While the COVID-19 numbers may be slowly trending downward nationwide, professional rodeo may be suffering its ill-effects long into the 2020 season.
Other rodeos—like the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Frontier Days and the Cody (Wyoming) Stampede—are vowing to carry on with their plans, waiting to see what happens between now and their July dates, while the PRCA is hoping to restart their season with the Turquoise Circuit's Cave Creek (Arizona) Rodeo Days May 22-24.
Books closed this week on Cave Creek, and the rodeo saw a jump from 38 teams in 2019 to 52 in 2020. Other events had an even larger jump, with 7 bareback riders to 42, 26 saddle bronc riders to 58, 32 bull riders to 87, 27 tie-down ropers to 74, 37 steer wrestlers to 83, 25 steer ropers to 42 and 107 barrel racers to 156 in 2020.
Cowboys Feeling the Heat
Professional team ropers, who count on ProRodeo earnings to scrape by and bank on an NFR qualification and Vegas earnings to keep their budgets in the black, are looking to the PRCA and rodeo committees across the country, following the cancelations day by day.
"I think we’re all feeling uncertain, especially seeing the oil fall like it did," five-time NFR header Coleman Proctor said. "If you depend on rodeo for a living, you’re nervous. Expendable cash is getting dried up, especially when it comes to buying and selling horses."
"People are worried about not having a rodeo season at all, and not having an NFR," PRCA Team Roping Director and two-time World Champ Matt Sherwood said. "But no one knows. I get two phone calls a day wanting to know what the PRCA is doing. But the PRCA does not put on any rodeos. They’re only at the will of everyone else, and they’re wanting rodeos to happen. But no one knows anything."
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Top hands are busying taking in outside horses, like 2019 NFR header Tate Kirchenschlager who's also helping on his fiancé's family's ranch.
"I feel like there’s not going to be a season, and if there is a season it will be a very small season," Kirchenschlager said. "I don’t think we’ll get to go to more than 20 or 25 rodeos. Part of me thinks they’ll cancel the season. They might have more than that, but that might be all we can get to."
But the PRCA is staying hooked, putting in place COVID-19 guidelines requiring all competitors to wear face masks when not competing, limiting nonessential personnel around the chutes and maximizing social distancing wherever possible.
[READ: PRCA's COVID-10 Guidelines]
"We've already had 129 rodeos completed and paid off, and we have about 400 remaining that are either approved or pending approval," PRCA Chief Operating Officer Tom Glause said. "We believe there will be a good representation of rodeo for all our athletes to compete in this year."
Ropers are really hoping to be back in action by Reno—June 18 to June 27—which has yet to cancel its event for 2020. Its committee released a statement April 2 saying:
(EDITOR’S NOTE 5/7/20: Reno has now in fact canceled its rodeo, and the BFI is planning its announcement in the coming days.)
Like many of you, we are closely watching as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic unfolds. We remain vigilant, but also optimistic.
We are committed, first and foremost, to the health and wellbeing of our staff, volunteers, rodeo fans, competitors, vendors and partners – as well as the larger Reno and Northern Nevada community. We will continue to follow the guidance from the leading government and health authorities, as well as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, to ensure we are taking the right actions. For now, we are continuing the work that goes into producing “The Wildest Richest Rodeo in the West” while giving local, state and federal authorities time to address this pandemic and find solutions.
At this time, there are no plans to postpone or cancel the Reno Rodeo, set for June 18-27, 2020. From the Reno Rodeo family to your family–stay safe, be well and we hope to see you soon.
For team ropers, Reno means the Bob Feist Invitational—one of the largest jackpots of the year, and one many count on as a place to get ahead, financially speaking.
“The BFI has worked closely with the Reno Rodeo for decades, and we will continue to do so in 2020," BFI owner Daren Peterson said. "We await their decision as to whether or not they’ll hold their event this June in light of the COVID-19 crisis, and we will determine our next steps after hearing from their committee. We know the ropers and the team roping community as a whole are eager to participate in this sport we love, and it’s our goal to carry on the proud tradition of BFI Week again this year.”
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Contractors Taking a Hit
Perhaps nobody hopes rodeo starts back up more than Bobby Joe Hill of Hill Rodeo Cattle, who, so far, has lost 50 of his 180 annual events already this year, and who has about 1,200 head of corriente cattle on the feed bill.
"What can you do?" Hill said. "You’ve just got to sit around and hope it turns around. I talked to one committee, and their rodeo is later in the year. They started February 15 on getting new grandstands. The end date for those to be done was June 1. They shut them down March 17, and their grandstands won’t be ready by the time the rodeo starts. They lost sponsors, but not being able to sit however many people—they can’t make their rodeo work without ticket sales."
The PRCA, with its staff out of the office practicing social distancing, has been agile in its telecommuting using available technologies like Zoom to keep conversations moving ahead in plans for its 2020 season.
"We've been working with the committees diligently to get rodeos rescheduled," Glause said. "Some committees have been hit hard with loss of sponsorship. Ag commodities are down, and oil was trading in negative territory. As we try to get the rodeo engine fired back up, we want to make sure we do it in a safe and responsible manner."
In an effort to prevent more committees from canceling their rodeos, Glause pointed to the PRCA's Kick Open the Chutes Program, announced April 28 as "a combination of PRCA financial assistance to offset lost revenues and working together to further reduce event expenses," according to the program's press release.
Each program will be need-based, Glause said, with no set amount of funds publicly available.
[READ MORE: PRCA's Kick Open the Chutes Program]
As the rodeo rumor mill spreads across social media and in private conversations, some cowboys and fans have thrown out the option of holding rodeos without fans, live for television—perhaps on the PRCA's television partner, The Cowboy Channel. The PBR made a similar move at Guthrie, Oklahoma'a Lazy E Arena at the end of April, bucking bulls with cowboys wearing full face masks and practicing social distancing, but without a crowd, live on CBS Sports.
Colorado's Greeley Stampede is opting to go this route. While details are forthcoming, the committee is planning three virtual "Spud Rodeo" performances (after the old name of the Greeley Stampede back in the 1920s), which will be broadcast nationally through The Cowboy Channel. The committee plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to the Weld Recovers Fund COVID-19 relief benefiting the United Way of Weld County and the Weld Community Foundation.
"The relationship with Rural Media Group is very positive," Glause said. "We’re working with them, and the 40 Nights of the NFR went well. People are responding well, and we’re seeing great numbers through this."
The PRCA's rule book has specifications as to how much money committees must add and how they might limit rodeos, but those rules could be overlooked in 2020 with the season's unprecedented circumstances.
"We have to be very agile in our approach to rodeos," Glause said. "As they say, bad breath is better than no breath. Some rodeo is better than no rodeo. Those are all considerations that we are very flexible with right now."
That same goes for the rodeo season, with rodeos like Salinas moving into October, after the 2020 NFR cut-off September 30.
"The longer this continues without rodeos, the more of a possibility it is. Right now, our season is defined as running from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. We’re obviously considering it, but again it’s too early to say. If we get rodeos going on Memorial Day weekend, we may not have to. If it extends further into the year, there’s a greater possibility. Our goal right now is to try to get rodeos back in action in a safe and responsible manner," Glause said.
Adding to the PRCA's complications are that regulations change from state to state, with every committee in every part of the country facing different government regulations and challenges.
"The last time we talked, more rodeos were coming on board and we’re trying to keep everybody at least having a rodeo," PRCA Board Member JP Wickett said. "You still have rules and regulations, and you like to follow them, but this is something that is so different and you can’t go by the book in 2020. I’ll be glad to get 2020 behind us and we can start on 2021."
Many rodeos have pointed to lack of sponsorship dollars as a reason for cancelation, including Estes Park, Colorado's Rooftop Rodeo.
“Of course, we’d love to have a community celebration when we come out of this pandemic this year, but that’s just not a viable option at this point,” said Mark Purdy, chairman of Estes Park Western Heritage Inc., a group of volunteers that works with the Town of Estes Park to produce the annual rodeo. “The reality is, Rooftop Rodeo exists because the businesses and the people of this town—and our national and regional sponsors—support it each year.
“Right now, we need time to help our community recover. As we begin to plan for 2021, we hope to utilize Rooftop Rodeo as a way for this community to celebrate its recovery and resilience in trying times.”
At ProRodeo's national level, Cactus Ropes' Barry Berg said his company remains committed to its ropers and its major sponsor obligations.
"Cactus is steadfast in its commitments to the PRCA," Berg, a roper himself, said. "The ownership is still pushing, and the employees are well taken care of. We’re a scaled back crew, and we're staying in the guidelines of Uncle Sam."
Cactus Rope sales dropped, Berg said, as much as 75% at the height of the quarantine.
"But then people started completely running out of ropes, so they’d order half their usual order," Berg explained. "And then the stores started ordering again. I'm praying for Reno. If it goes like it went last year—from all of BFI Week and the Reno Rodeo—and they let it roll, it will be 25% bigger than ever and beneficial to everybody."
Another major PRCA sponsor, Resistol, is also staying hooked on its major sponsor commitments and to its endorsee base.
"We're working to get our factory open and get people back to work," Mary Jane Carpenter, director of marketing for Hat-Co, Resistol's parent company, said. "A lot of the rodeos who’ve had to cancel, we’ve rolled our sponsorship to the next year. We’re going to be there when they get back. Resistol is continuing to support our staff and our cowboys, and we want to get back to work as quickly as possible. Resistol employs 450 hard working Americans, and all of our felt hats are 100-percent made in Texas from raw bales of fur all the way to the finished product. So it’s really important for us to get that going again. We were having a record year, and we were having a record first quarter until all of this came about. I’ve sent out 100 endorsee hats in the last three weeks, so everyone is getting their straw hats and ready to go."
Will There Be an NFR?
The PRCA and the City of Las Vegas is confident that there will be a Finals this year, even releasing a video (below) reassuring fans that they'll be in Sin City this December.
"We are planning for the NFR, and I’m confident that the NFR will take place in December," the PRCA's Glause said. "We’re tracking all sports, watching what happens on a weekly basis across the NFL, MLB, PGA, LPGA, Soccer and more."
Ariat World Series of Team Roping Director of Roping Operations Ty Yost is confident that the Finale—along with the NFR—will be strong again this year.
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"Ropers have stayed hooked," Yost said. "Vegas is so far out, and the NFL is going to set the stage on how this will all happen. The NFL will kick their season off in September, and we'll move on from there. The USTRC's Cinch National Finals of Team Roping in September will give us a good gauge on how we'll do." TRJ