CHEYENNE, Wyo. — As they ride out the economic recession, some rodeos are bucking the hard times while others are sitting on the fence.
Rodeo officials across the country say they've been planning for potential slowdowns this year by tightening their budgets, scrambling to replace lost sponsors and crafting cheap ticket packages to draw crowds.
The work has paid off at several events. Rodeos in Houston; San Antonio; Reno; Rapid City, S.D.; and Jackson, Miss., have seen increased attendance over 2008.
"I think everybody was worried and nervous about this, including myself, but I think the nervousness and the worry comes from the unknown, and what we're finding out is people feel like rodeo is a value and they're coming," said Keith Martin, chief executive officer of the San Antonio Rodeo and board chairman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The San Antonio rodeo, for example, was up 1 percent in attendance this February to 1.3 million.
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Closer to home, the Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo enjoyed its biggest Saturday crowd in years in April, although attendance predictably was down Easter Sunday.
"I don't think everybody is as broke as they say they are. They will spend to enjoy their family time," said Oakdale's
Rick Moffit, a professional bullfighter who's worked Oakdale and about 45 other rodeos this year.
"Some rodeos were down, others were the same and some had better attendance. This is family entertainment, and you can go without worrying about too much and you can see things you usually don't see," Moffit continued. "It's clean fun and clean living. You can spend $40 on a rodeo (Oakdale rodeo tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for children) and have a good time instead of spending $60 for a dinner somewhere."
Mike Wagner, a member of the saddle club board of directors, also blamed Easter Sunday for a slight drop in attendance.
"I do think we did better on this Easter Sunday than we did on other years when the rodeo fell on that day," Wagner said. "Attendance has been about normal at the rodeos I've gone to this year, not much different than the past. Oakdale fares well because it's family entertainment, and it's not expensive. You can take your family to the rodeo and not spend $200."
Most rodeos benefit from the fact that a large part of their work force is made up of volunteers. But they're also heavily reliant on sponsors, both national corporations and local businesses.
Sponsors at last minute
Cheyenne Frontier Days, which bills itself as the world's largest outdoor rodeo, still was lining up sponsors Friday as the rodeo got under way, said Charlie West, the rodeo's general chairman.
"The ones that we've lost and gained are about even," he said. "If we lost a national sponsor, we got another one. Locally, it's the same way."
Other rodeos haven't been able to make up for departing sponsors. Martin said he's heard of smaller rodeos losing up to 12 percent of their sponsorship funding.
"That's not good, but it's not horrible," Martin said. "You can still maintain with that."
A few rodeos haven't been able to hang on during the downturn. Of the roughly 600 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos in the country, at least four canceled their 2009 events for economic reasons. Those include rodeos in San Francisco; Wichita Falls, Texas; Greenville, Texas; and Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The Wichita County Mounted Patrol in Texas gave up on this year's Red River Rodeo scheduled for June when it couldn't raise enough sponsorship funding, said Ronny Cartwright, a rodeo committeeman who's helped organize the event for 33 years. This would have been the 52nd year of the rodeo, which costs $60,000 to $70,000 to put on, he said.
West said Cheyenne Frontier Days organizers revisited their budget in September with an eye toward limiting spending and drawing in local visitors and those from Nebraska, Colorado and Utah. Advance sales were good, he said, and Saturday night's George Strait concert was sold out.
"We've tried to be as affordable as we can, making this a destination this year," West said.
Ticket sales for the Reno Rodeo in June set a record, up 8 percent from last year, said Steve Schroeder, director of communications for the rodeo. He said most visitors came from within 150 miles for tickets that ranged from $12 to $27.
"Over 45 percent of our audience each year ends up being new to rodeo, because Reno is just a real unique demographic. We are not a normal Western lifestyle rodeo demographic," Schroeder said. "Our fans have never experienced a rodeo before, and the word's out."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini contributed to this report.