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Breen: Covering Wrangler National Finals Rodeo exciting, but not so glamorous

Posted at 6:00 PM, Dec 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-17 13:14:31-05

LAS VEGAS – In over 25 years of covering the NFR, the question I’m most asked around Montana is, “what’s it like?”

Let’s start in the media parking lot. It’s about three football fields away from the arena.

Credentials to cover this rodeo are extremely limited, and if you do make the cut, even security is tight. First order of business is to pick up my photo ID, for which, of course, I need to present a photo ID.

I then pass three check points every night: one outside the Thomas and Mack Center, one just inside the entrance and another downstairs to reach the work room, which is about another 100 yards away through several long hallways.

Here’s what might surprise you. I don’t actually get to watch inside the arena because there isn’t enough room for all the reporters and photographers. Still photographers for newspapers and magazine have to rotate in and out of the arena-side mote and compete for elbow room.

I’m actually set up on one of UNLV’s old practice basketball courts facing a brick wall with other TV crews while highlights into my laptop from a small black box. Real glamorous, huh?

By the way, we’re not allowed to wander off for contestant interviews. We put in a request to ‘runners’ like Gizmo and Doug Mathis. It’s their job to ask cowboys and cowgirls to come visit with us. Most of them are pretty good, but some just blow it off.

Interviews are done in front of two backdrops pasted with PRCA and NFR logos.

I also move my reports around twice daily to give viewers different looks from the Thomas and Mack Center, both inside and out.

Aside from featuring how our local contestants score every night, I’m always looking for interesting storylines and tidbits. Take the bucking shoots, for example. We don’t think about this watching on TV, but they get pretty roughed up over 10 nights. So every morning they get a touch-up paint job, with freshly peeled stickers, to look sharp in close-ups for the worldwide broadcast.

Another fun tidbit about covering this rodeo when I started back in early 1990s is the location I would hang out and shoot my video, back when we were able to shoot our own video. I’d have to crawl underneath the announcer’s table and squeeze my camera lens through a tiny gap between the advertising tarp and the arena dirt. Every highlight was sort of a blind shoot, just hoping to get some kind of airable video. Naturally, I got hit with a few dirt clods. We’ve come a long way.

Remember Doug Mathis and Gizmo who help us chase down interviews in the media room? Their job at Mandalay Bay is to put on a little song and dance at the enormous Cowboy Christmas Sale every day at high noon. And if they sound familiar, it’s because they’re in Red Lodge every summer for the Home of Champions Fourth of July Rodeo. Mathis is your deep-voiced PA announcer, Gizmo is the rodeo clown.

Among other features we had a chance to show you throughout the NFR was how bull rider Parker Breding is an inspiration to a little buckaroo with cancer in Chinook.

We heard from cowboys who missed the camaraderie of hanging out with Melstone bareback rider J.R. Vezain. He was supposed to be competing, but now is just trying to walk again after a horse crushed him in September.

And we showed you the background on a telling premiere of Feek’s Vision at the Orleans Hotel and Casino. It’s a documentary on how Ekalaka’s Feek Tooke back in the day changed the future of rodeo by raising dominant bucking stock. 

I’m grateful that a lot of you reached out with some terrific local story ideas. While I didn’t have a chance to catch them all, they’re on my radar for next year.

Now, that long walk back to the car.