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Rodeo: Some will go on

The American flag is presented at the 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which won’t be immune from the changes COVID-19 has wreaked on the pro rodeo world. Photo by Jackie Jensen

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every activity across the globe, and professional rodeo is no exception.

In a normal year, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association would have sanctioned 341 rodeos by now.

But this isn’t a normal year, and because of it, there are changes all over the board, for contestants, contractors, committees, and the fans, too.

Everyone has been forced to adapt to changes and modifications that sometimes were unseen and sometimes very swift.

As of July 1, the PRCA had held 162 events, had 251 rodeos canceled, 24 postponed, and 48 rescheduled.

Many rodeo committees attempted to host their event, but, due to local, city, county, or state health guidelines, were not able to. And many of those rodeos had expenses that couldn’t be held off, whether they had started planning for their 2020 event or not.

James Miller, general manager for the Red Bluff Round-Up in California, had planned for the Round-Up’s 99th year in April. But a month out, the event had to postpone, due to the pandemic.

Miller and the Round-Up board had begun planning for the rodeo’s centennial anniversary in 2021 more than two years ago, so pushing the centennial to 2022 wasn’t feasible. But using the term “postponed” instead of “canceled” for the Round-Up allows for its 100th birthday celebration next year, Miller said.

In contract verbiage, he explained that a postponement status allows for contracts to more easily be rolled over to the next year. The word “postponed” instead of “canceled” can also be used in cases, like Red Bluff, where, during years the rodeo wasn’t held due to World War II or hoof and mouth disease, for example, that those years count as part of the event’s life. “Red Bluff, in its history, has counted years even if the rodeo wasn’t held,” Miller said. “They were in business, the corporation was operating, so they counted those years.” Technically, the Round-Up hasn’t run consecutively 99 years, but 2020 was its 99th birthday. (It began in 1921).

Because so many rodeos have canceled, the rules for the number of rodeos a contestant must compete at to qualify for circuit finals has changed. In the past, in the Badlands Circuit, a resident contestant had to compete at a minimum of eight of twenty rodeos, with a non-resident competing at fifteen of twenty. This year, for all circuits across the U.S., circuit finals qualifiers will be those with the most money won in the circuit, no matter how many rodeos he or she has competed at.

The RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which was to be held in Kissimmee, Florida, in April, did not take place, said Tom Glause COO of the PRCA. Dates for this year’s RNCFR are not known yet, but Osceola County, where Kissimmee is located, is a hotspot for the virus, so the RNCFR will have a new location for this year, he said. It will be held sometime before the end of the calendar year.

It was announced on July 14 that Rapid City would be Tour Finale’s home this year, on September 23-26. The Finale is normally held in Puyallup, Wash., in September. Puyallup canceled its rodeo, as has Ellensburg, Wash., which hosted the X-Bulls Finals. Glause said an announcement regarding a new location and date for the X-Bulls Finals will be made this month.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the closing date for the pro rodeo season. It has ended on September 30 for more than a dozen years, and even though there was a push to extend it, it won’t change. Miller, who is a member of the PRCA’s executive board and a representative of large committees, said there was concern among stock contractors in hopes of extending the rodeo season. In the past, for a bucking horse or bull to qualify to buck at the WNFR, an animal must have been bucked eight times throughout the year, with other requirements for the stock contractor and the number of rodeos he or she had. That was a concern to stock contractors this year, as some of them have no rodeos at all this year. The PRCA board addressed this concern by voting to change criteria for this year to be combined rodeos for both 2019 and 2020.

Among those committees who have been able to go ahead with their 2020 rodeo, COVID-19 has created more work. The PRCA has protocol to screen contestants, contractors and volunteers as they come to the rodeo. Miller, whose wife is Nellie, the 2017 world champion barrel racer, has traveled with her and their two daughters and has seen volunteers hard at work screening people, checking temperatures, and wristbanding those who have been screened, for entry to the rodeo grounds. It’s extra work for rodeo committees who sometimes don’t have enough volunteer help as it is. Committees are “going above and beyond,” Miller said. “It’s taking more volunteers to put on rodeos.”

There is more expense for rodeos taking place this year as well, Miller said. Entries have been up substantially, because there are fewer rodeos and contestants are wanting to compete. Committees who place no limits on the numbers of entries they accept are spending more money for the steers and calves for competition, Miller said. “They are spending a lot of extra money to do this. Every animal costs more.” It also requires more time of volunteers, for the extra slack that takes place. Extra costs due to livestock can be a problem; a rodeo’s income might be limited, if ticket sales are limited due to social distancing.

Miller believes not being able to host a rodeo this year will make volunteers more dedicated for next year. “The true volunteers, the committee people, they know who they do it for. They do it for the community. I think you’ll see communities come together even stronger next year, because they want their events to be strong.” He also believes there may be an influx of volunteers next year. “I think we’ll gain volunteers, like younger people who want to see the community organizations who benefit from working at the rodeo: the Little League team, the Kiwanis, the summer camps benefit.”

The elephant in the room is the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and although neither Glause or Miller are part of the Las Vegas Events, the organization that hosts the WNFR, they are both certain it will take place.

“I’m confident there will be an NFR,” Glause said. “We are planning on it, but we are also looking at contingencies, if we are not allowed to have a full crowd, depending on what stage (regarding health guidelines) Nevada and Las Vegas are in.” He pointed out that social distancing is very difficult. “The trick is, how do you host an event at full capacity and maintain social distancing?”

It’s a symbiotic relationship between the WNFR and Las Vegas, Miller said. “Las Vegas needs the NFR, and the casinos need it to happen. They need a reason to bring people to Vegas.”

Miller said that contestants are grateful for what committees have gone through, to be able to rodeo. “You can see contestants go up to committee guys and say, ‘thank you for putting this on.’ They are so appreciative. People are so happy to have somewhere (to compete.)”

Glause said the PRCA estimates this year it will have over 350 events with a projected payout of between $23 and $25 million. The figures are about 65% of normal.

But there’s always a silver lining, and for pro rodeo, Glause believes it’s thankfulness and appreciation. “We take a lot of things for granted. We just get used to ‘this is how it is,’ and now we are more appreciative of what we have. I think there’s an overall awareness that we can’t take this for granted, that rodeos are just magically going to happen.”

There will be a future beyond COVID, Glause is sure. “Rodeo is alive and well.”


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