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Rodeo committees everywhere struggle with decisions about summer events

Rodeos across the nation are weighing the factors in making the decision if they are able to proceed with their event this year, due to the COVID-19 panic.

Some rodeos have canceled, due to health restrictions and keeping fans and volunteers safe, while others are modifying their operations, in order to make their event happen.

In North Platte, Neb., parts of NebraskalandDays are shut down, while the Buffalo Bill Rodeo is rescheduled from June 17-20 to August 5-8.

Executive director David Fudge said that according to Lincoln County, Neb. health directives released in June, capacity at the rodeo must be limited to 25 percent, which figures out to about 1,250 people.

Fans will be socially distanced. “It cuts down severely on capacity,” he said. “But, at this point, we’re going to give it a go. I think we can make it work.”

The facility will be cleaned and sanitized regularly, and arrival windows may be in use, so that fans don’t all arrive at the entrance gate at the same time.

At 25 percent capacity, ticket sales will not cover the bills, but sponsorships will help, Fudge said. “The reason we can make it work is our sponsorship community has held in there with us. All of the scenarios I’m looking at have us not covering our expenses. But they are also better than not doing anything, in other words, just sitting still for a year.”

Fudge pointed out the difference between earned income and income. “We don’t earn anything unless we produce something. If we can have an event, we can earn that sponsorship revenue, because we’re producing something.”

He was in contact with Governor Ricketts’ office for six weeks leading up to the event’s cancellation on May 1. (The rodeo was rescheduled by mid-May.) Fudge said he didn’t expect to achieve a sold out concert (13,000 people). “But we felt if we could give ourselves a shot to do the rodeo and some smaller events, we owed it to ourselves and our community to at least try and find a way to get that in.”

NebraskalandDays is host to more than thirty-five events, from sweet roll sales to art shows, from a golf tournament to concerts by Toby Keith and Luke Combs. Some of the events will be rescheduled to August, Fudge said, including food events. “The people who produce the food events run restaurants, so they have the safety features in place,” he said.

The parade has also been rescheduled to August 8, but may be held with a twist. “We’re calling it a reverse parade,” Fudge said. Instead of people gathering on the side of the streets to watch as the parade moves, people stay in their cars and drive by the parade, which is immobile. Having the parade will foster good will, he says. “To have people honk and wave and share good spirit, I think, this year, people might enjoy that.”

The Daddy of ‘Em All, Cheyenne Frontier Days, announced its cancelation on May 27 in a news conference with Governor Mark Gordon.

The biggest issue, said Tom Hirsig, CEO, was social distancing. “You can accommodate the other stuff, like sanitation and masks, but social distancing takes the management of people and that puts another strain on your workforce.” Like NebraskalandDays, Cheyenne has numerous other events along with the rodeo. “Everything we do with rodeos or festivals is based upon non-social distancing.”

Another issue was the volunteer help. CFD relies upon 2,900 volunteers, and that was another factor in its cancellation. “We started looking at our work force,” Hirsig said, “and who’s going to be here. We estimated that probably twenty percent of our volunteers were in that age category where they are at risk, or they have an underlying health condition, or live with a family member with a health condition. They were fully supportive of us going on, but they said they probably couldn’t help this year.”

Rodeo sponsorships are contractual, and if an event doesn’t take place, the contract is voided. Because of the cancellation, CFD will not have sponsor revenue. Over $2 million was invested in the show before it was canceled, money “that we cannot recover. It will take every penny of our savings to get to the show next year,” he said.

The CFD board had strategized for weather emergencies, but not for global pandemics. “Our board did a great job over the last few years of saying, what if Frontier Days can’t happen? What if a tornado comes through and wipes out our grandstands?” Hirsig said.

CFD has savings in the stock market, but Wall Street also took a hit with the pandemic. “What we didn’t envision,” he said, “was being canceled thirty days before, and your investment value dropping thirty percent. The money we had saved for a rainy day was in the stock market.”

Fifty-two miles south of Cheyenne, the Greeley (Colo.) Stampede over the Fourth of July has been canceled with a replacement rodeo: the Spud Rodeo, to run September 11-13.

Named after the community’s first celebration and rodeo in 1922, it replaces the six-performance Stampede with three performances and a unique name.

In late April, the Stampede received word from the Weld County Health Department, stating that outdoor events were restricted to 250 people. With more than 225,000 guests annually, there was no way to hold the event.

At first, Justin Watada, general manager of the Stampede, and his board were looking to move the entire twelve-day festival to later in the fall. But because they do not own their grounds, they had to work around other scheduled events. It was simpler to plan a three-day rodeo instead of the normal festival, so the rodeo got its own name.

Rodeo chairman Shawn Mills is planning on the Spud Rodeo as a virtual rodeo with no fans. A portion of proceeds from the Spud Rodeo will be donated to the Weld Recovers Fund COVID-19 Relief benefitting the United Way of Weld County and the Weld Community Foundation.

Watada was 100 days from the start of the Stampede when it was canceled, and with most sponsors having paid, they had three options: be reimbursed, get credit for 2021, or reallocate their monies for the fireworks celebration (on the Fourth of July) and the Spud Rodeo.

He couldn’t justify charging sponsors as much, because there will be no fans in the stands at the “Spud.”

“The exposure they usually get as far as eyeballs in the crowd won’t be there,” he said, “and a lot of them sponsor for the VIP and concert tickets. We didn’t want to assume and take their money.” So far, Watada said, they are two-thirds of the way towards breaking even.

“The easiest thing to do would have been to close up shop and focus on 2021,” he said. “But we felt like we could do it with community support.”

If restrictions are lifted by September, fans will be allowed to watch the Spud Rodeo. It will be broadcast online with the Wrangler Network.

There will be no concerts or carnival at the Stampede, but the rodeo will go on. “It’s been going on for 98 years,” Mills said. “It may not be full scale like it was, but we’re excited about the Spud Rodeo. I’m glad we can get it done.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has a silver lining, Fudge said. “What this year has done is forced us to think creatively about what we can do, rather than what we can’t do. It’s easy to focus on what’s gone wrong. It’s been a little difficult to focus on ways we can do things differently.

“We’ll all come out of this thing a little smarter. Maybe we’ll appreciate what we have in our communities a little more.”


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