When the best professional cowboys and cowgirls in the nation take over Las Vegas, the world knows it’s time for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR). Since the event first moved to Vegas in 1985—after 20 years in Oklahoma City—competitors and fans have made the trek to Nevada every December to soak up the rodeo.
There’s something for everyone during NFR, from exhilarating performances and concerts headlined by incredible artists to endless shopping at Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas and even the Miss Rodeo America pageant.
Plus, for those who can’t travel to Vegas, The Cowboy Channel airs more than 100 hours of coverage for viewers at home to enjoy the action. That level of production hasn’t always been the norm for a rodeo event, though. It’s taken years of determination and the work of groundbreaking visionaries to reimagine the NFR’s television presence.
Rich History with the National Finals Rodeo
As president of The Cowboy Channel, Jeff Medders holds a rich history with the National Finals Rodeo. Not only has he hosted the event’s televised portion since 1991, but that year’s event also marked the first live nationally televised broadcast of his career. Back then, however, the NFR broadcast was nothing like today’s coverage.
“When I got involved in 1991 as the host, we only televised the last three rounds,” Medders reveals. “It was on ESPN in those days, just smashed in the middle of football.”
When ESPN2 launched, Medders and the ESPN network production team shifted to covering all 10 rounds of the event, also adding a show called the Wrangler World of Rodeo, which aired 10 rodeos from across the country.
In the early 2000s, the NFR broadcast changed hands again, this time being produced by Medders’ own company, Geronimo. After that, Medders followed the NFR to its new producer, Great American Country. Although the match worked well content-wise, Great American Country’s production quality at the time didn’t stand up to other major networks.
“We wound up moving into CBS Sports Network,” Medders recalls. “That contract ended in 2019, and that’s when Patrick [Gottsch] picked it up and it came to The Cowboy Channel.”
Keeping it Cowboy
Patrick Gottsch, founder of Rural Media Group and visionary behind The Cowboy Channel, wanted to create a rodeo equivalent of other major networks broadcasting sports year-round.
“I see other sports, like golf and tennis, and everybody has their own television channel,” Gottsch says. “There was nothing devoted to rodeo. So, the idea was simple. Let’s do with rodeo what everybody else was doing for their sport.”
Although it was Gottsch’s vision that brought The Cowboy Channel to life, he also took counsel from industry greats who helped facilitate groundbreaking ideas that led to the channel’s creation.
“I have to give a lot of the credit to Randy Bernard, the former CEO of the Professional Bull Riders,” he reveals. “We had a lot of conversation about a network devoted to rodeo where these cowboys and cowgirls were stars.”
Elevating the image of those athletes also required covering more than just the National Finals Rodeo. That’s why The Cowboy Channel team expanded coverage to include the entire season of rodeos.
“All year long, all these other rodeos weren’t getting the exposure,” Gottsch says. “The only thing on for PRCA was 10 nights in December. We thought if we covered all these other rodeos—Cheyenne and Calgary and Pendleton and Houston and Fort Worth—and really showed people what it took to get to the NFR, that there’d be more interest. That’s exactly what happened.”
Increasing the scope of coverage allows The Cowboy Channel to sufficiently honor the effort competitors put in on the road to the finals.
“This network is one hundred percent dedicated to Western sports from January 1 through December,” Medders agrees. “All we do is promote it and tell the story. You follow everybody through the regular season, so it just kind of builds to it.”
From there, the production has grown exponentially to include more airtime and hours of pre- and post-show content. The shared vision between Medders, Gottsch, and the entire team at The Cowboy Channel created television magic.
“We’ve been able to create our own cowboy version of ESPN, which has been fantastic,” Medders continues. “Instead of just doing the NFR, now we do 10 hours of live coverage every day from Las Vegas. With a hundred hours of airtime in 10 days, we’ve elevated the NFR to that Super Bowl status that it really deserves.”
Destined for Greatness
Since taking over the NFR production contract, The Cowboy Channel has brought together talented individuals from various sectors of the Western industry to shine a light on rodeo.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to put together,” Gottsch shares. “There’s the Tailgate Party, Western Sports Roundup, the Flint Rasmussen show, and a pre-show, then the actual broadcast, and a post show with the Gold Buckle Ceremony from South Point.”
Each of those events emphasizes another aspect of what makes this rodeo so unique. From the history to the athletes to the sponsors, and more, there’s nothing like the NFR.
“I’ve had a front row seat for some amazing history,” Medders remarks, reflecting on his years as the event’s television host.
Although he’s worked with many co-hosts over the years, Medders’ long-standing on-air partnership with head analyst Butch Knowles stands out the most.
“Butch and I have been doing the NFR together since 1991,” he explains. “We’re like an old couple—I can finish his sentences, and he can finish mine.”
That relationship created contagious chemistry in their own-air presence, making viewers feel close to the action as they watched the NFR from home. The same familiar feel that gives Medders his on-air appeal also drew him to the rodeo world long before he even dreamed of hosting the NFR.
“When I started, I was just a sportscaster,” he recalls. “I enjoyed college and pro sports, but growing up on a ranch, I had the feel for the cowboy side of things. Everything that I do is to build the industry. I get up every day and try to make the life, exposure, and the financial side of rodeo bigger and better for the cowboy.”
After dedicating his career to bettering the sport of rodeo, Medders has gained enormous respect for every athlete willing to put in the long hours and tireless work it takes to compete.
“When you read the job description for a cowboy, it’s hard to believe that there are five in the entire country,” Medders jokes. “You put a horse in a trailer, pull all over creation with nothing guaranteed and high diesel prices. They’re modern gypsies, and I wholeheartedly believe that they are the toughest athletes in sports.
“They’ll get bucked off and injure a shoulder and get in a truck and drive eight hours to do it all over again,” he continues. “There’s no quit. They’re a phenomenal group of athletes.
Christmas Cowboy Style
When December arrives in Las Vegas, fans of the Western lifestyle look forward to more than the rodeo itself. There’s also Cowboy Channel Cowboy Christmas, a Vegas-style trade show with endless shopping, on-trend clothing, homeware, tack, and so much more.
“It’s the flash of everybody in Western wear and showing off the Western lifestyle,” Gottsch says. “You can see the Western world at its best, not only the sport of rodeo, but also shopping, Western art, Western furniture, and Western apparel. Everything’s in one place for 10 days.”
As title sponsor of this Western shopper’s paradise since 2021, The Cowboy Channel team loves seeing everyone decked out in cowboy and cowgirl gear all over Las Vegas.
“Las Vegas has a different personality for those two weeks,” Medders shares. “There are a lot of things that you can put on the Western fan resume. We’re as diligent and passionate of fans as there are in the sports world, but we’re also pretty nice, too.”
The Excitement of the National Finals Rodeo
After watching all year on The Cowboy Channel as the rodeo season builds intensity, fans want to see if their favorite cowboys and cowgirls have what it takes to finish on top in Vegas.
“People are curious,” Medders explains. “That just keeps adding to the hundreds of thousands of people that come to Las Vegas. They may not even make it in Thomas and Mack, but they’re still there to experience Vegas as it goes from Sin City to cowboy town.
“You’re going see a lot of superstars at the NFR. You’re going see some legends make headlines again. We’re going see a lot of cowboys win a lot of money, and there will be a lot of cool highlights on both ends of the arena.”