want people to show up and say, ‘Oh my God.’”
Gardner says the idea for creating the Junior NFR came from a conversation he and LVE President Pat Christenson had with PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman in February, and the concept gained momentum from there. Cowboy Christmas featured mini bull riding each of the last four years and added mini bareback riding and the tie-down and breakaway events in 2015. The success of those events spurred the organizations’ desire to expand the rodeo’s scope.
“The mini bucking bulls have been a staple for us,” Gardner says. “This will be its fifth year, and it has always been one of our most heavily attended events. We built on that last year by adding Kirby Cannon and the mini bareback and Roy Cooper and tie-down roping and a breakaway event. It just kept getting more and more of a crowd as the week went on last year.
“We basically saw with our programming at Cowboy Christmas in the past that fans found their way to the arena more often when there was a youth event.”
LVE has entrusted the organization and coordination of each individual event to a group of industry leaders and champions. ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Cooper will oversee the tie-down roping and breakaway roping events, two-time World Champion Barrel Racer Kelly Kaminski is handling the barrel racing, Kirby Cannon once again will run the mini bareback riding, Bret Beach is in charge of the team roping, and Cirildo Leal is spearheading the mini bull riding.
Each contestant’s entry fees and travel expenses will be paid by Junior NFR organizers, assuring the talented hands—and their parents—that their winnings will be all profit. According to event organizers, the response has been overwhelming from interested contestants and sponsors, and the rodeo will be a chance for some to give back to the sport that has meant so much to them through the years.
“I’m just so excited to be back in the mix and to be a part of this,” says Kaminski, who won her gold buckles back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. “I feel like I have a whole new lease on life. It keeps me involved in the sport I love and helps grow it, and that’s what I think is really important—to keep that love out there.”
Kaminski held six qualifiers across the country from May to September to determine who would be part of a group of 60 girls who will compete in the two divisions, and she has been busy planning unique touches that will enhance each competitor’s Las Vegas experience. One of those will be a back number presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 30, hosted by the one and only Flint Rasmussen.
“I have some special things planned,” Kaminski says. “I want to do some icebreakers with the girls so they can get to know each other. You never know, you could be sitting next to a future world champion.
“You might look up in 10 years, and this kid [you ’re watching] was somebody you ran with at the Junior NFR, and they’ve made it to the NFR. It’s going to be fun.”
For Cannon—who is getting help organizing the event from his five-time NFR-qualifying brother, Clint—the Junior NFR is a great chance to help feed the pipeline to the pro ranks.
“My only goal in this is to get bareback riding’s numbers up,” Kirby Cannon explains. “The schools we’ve been doing for years have helped get guys to the PRCA, and we felt like this was a great extension of that. This gets young people involved and following your sport, and that’s great for rodeo.”
Cannon was energized by the success of last year’s mini bareback riding event at Cowboy Christmas and has been blown away by the level of interest he’s seen from young cowboys in 2016.
“It’s been unbelievable the response we’ve been getting from kids everywhere,” says Cannon, who was forced to retire from competition due to an injury in 2005. “We’ve gone from having about 250 kids competing nationwide to around 650 to 750 kids in junior bareback riding alone. Three to five years ago, there were probably only 80 or 90.
“I don’t see how that’s not going to do anything but pay big dividends down the road for the PRCA and bareback riding as a sport.”’
Cannon, the son of PRCA Gold Card member Jay Cannon, and his family are happy to give back to the sport through their involvement with the Junior NFR.
“It’s going to be a great rebirth for rodeo, especially in the roughstock events,” Kirby Cannon says. “Clint, myself, and my dad did great in this sport, and we just want to pay it forward. We want to help these kids out. We’re just trying to get more kids involved, and it seems to be working.”
LVE has turned to Steve Lemmon’s Final Design Group to handle the in-house audio-visual production and to distribute footage from the event to any and all interested media outlets. Lemmon’s group handles production for the newly minted ProRodeo Hall of Fame member Spanish Fork (Utah) Rodeo and will provide everything from a live scoreboard, overhead zipline camera, and timing system to instant replay, cameras in the chutes, and two large wall-mounted video boards.
“This is going to be a class production,” Gardner says. “The momentum is there, and we’ve got to ride it. We want to take baby steps and make the right decisions as we go. We want to manage it properly and do ultimately what’s best for the kids.
“We just feel good about what this is becoming.”