A regulation basketball court is 94 feet long, 50 feet wide. Now, imagine those dimensions with rounded corners, a floor filled with dirt and 17,000-plus screaming fans.
That’s the National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand championship that hosts the very best in the game from each season. Other than dirt, steel panels, roping boxes and chutes, it’s very different from most other rodeo arenas across the country. But that’s what happens for 10 December nights in Las Vegas, and it’s the task at hand for 10 nights as the greatest cowboys and cowgirls try to snag their share of the $10 million purse.
Those dimensions play an integral role in every event, but none more than team roping, where two ropers must catch each end of a steer. The header tries to rope the horns, turn left and allow his heeler to get into rhythm with the animal to rope both legs. Once their ropes are tight and their horses face one another, the clock stops, and the fastest time wins.
That’s why a good number of the top headers in the game have set up arenas at their homes in the exact dimensions of the NFR. It’s done to they give themselves, their partners and their horses time to figure out just how fast things happen in Las Vegas.
“I think the (roping) box is the most important thing, because the start is so short out there,” said header Luke Brown, an 11-time NFR qualifier originally from South Carolina now living in Lipan. “By making the box the exact same length as the NFR, you get a feel for how far they are away. Having a good feel for the distance is probably the most important thing.”
Each person who uses Brown’s arena, or one like it, is just trying to give themselves as much of an advantage as possible. Because of the prize money and the world-championship implications, there’s a considerable amount of pressure with each run. Muscle memory takes over, and that’s exactly why the arenas in Texas are built like this.
Plus, it’s only 44 feet from the left edge of the timed-event box to the left fence, so there’s not much room for headers to do all they have to do in order to secure a fast run.
“As a heeler, it just gives you a different feel,” said Jake Long, Brown’s heeler originally from southeastern Kansas now living in Morgan Mill. “You fully understand where you are in the arena, understand how fast the runs are versus being in a bigger arena. It gets your horses more used to the claustrophobic feel you get in Vegas.”
Both men moved from their homes to Texas because of the opportunities before them. They know the game, and they believe in the importance of the authentic arena.
“Most of the greatest team ropers alive live around Stephenville,” Brown said. “If you’re going to rodeo, you may as well be part of it.
“It’s the NFR and where dreams come true. You need to enjoy the whole thing, even the practice.” —Ted Harbin
Ted Harbin is a longtime journalist who spent 22 years in the newspaper industry before focusing on rodeo. He owns Rodeo Media Relations and TwisTed Rodeo and is one of just eight individuals to be honored with media awards by both the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. He lives in Maryville, Mo., with is wife, Lynette, and their two daughters, Laney and Channing.