Harley Martin, left, and Katy Russell of Westmoreland, Calif., have been to every Wrangler National Finals Rodeo since it moved to Las Vegas in 1985, and they lauded the recent upgrades to the Thomas & Mack Center. PATRICK EVERSON/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
By Patrick Everson
Las Vegas Review-Journal
If anyone can tell you how much the Thomas & Mack Center has improved fans' experience at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, it would be Harley Martin and his good friend Katy Russell.
That's because there hasn't been a WNFR the two haven't attended since 1985, when the Super Bowl of rodeo moved to Las Vegas. So Martin, still full of fire at age 88, and the 86-year-old Russell have literally seen it all. You might say this isn't their first rodeo.
So don't think they didn't notice several changes among the many the arena has undergone in the past few months, especially as the two of them — from Westmoreland, Calif. — made their way through the concourse before Friday night's second go-round.
"I noticed that the booths are a helluva lot smaller, and you can get between them," said Martin, who was then told that the concourses are actually much wider, too — 10 to 12 feet in key traffic spots. "That's pretty damn nice when you're walking with your hands full."
Which Russell was, as she nursed a drink that probably contained at least a pinch of alcohol. Russell, donning her 1985 National Finals Rodeo jacket, also pointed out another item that particularly helps those of an advanced age get to their seats.
"I noticed that all the steps are painted, and the railings too," she said.
To which Martin added, "Us old farts need those railings."
Witty answers aside, there have been numerous improvements since August. Mike Newcomb, executive director of the Thomas & Mack, said the venue has had $72.5 million in renovations. That includes brand new seats throughout, 20 additional points of service, more restrooms — which also helps take pressure off those wider concourses — and four times more seats in Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant areas, going from just 26 to 98. That includes a section literally at the top of the arena, served by an elevator, its own restrooms, and with a spectacular view of the floor below.
"I love these seats," said Nathan Lozano, from Lubbock, Texas. "It really makes it a lot easier on us. And the views, it's just unbelievable. It can't get any better. I'm very happy with this up here."
Lozano, who is wheelchair bound, attended his first NFR last year, so he's seeing an immediate difference compared with his 2014 experience.
"Last year, it was really hard, but they took care of us," he said. "But this year, they really stepped up and took care of us."
Lozano, with a group of fans that included his wife Nikki, was surprised that T&M officials reached out to him well before the rodeo.
"They called me first," he said, adding he couldn't quite understand where his seats would be. "How? There's no seats up there. They did a very good job. And we were able to bring our friends with us."
One area that's been around for a decade, but has also been ramped up a bit more this year is the Cowboy Corral. It's basically a big party zone — with a concert stage, live bands, plenty of tables and seating, and a brand new, huge bar this year — that takes over Cox Pavilion for the 10-day rodeo. It was filling up rapidly before Friday night's action, and it's not a bad place to watch the rodeo live on big screens, either.
Kaylyn Miller and Max Carlson made the trek from Greeley, Colo., for their first WNFR and found the Cowboy Corral very much to their liking.
"It's awesome," Miller said. "I thought this was a private area. It's really cool. I love the people and I like the crowd. It's like cowboy nation."
Carlson concurred as the two took in a pre-rodeo concert and had a beer.
"The venue is awesome, and so far, the people are really friendly," he said. "I've got nothing but a thumbs-up."
All the aforementioned reactions were exactly what Newcomb was hoping for.
"We knew that to remain competitive, to stay viable, we needed to make these improvements," he said. "The concession stands, concourse, seats, everything you see is brand new. And obviously, it was geared toward the NFR, because the NFR has the most moving parts."
It certainly sold Lozano, who promised he'd be back in 2016.
"As soon as I get back home, I'll be ordering my tickets for next year," he said.