Breaking News: Rodeo is Not Like Other Sports
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
The Flint Hills Rodeo of Kansas, the oldest rodeo in the state, cancelled it’s annual rodeo for the first time in 83 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it certainly wasn’t the first to do so.
Rodeos all across the country are at a standstill along with the rest of the nation’s sports. But rodeo, the oldest sport in America, is going to pay a different price.
“Rodeo is one of the only sports where the cowboys have no guaranteed money,” said Bronc Rumford, rodeo coach at Fort Hays State University. “If they can’t win, they can’t make a living. The opportunity to win has been taken away from them.”
As of April 7, nearly 75 rodeos have made changes, 35 percent cancelled and 65 percent rescheduled or postponed resulting in a little more than $4 million payouts lost.
“One of the worst things for leather is not to use it,” said Rumford. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. It just affects rodeo in so many ways.”
Bareback rider Jesse Pope. Photo by Ted Harbin
Stock contractors providing livestock for the rodeos are hurting as they continue to pay feed bills for hundreds of animals with $0 profit. Businesses that previously sponsored rodeos are at risk of shutting down, and the rodeo athletes have no income.
The negative impact of the pandemic is reaching every level of rodeo.
Rumford and Wendy Winn, rodeo coach at Kansas State University are facing the same problems. Winn has two sons competing professionally and a daughter going to college next year to compete in rodeo.
“All horses had to be moved off campus unless deemed a necessity,” Winn said. “We have six students still living in Manhattan because of commitments so they had to figure it out. All cattle used for practice had to be removed from the campus. So, now these kids have to find a way to practice.”
The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association followed in suit of the NCAA and extended a year of eligibility for seniors to compete, which creates a different problem.
“I have a high school senior who had a pretty good college scholarship offer a few months ago, and now that’s decreased, because that coach had to use the money to pay for the returning college seniors,” Winn said.
Money in college rodeo isn’t provided by the university like other sports. Rodeo is separate from the NCAA because it’s the only sport where the student athlete can earn money to compete.
“Cowboys of every age, size and description are considered professional athletes because they all compete for money,” Rumford said.
K-State’s rodeo team earns money through sponsorships, fundraisers, football parking and ticket sales. Luckily, K-State has one of the most attended rodeos in the country, and its rodeo took place in January.
However, that’s not enough to expense meals, housing or tuition. The best they can typically offer is fuel money to get to the rodeo. Students still have to pay for their horse’s maintenance, entry fees, insurance, a truck, trailer and feed bills.
“The rodeo athletes have to pay their way while other athletes go on a bus, on a school’s nickel and dime,” Rumford said. “They’re responsible for handling their own logistics. In other sports, the athletic director sets the schedule and makes the decisions.”
That’s something rodeo athletes carry over to the next level. Professionals are their own agents, public relations managers and financial consultants. If they’re not rodeoing, they’re not making money. There are no trade deals or contracts, yet there are still fines and sponsorships.
The use of sponsorships is one of the steps rodeo is taking to compete with other sports said Tommy Joe Lucia, who’s been in rodeo production his entire life as a performer, producer, marketer and jack of all trades in running a rodeo.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Lucia said. “The sponsorship of cowboys in bull riding is significantly more detailed because of their viewers. Even some of the lower guys are making five to six figures off their endorsement deals. And rodeo is just now starting to get that.”
Another big change rodeo has made is network broadcasting. The Cowboy Channel made it’s official launch as the exclusive western sports network in July and signed with the PRCA to be the official network of ProRodeo, which began this January.
“The big revenue sports are set up to establish relationships between the players and the fans,” Lucia said. “Up until recently, rodeo has been deficient in having easy access for people to intimately become involved with the athletes.”
For rodeo fans, there is no guarantee their favorite athletes will show up, even if they’re scheduled to compete. Rodeo athletes will often enter in three or four different events on the same night and wait to see which draw gives them the best opportunity to win. That’s where broadcasting has helped rodeo immensely.
“With broadcasts of rodeos and a continued effort to do storytelling, the revenues will increase,” Lucia said. “Fans equal sponsors; sponsors and fans equal payout to the athlete. Rodeo has 30 million active avid fans, but they haven’t had the opportunity to watch it and find it easily.”
The goal is to improve rodeo without taking away what makes it unique in contrast to other sports.
“It’s the original sport, and there’s this mystique and romance around the American cowboy that even penetrates urban life,” Lucia said. “Rodeo has a unique component of two different athletes: the animal athletes and the people. It’s a whole lot easier for fans to root for a bucking horse than a football.”
While other major sports hire a full team for ticket sales, security and concessions, rodeos are run by members of the community volunteering their time.
“People come to not only see the rodeos but to visit with old classmates and have a beer with friends,” Lucia said. “It’s more of a community event and that’s what drives the attendance.”
While fans are waiting for rodeo to come back, rodeo athletes are doing what they can to practice, recover from injuries and earn some money.
“Luckily cowboys are creative and smart so they have more skills than just riding bulls,” Winn said. “My son has been helping build fences and training horses to earn some cash. Cowboys aren’t getting a paycheck unless they’re working.”
It’s a safe assumption, no matter how different rodeo is than other sports, that change will be required to survive this economic blow, just like every other sport.
“I think it's going to reshape how cowboys rodeo,” Lucia said. “This could take a lot of full-time cowboys and make them decide that they’re going to become part-time cowboys. I think we just need to start focusing on 2021.”
Although it is uncertain as to when rodeo athletes will be back in the saddle again competing, their hope is driven by the certainty that eventually they will.
“Cowboys are resilient,” Winn said. “They’ll come back and the committees will come back, but it will be interesting to see how strategic they are about what they're planning.”