LAS VEGAS — Shawn Davis celebrated his 77th birthday at the National Finals Rodeo.
It was much like the previous 31 celebrations, with Davis sitting in his customary spot at the Thomas and Mack Center, watching every detail of professional rodeo’s pinnacle event.
“I know where everybody and everything should be,” he said.
And it is only appropriate that the milestones in Davis’ life are tethered to Las Vegas.
No man is more synonymous with the NFR than the cowboy from Whitehall, Montana.
Davis estimates he’s been involved with the NFR 55 years as a contestant, PRCA official and fan.
It was Davis, then the PRCA president, who cast the deciding vote to move the event from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas in 1985.
“It’s reached all expectations,” he said of the NFR in this burgeoning desert city.
A three-time world saddle bronc champion and 12-time NFR qualifier, the former PRCA president has been the general manager of the NFR since 1986. Davis was part of the first ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction class in 1979.
It is he who streamlined the NFR, making it a must-have ticket in Las Vegas in December.
“We want the focus to be on the cowboys and the stock,” Davis said.
In 2017, the NFR reached 310 consecutive sellouts.
This year’s event also begins a period of transition for the NFR.
The 2017 NFR was the first year of a three-year process that has Davis gradually handing the reins to Boyd Polhamus. With Polhamus watching and learning, Davis will remain the NFR general manager for one more year before sliding into a consulting role for 2019.
Polhamus is a long-time PRCA announcer who worked the PRCA NILE Rodeo for many years.
Davis was also the rodeo coach at College of Southern Idaho for 29 years, retiring in 2007. Now involved in the thoroughbred horse racing industry, he divides his time between Congress, Arizona and racetracks around the Midwest during the summer.
Davis, called by some “The General” for running the NFR with military precision, oversees every detail of the NFR. Bolstered by a large group of devoted workers, many of whom have been with him many years, each performance is planned to the second and documented by a script that has to be followed.
Dean Oliver, an 11-time world champion, has been running television cables for year, while the late Benny Reynolds, a former all-around champion from Montana, was responsible for the back bull gate for decades.
“I hire good people, people who I can trust,” said Davis. “To have this happen, I expect them to do their thing. I don’t want my people to be lax or do anything half-assed. There is a fine line of your personnel not liking you and not respecting you.”
His eye for detail includes everything from making sure the workers wear clean cowboy hats to seeing the competitors nod their heads in the bucking chutes in a timely manner.
“There is a lot going on in that arena,” said Davis, who customarily sits behind the announcer stand, taking notes with stopwatch in hand. “There is a lot of responsibilities with this.
“We have a backup plan for everything.”
To emphasize his point, Davis gets up from his desk in the production office and goes to another room. He returns with a 25-page instruction manual covering every situation that could crop up during the rodeo.
“It took me three years to get this written,” Davis said. “You’ve got to have the rules ready when called upon. The rules are for the fairness of the contestant and with the spectators in mind.
“We choreograph the rodeo.”
Davis and some of his staff usually arrive in Las Vegas before Thanksgiving to oversee the transformation of The Thomas and Mack Center into a rodeo arena. In the early years, and even now occasionally, he would arrive at the building at 5 a.m. and leave long after the rodeo was over.
A graduate of Montana Western, Davis learned the other side of the rodeo while doing promotional work for some of the stock contractors during his riding career.
“As a contestant at the time, they were trying to change the image of rodeo,” said Davis. “And cowboys didn’t like to spend so much time with the press. I didn’t drink or smoke so I did a lot of the pre-rodeo publicity.
“From doing that, I got a pretty good understanding of what it took to sell a ticket.”
He cast the deciding vote during a contentious process when the PRCA decided to leave Oklahoma City for Las Vegas. It was Oklahoma City that rescued the NFR after it struggled during its short stay in Los Angeles.
“The biggest concern was not knowing. Will it be a success?” Davis said. “We were moving from a 12,500 seat venue to one that had 17,500 seats. If we did come out to Las Vegas and it failed, who had it next?”
But Davis wanted more for the fans -- “You can only make so many trips to the museum,” he said of Oklahoma City -- and he had another reason to move the event.
“The biggest reason I chose Las Vegas was I had Benny Binion’s support,” Davis said of the legendary casino owner in Las Vegas. “He knew the lay of the land and had the influence we needed in the city. His involvement went a big way in making this a success.”
It was a perfect fit. The NFR wanted a new home and Las Vegas needed an event to fill its hotels in December, a notoriously slow month for the city that relies heavily on tourist dollars.
When Davis won his first world title in 1965, he earned $25,599. In 2017, a go-round win was worth $26,230.
“We want to see this rodeo advance,” said Davis. “We want the rodeo to be entertaining. The fans are here to have fun, to see the competitors.”
The impact of the NFR extends beyond The Thomas and Mack Center with many casinos hosting viewing parties on their grounds each night. Many rodeo fans who don’t have a ticket come for the NFR atmosphere.
“You want to be the best at whatever you do,” Davis said. “I had no idea it would be this successful.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished.”