Rodeo and the recession

Fans line up to get into the Old Fort Days Rodeo in Arkansas. Few rodeos have reported decreasing attendance, despite the recession. Mark Stallings

Rodeo enjoyed a bullish run during its winter and spring schedule despite the current economic downturn that has hit most American businesses hard.

Several factors enabled rodeos to achieve success during the recession. More people traveled less and remained home to seek local entertainment while many events implemented creative marketing plans in an attempt to reach out to their communities. Both seemed to work.

However, the big summer rodeos are bracing for a tougher time. The economic dilemma seems to drag on, and no one is sure just how it will affect major events at places like Reno, Nev., Colorado Springs, Colo., Pendleton, Ore., and Cheyenne, Wyo., later this year. Most of these events heavily depend on vacationers, who might curtail their travels because of rising fuel prices and other economic problems.

But this winter and spring was an entirely different story. The sport actually had an upturn in attendance from last year at most of its events, translating into increased merchandise sales as well as an upswing in sponsorships.

Also, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association reported the economic problems had not affected the touring cowboys, with entries up in 2009. A larger number of entries means more fees, which translates to increased purses for the athletes. Fort Smith, Ark., which just completed its rodeo at the end of May, reported an increase in its total purse from last year. This year the Old Fort Days Rodeo offered $119,000 compared to $95,000 in 2008.

"Our rodeos have done a tremendous job of increasing their prize money,'' said Keith Martin, who serves the PRCA as its chairman of the board of directors. "I think we're doing very well this year. We've had a $400,000 net profit in the first quarter of 2009.''

How was this possible during the tough economic climate in the winter and spring?

Rodeo administrators believe the sport benefited from the fact that most people were choosing local entertainment options. And rodeo, with its affordable prices, took advantage.

"Stay-cation" is the way Martin, who also is the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo president and CEO, explained it. "During tough economic times, people tend to look toward local and traditional means of entertainment such as stock shows, rodeos, fairs, and events that are suitable for the entire family.''

Martin pointed out his rodeo's affordable prices were especially attractive for families, drawing more than 1.3 million in attendance over 19 days.

"Our rodeo patrons seemed happy, enjoying not only the rodeo, but also the many other activities offered during our event,'' Martin added.

There was some concern at the Houston Stock Show and Rodeo, where the event had to fill over 70,000 seats on a nightly basis for 19 days. But with creative marketing and promotional plans, the Houston event set a record for total grounds attendance of nearly 1.9 million, and the March 15 rodeo performance set a single-day attendance record of 74,147.

"People just remain close to home during bad times,'' said Leroy Shafer, the rodeo's chief operating officer. "Economic challenges caused us to be more creative in what we offered the rodeo fans.''

The two Texas events were not the only contributors to the robust numbers rodeo enjoyed. Many other events across the country showed significant increases.

The biggest boost came at the La Fiesta de los Vaqueros in Tucson, Ariz., where the rodeo drew a total attendance of more than 50,000, up 31 percent over 2008. All of that was achieved while the PGA Tour's Accenture Match Play Championships, featuring Tiger Woods, and Major League spring training games were going on at the same time.

"The bottom line is that there is no better value for family entertainment than rodeo,'' Gary Williams, the rodeo's general manager, told the ProRodeo Sports News. "From ticket prices to parking and concessions, we offer the best value in family entertainment. Rodeo provides an easy, entertaining escape from the real world.''

Everywhere, rodeos implemented creative marketing plans to reach out to their communities and attract new fans. For example, the Red Bluff, Calif. rodeo created a special $20 per family of four ticket prices for its Friday performance. An adult ticket is normally $13. That incentive price increased the crowd to 6,500, compared to the roughly 2,800 last year.

"It's a tough year for the whole economy, and we were trying to put back into the community a little bit, and it went over absolutely wonderfully,'' said Dave Ramelli, the Red Bluff Round-Up president.

Other rodeos, such as San Angelo, Texas and Starkville, Miss., all showed success during their runs. San Angelo not only sold out seven of its nine performances, but was able to grow total sponsorship revenue by 18 percent over 2008. At Starkville, Miss., the rodeo had a $661,000 economic impact on the local community.

But now comes the long summer run, and with the country still facing an economic tsunami that has brought layoffs and uncertainity about the future, rodeos will have to adjust accordingly — especially when it comes to corporate sponsorships.

"The only place we've been hurt some is with our sponsors," said Alan Kingsley, executive director of the Reno, Ne. rodeo. "It's down some, but other than that everything seems to be going pretty normal. We've really been encouraged with how the winter rodeos went.''

It doesn't help when one of rodeo's biggest sponsors is a struggling car company like Dodge Trucks. But Kingsley, for one, says Dodge hasn't pulled back much from past years for its June 18-27 rodeo. "They are still going to supply us with trucks (for promotional purposes) during the rodeo,'' he said.

According to the PRCA, only two events — Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Wichita Falls, Texas — have been canceled so far because of the recession. Idaho Falls called off its War Bonnet Rodeo, Idaho's oldest rodeo. According to chairman Dennis Marshal, the hiatus of the event that was founded in 1911 will only be temporary.

"To ask (local) businesses to step up and contribute like they had in the past years would be unfair,'' he said, "and it could impact them with a real hardship.''

Wichita Falls just last week called off its three-day Red River Rodeo that was scheduled for June 4-6 because of the North Texas city's economic concerns.

But despite the recession and rising fuel prices, the rodeo contestants themselves say those factors have little effect on their travels. In fact, the PRCA has announced a 14 percent increase in 2009 entries so far.

Wes Stevenson, who travels with fellow bareback riders Royce Ford, Will Lowe and Tom McFarland, says the group has no plans on curtailing its travels. "Now that I have a family, I try to go real hard for a time, and then be home for week or so," says Stevenson. "But I plan to go to every rodeo I went to last year.''

Evan Jayne, the French native who lives in Texas, says he will keep trying to qualify for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. For Jayne, it's not the economic downturn that has been keeping him from going full throttle — it's his health.

"I just can't stay healthy,'' he said. "I hope to get back on the tour full-time after Reno."

According to Gary Williams, the Tucson, Ariz., rodeo's general manager, it's these touring rodeo cowboys who provide relief during these down times.

"In today's world, without many heroes that people can look up to, to be able to identify with that cowboy in the arena, if even for a short time, can provide a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom around us,'' he said.

— Ed Knocke

Ed Knocke is a Texas-based writer who has covered rodeo for over 30 years. He also is a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame.