An intensely focused man with a furrowed brow perches directly behind the announcer's stage at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. His eyes dart like a hawk's, his head swivels like an owl's. In his hand is a stopwatch, measuring each moment of ProRodeo's grandest event — second by second, tick by tick.
His name is Shawn Davis. He is the general manager.
He is tasked with producing the sport's richest and most prestigious rodeo on a national stage as the world looks on. It is a coveted job, regarded as one of the most difficult and high-profile positions in all of rodeo.
Every aspect of the Wrangler NFR is directed by the general manager, from security, tickets and arena decorations to parking, entertainment and the flow of the rodeo itself. Every ounce of dirt on the arena floor, every fan in the seats is his responsibility, and he choreographs the revered event as a conductor leads a symphony.
His job title — general manager — couldn't be more spot-on. He is in charge of everything, in general, and leads his staff of more than 150 like a general leads an army into battle. It's a 10-night mission they undertake together — putting on the "Super Bowl of rodeo" and making it better every time.
The detail man
"The only way I can run the National Finals and keep it on track is to sit in the seat and know everything that's happening in the arena and out of the arena," Davis said. "That's what makes it exciting. I see the guy who didn't brush his hat or who didn't move the barrel like he was supposed to, and I make a note so it's taken care of the next day. I don't visit a lot with people during the rodeo because I'm watching everything, and I'm excited so I'm watching it all.
"The reason that the rodeo gets a little better in some way each year is because we're able to pick the very best people there are in the rodeo business. They take pride in what they're doing, so we don't have to change them. If I had to train a complete new NFR staff every year, I couldn't make it happen."
Fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer Bob Tallman has announced 21 NFRs and observed Davis closely during 18 of them.
"He is a machine, the most fine-tuned, dedicated-to-detail mortal who does that job," said Tallman. "He is the epitome of the perfect general manager — he's amazing. I've worked with him over the last 30 years, and he only sleeps about four hours a night. His team of people is absolutely superior."
Davis is an Energizer Bunny of sorts, beginning most of his days before sunrise and ending them late into the night. Every detail at the Wrangler NFR, no matter how large or small, is Davis' responsibility. He has a nightly checklist and knows from experience when most things will happen, long before they do.
"I know that it takes a bulldogger a minimum of 30 seconds from the time he leaves the gate to the time he turns around in the box," Davis said. "I also know that the sponsor flag that's before him takes 15 seconds. We are able to do a lot of things by organization, but it takes planning to know how long it takes each group of contestants to do things."
Saying Davis has extensive experience in the rodeo world would be a gross understatement. His involvement with the NFR dates back more than four decades, and he's seen the event from nearly every angle.
"I've been involved in every aspect of the rodeo at one time or another," Davis said. "The first time I attended was as a contestant in 1963. I qualified 12 times as a contestant, but I broke my back one time and was unable to compete. I've judged it three different times, I've been general manager and I've been a spectator there. So, I think I've attended 45 of the 49 in one capacity or another."
Davis has been the general manager of the Wrangler NFR since 1986, just the sixth man to hold the position since John VanCronkhite directed the first NFR in 1959. Many of Davis' staff members have been in place for more than a decade, so it would be tempting to say that the crew has the production of the event down to a science. Yet there are still surprises to deal with on a daily basis.
"We do have it down, and we don't guess about many things," Davis said. "We talk to our people if something happens, and it's all preplanned. We know everything from who's going to handle a security issue to going over (contingency plans) with the judges.
"I still have anxiety, but it's exciting and challenging. It's like getting on a bronc. I'm pretty confident, but there's the unknowns and the excitement."
Davis is perhaps best known for winning three saddle bronc riding world titles (1965, 1967-68), but he also served as PRCA president from 1982 to 1985, coached the College of Southern Idaho for 29 years — where he learned to produce rodeos — and continues to expand his involvement in the horse racing business.
The position of Wrangler NFR general manager is a year-round job, so Davis juggles his NFR duties with other pursuits throughout the year. When time nears for the rodeo world to converge on Las Vegas, Davis arrives a week early to ramp up preparations for the multimillion-dollar event.
The general manager's job list is endless, including the issuing of more than 1,000 credentials of varying sorts, organizing vendors and contracting with outside companies to make the rodeo run smoothly.
"I don't think the public and our own membership knows how much preparation and planning goes into that event," Davis said. "You have to worry about all of the physical aspects, from the dirt to the decorations to the livestock, quality of hay, transportation, television. There are 1,000 things, and I don't imagine the contestants or the audience realizes that you have to monitor every one of them. It's an endless list, and as we grow, that list grows."
The days are long, and the activity never slows. But that's just fine for the 68-year-old ProRodeo Hall of Famer. The constant activity and nonstop pace suits Davis' energetic nature.
"We start at 5 in the morning and finish things up between 10 and 2 at night," Davis said.
Every day at his Cox Pavilion office is riddled with constant phone calls and punctuated by more than a dozen meetings. His daily meetings on competition days are legendary, serious and focused. People whose cell phones ring during meetings are punished by having to provide a beverage of Davis' choice.
The McSpadden years
One of Davis' predecessors, fellow ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clem McSpadden, took an event then in its infancy and guided it through its formative years. McSpadden, who was general manager from 1967 to 1984 while the NFR was in Oklahoma City, Okla., helped transform the rodeo from a blip on the radar screen into a monumental sports spectacle.
"It was a great experience seeing it grow like it did," said McSpadden, who has also announced three NFRs. "You can't beat a sell-out crowd, and that's what we had. It was a great experience, and I enjoyed every minute of my 18 years that I managed it."
McSpadden and his staff built the NFR up year by year, strengthening its financial stability by erasing debts that had accrued before his time and increasing the prize money. Those measures expanded the NFR's reach and status as a major sporting event. By the time Las Vegas came calling in 1985, the rodeo was on sound footing, a viable and attractive property that Las Vegas Events wanted to bring to Sin City to help turn around a slow time in December.
Much of the rodeo's early success can be attributed to McSpadden.
"Clem McSpadden is more than a hero to me," Tallman said. "He's such a wonderful man and a good friend. From a professional standpoint, he was in the right place in the right time. He would never brag. He would say, 'We just did it,' and he had a team of people that was superior at the time for the job.
"I was a grunt in the back alleys in those days, flanking bucking horses, on the feed crew at 3 and 6 in the morning. I enjoyed the ooze of being around people like Clem. You don't realize until 20 years later just how blessed you were just to have been there."
Vegas — and TV
As the NFR grew and evolved, so did the responsibilities of the general manager. Change was a constant, and when the event moved to Las Vegas in 1985, it transformed even more. Television had always been part of the NFR, but the move to Vegas brought with it national television in the form of a contract with ESPN. The Wrangler NFR has been on the sports network ever since and now reaches more than 90 million homes.
"They said you couldn't do rodeo live on TV, but by organizing it the way we have, we do live TV and keep it right in the timeframe," Davis said. "The first year we went to Las Vegas, we had to add entertainment because we wanted people in their seats when the first bareback rider rode. So, we added a lot of front-end pageantry to get people in their seats."
While the NFR was still in Oklahoma City, organizers began working to shorten the performance times from 3 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours, and with the move to Las Vegas and the demands of national television, Davis was tasked with paring it down even further.
"In Oklahoma City," Davis said, "it had gotten to be a 3- or 3 1/2-hour show, and when I first got involved as president of the PRCA, Lynn Beutler said, 'If you don't tighten this rodeo up, you're going to lose your spectator base.' That's when we pulled it into a two-hour timeframe. That suits the American public's interest timeframe."
Nowadays, the rodeo is on a razor-sharp timeline, with every minute planned in advance and Davis clocking it along the way from his front-row seat at the Thomas & Mack Center.
"It's like producing the World Series, with security, parking, egress, regress, buses, calves, disabled patrons that need special entrances and exits, television, sponsors, oh my God, the list goes on and on — and remember, everything is portable," Tallman said. "And you're working in the middle of a major city."
Rolling with the punches
If something goes awry, the general manager springs into action. He is credited for the successes of the event, but also criticized for any mistakes that may occur.
"One year, the first night I went into the office after the bareback riding and my phone was ringing off the wall. The Lone Star flag of Texas had been upside down during the grand entry," McSpadden said. "I got chewed out for that pretty good by a couple-three dozen Texans, so that night I told some of the people that were helping me, 'Now why don't you all change that flag?'
"Well, Rex Dunn was handling the flags that year, so he went out and changed it right away. The next morning, another fellow, Coyote Kid, had heard about the problem and changed it back. Nobody rechecked it, so the second night, the same thing happened!"
The NFR general manager still has many masters to please, from the PRCA and Las Vegas Events – which hires the general manager — to the fans and sponsors. He walks a tightrope on a nightly basis, always in the pursuit of excellence.
Davis said the most fulfilling part of his job is the constant goal of improving the rodeo, performance by performance and year by year. At 68, he still enjoys the job and is honored by holding the coveted position.
"I enjoy doing it, and as long as it's a success and Las Vegas Events and the PRCA are working with me, I want to do it," Davis said. "I'm excited for the event when I go there every night. The thing about running the event is that you've got to be excited about it and enthused. When I lose the enthusiasm for the event, then it's time for someone else to take over."
Davis continues to man the helm of the Wrangler NFR, and he brings the right skill set to the job. It takes a special person to handle the immense responsibility and still put on a good show night after night.
"A general manager needs to know the business, have the ability to get along with people and have good lines of communication with the contestants, the press and anyone who has anything to do with the Finals," McSpadden said. "There isn't any golden rule for a person to do that job. You're just lucky to ever have the opportunity."
–Anne Christensen contributed to this story.