If you find your yuletide thoughts are drifting toward the annual John Wayne marathon on AMC, you might be feeling pulled toward National Finals Rodeo (NFR) like a slow calf with a well-thrown lariat around its neck.
The annual celebration of all things bulls, broncos, and buckles takes over the Thomas & Mack Center Dec. 1-10, and while the attention is focused on the professional cowboys, it’s an important 10 days for the amateurs too, even though they won’t return to practice until the end of January.
For UNLV Rodeo, the NFR is primetime for fundraising. The team sets up shop at the Thomas & Mack Center for one of its primary fundraising pushes for scholarships and travel.
It’s a big part of keeping the rodeo team roping and riding under the best of circumstances, but it takes on even more importance now that the team has lost funding from Las Vegas Events, the state-funded agency that helps put on NFR and other shows throughout the year.
“They had to add more money to the [NFR] event here, so they had to do away with their pet projects,” like UNLV’s team, rodeo coach Ric Griffith said. “It's going to hurt pretty badly. … I'm not going to promise a scholarship that I can't come through with.”
He is facing a $115,000 shortfall, which works out to about half the rodeo team’s budget. During NFR, Griffith said the team can expect to raise about $1,000-$1,200 per night, which still leaves a huge hole to be filled.
“I had some saved up because [Las Vegas Events] gave me a year warning.. I’m squeaking by this year,” he said, noting that some donors have recently stepped up through the UNLV Foundation. “It’ll be real noticeable next year for scholarships and travel. It’s going to be devastating to the rodeo team.”
It costs the team $6,000 to $7,000 to compete in every rodeo, with 10 meets on the calendar each academic year. And that’s just for travel and lodging. The team has to care for its practice animals between meets. Getting roped twice a week makes a goat hungry. Pretty much everything makes a goat hungry, actually, and those feed bills don’t even stack up to what it costs to stable a horse.
Help comes from parents of student-athletes, some of whom have bought houses where animals can be stabled. There are members of the Las Vegas community who have been longtime supporters too, like Barry McGinnis, who charges nominal fees to UNLV students for use of his stables in the northwest part of town.
Being able to continue to offer a full complement of six men’s and four women’s scholarships is a crucial part of the team’s continued success. UNLV has captured 15 national titles, and could be in line for another this year.
The women’s team sits atop the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s West Coast Region standings with 1,554 points, 518 more than second-place Western Nevada. Senior communications student Leia Pluemer leads the barrel racing standings, one of 10 individual events competed between the men’s and women’s rodeo teams.
"I like the thrill of being on a fast horse, knowing what you put forth in practice is going to pay off in the rodeo arena," she said.
When the NFR comes to town, student athletes work the fundraising tables in teams of four, which leaves some time to head into the arena and check out some of the action. No UNLV Rodeo alumni are competing this year but the school has produced NFR competitors includingbarrel racer Nellie Miller; bull riders Marcus Michaelis and Colin McTaggart; and Cody Jessee, who won the event’s bareback riding championship in 2003.
For members of the rodeo team, NFR offers a glimpse of one possible future.
“Everybody dreams of going to the NFR someday,” Pluemer said. “It's cool to see other people that have graduated from our team compete in the NFR. I'd like to. I got a nice new barrel horse I've been running in the West Coast Region in barrel racing. Maybe when I graduate I'll take a year off, and go pro for a year.”
Though that comes with financial risk. One of Pluemer’s friends spent a year on the circuit to the tune of $300,000 in entry fees and expenses, winning back less than half that amount.
Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys (unless they have exceptional credit).