The Wrangler NFR, the sport’s richest and most prestigious rodeo, showcases the world’s best contestants and stock and the 55th annual “Super Bowl” of rodeo is running hot n’ heavy this week.

The 10-day championship event held at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas every December has enjoyed sold-out attendance for more than 25 years. In 2012, more than 175,000 fans cheered 120 of rodeo’s superstars at the 54th Wrangler NFR, in which $6.125 million was paid out to contestants who won or placed in rounds or in the average.

So who are these top-level cowboys anyway?

They are members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or PRCA. Membership includes more than 5,000 cowboys (including permit holders), who comprise the majority of the association’s roster, as well as about 1,000 contract personnel (performers and workers).

The largest membership segment includes a full range of contestants, from cowboys who compete in professional rodeo for a living, crisscrossing the country with their own horses or equipment, as well as those who work at other jobs during the week and compete in nearby rodeos on the weekends.

Cowboys qualify for the Wrangler NFR based on their season earnings at most Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, or PRCA rodeos. The top 15 earners in each event qualify for Las Vegas.

Cowboys can count only a limited number of rodeos toward their NFR-qualifying, so experienced rodeo cowboys plan their competition seasons to maximize potential winnings and minimize travel.

The PRCA includes one $4.5-million earner, three $3-million earners and more than 100 million-dollar earners, yet most of its competing members participate in fewer than 30 rodeos each year.

The 2012 Wrangler NFR reached 62 million households through Great American Country’s telecasts on Dish Network’s channel 165 and DirecTV’s channel 326. You can check out Round 6 events on those stations tonight. For more information, visit http://prorodeo.com/series_home.aspx.