The New Face of Rodeo

Big reveal.

Western Horse Review writer and The Lovely, Rugged Road blogger, Katy Lucas is working on a piece for our next issue, the core of which is close to her heart – rodeo. It’s a story that couldn’t have come at a better time. My social media feed fills up daily with rodeo talk, and lately, specifically, how, and why, what we define as “rodeo” needs to change.

It reminded me of a piece Ted Stovin did for us last year. Originally printed in the July/August, 2014 issue, he too, in collusion with several rodeo players, pondered the changing world of the sport and what would need to happen for it thrive. One theme prevailed – rodeo is in the entertainment business.

Here’s a look back at that piece, and it’s little gems of wisdom. Watch for Lucas’ piece, including an interview with new Canadian Professional Rodeo Association General Manager, Dan Eddy, in the next issue of the magazine. 

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Photo by Dainya Sapergia

THE NEW FACE OF RODEO

BY TED STOVIN

When siting in the stands of a rodeo performance at the Calgary Stampede, it is apparent what is being showcased; the rodeo, the stock and experience all adding up to the Greatest Outdoor Show on earth.

The shows are run quickly and smoothly with every detail down to the raking of the inside of the bucking chutes taken care of.

“We have great support from our volunteer base and they work tireless hours on production to make sure the show is down to the two-and-a-half or two hours and 40 minutes we need it to be,” says Keith Marrington, Rodeo and Chuckwagon Manager, when speaking of July’s rodeo. “It’s a snappy production with many entertaining elements.”

Within this equation for success, format makes a difference as well.

“A lot of rodeos are going to different formats because they can control what contestants come there and they are getting on the top stock. When you get that combination of quality contestants and stock, it puts on a great production.”

Having a winner each day of any event is the key in keeping the attention of the crowd and having them understand the show.

“We have a winner every day, that’s what people want to see,” says Marrington. “We are a 10-day show, we have people that come on day one that aren’t going to be back on day 10. For our fan base it’s a lot easier for them to understand. Our audiences are from all over, domestic and overseas, and they are coming to the Calgary Stampede to be entertained.

“I think the face of rodeo is changing, in the sense that people want to control their own destiny a little more on what events they have, what contestants come there and to offer something unique.”

RFD-TV’s The American did exactly that this spring with it’s inaugural event held in Arlington, Texas, and with great enough success to announce the second edition of the event on March 1st, 2015.

Randy Bernard, the leader behind The American is a former intern of the Calgary Stampede.

“It was the most defining thing I’ve ever done in my life. I knew after my internship exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” says Bernard. “The entire experience was life changing for me. I went back and worked for a fair and knew I wanted to be in western sports, and the western lifestyle and that’s what I did.”

Bernard led the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) as their CEO to pay their World Champion $1,000,000 for the first time in 2003 among many other groundbreaking moves. He also headed up IndyCar until coming on as the CEO of RFD-TV.

“Our biggest message is that RFD-TV is a friend of rodeo. We want to grow the sport by doing everything we can do to help, that’s one of our top priorities,” says Bernard. “The American is where we put our staple and I think it brought us tremendous credibility.”

The American is a stand-alone event with qualifying events in which anyone can compete. Legends were invited as exemptions in the first year, along with the top contestants in the world.

“I’m in the television business and I believe I can make a difference in the rodeo and western sports world by creating heroes and giving exposure to athletes and why they should be great role models,” reveals Bernard.

The Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA) has less control over each event compared to stand-alone rodeos such as the Calgary Stampede or The American, however, they do have the power to improve the sport by putting on events like the Grassroots Finals or Wrangler Tour Shootout in conjunction with the IPE and Armstrong Stampede.

“It’s a great way to put an exclamation point on a tour. It gives the tour a good purpose but it also starts to line us up to promote rodeo that’s exciting, that’s understandable,” says CPRA Rodeo Administrator Kynan Vine about the Wrangler Tour Shootout in Armstrong. “It’s a one-day, one head shoot out. It’s easy for television, it’s easy for people to understand and there’s a winner, that’s where rodeo needs to be.”

Vine further explains his thoughts on the future of professional rodeo in Canada and the production involved with each individual event.

“That’s the thing about our sport, it’s entertaining to watch, but it being entertaining and it being easily understood is another thing, those two have to tie together and that’s where you’re going to get real entertainment value out of rodeo.

“We are a sporting industry so we have to obviously cater to our fans. Making rodeo easy to understand, making it entertaining means putting it in a format that is super accessible, it leads us to formats like PGA Golf where only the best end up in front of the crowd and on TV,” says Vine.

Vine continues, noting that there are many parties to please in our industry.

“There are many different stakeholders and each one has different needs. You have the committees, contractors, and contestants, which are a large portion of the stakeholders. They all want something out of rodeo but what we have to remember is that we are here to entertain our fans. We are in the entertainment industry. We are a sport.”

Entertainment means examining formats that work for the fans first.

“We have to build our sport and we have to progress it so when someone wants to watch a rodeo whether it’s on television or they want to come and watch it, they know exactly what they are watching,” says Vine, going back to golf and it’s format. “You take a sport like golf and they figure out how to make a sport like golf, which most people wouldn’t consider really entertaining to watch but they’ve made it entertaining by bringing the best golfers in the world together.”

In rodeo, this captivating element is translated into showdowns and shootouts, which are popping up more and more.

“That’s why showdowns, shootouts, short rounds and championships in rodeo are well attended and exciting. The crowd knows at the end of they day there is going to be a winner,” says Vine.

“You see it in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and it’s coming in the CPRA, we are moving more towards that, building rodeo and getting everyone on the same page moving toward that and it’s becoming more of the culture of rodeo.”

Events such as the Grassroots Finals work towards developing the sports future elite.

“The reason we have rodeos like the Grassroots Finals is to make sure in the process of highlighting the top in the world we also highlight and promote our future superstars in an exciting format,” says Vine. “The future of the sport isn’t going to rest on promoting only the top we have to develop our future as well.”

CPRA General Manager, and current contestant, Jeff Robson, concurs.

“I think the best guys deserve a chance to compete with the best guys at the best venues in front of the best crowds where the people are paying,” he notes. “We are a professional sport in the entertainment business, if we can’t do that we won’t survive.

“It’s got to be sellable. It’s got to be a viable,”

Two-time Canadian Bull Riding Champion and former (Editor’s Note: please remember this was written in the spring of 2014) Calgary Stampede Champion Scott Schiffner echoes the same thoughts.

“The biggest thing I think is that the high profile contestants should only go to the top events,” says Schiffner. “In my opinion, the biggest rodeos don’t need 120 entries. They need the elite and that’s it. For example, the best 25 contestants in the world should go to 24 to 30 event tops. By having everyone go everywhere it waters down the product to where we have nothing to sell.”

Schiffner himself has been to the Canadian Finals Rodeo more than any other bull rider in the past decade. However, he thinks this format would motivate the top bracket to improve their riding even more.

“I’ve done well in Canada, but I might not have been one of those top 25. That might have given me more desire to go there (to that top level), though,” he says.

As we move forward, there are new events and people on the horizon in our country and abroad that look to better this sport. The future of rodeo hints at higher-level production of events with different formats, which are more entertaining and easily watched by fans.

At this crossroads, there is a choice to make. Do we keep doing the same things we’ve done to keep getting the same results? Or make some changes to further our sport and keep it around for future generations to participate in and enjoy.

Either way, the choice is ours, and the future looks bright.

Former bull rider Ted Stovin of Calgary, Alberta is the creator of EverythingCowboy.com; a writer, event producer, music director and part-time hat maker for Smithbilt Hats of Calgary.

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