“Wild Excitement!” The Business of Rodeo


“It is fan attendance, and their support of sponsors, that pay rodeo expenses, payouts and contributes to the well-being of tens of thousands of families and hundreds of communities.”
                    – Jim Wuest, Member, CPRA Strategic Advisory Committee (July 2009).

Q: Where does the word ‘rodeo’ come from? 

A: The word ‘rodeo’, like most of rodeo’s other unique terms, was borrowed from the Spanish cowboys or vaqueros. Rodeo is a form of the verb ‘rodear’, which means ‘to surround’ or ‘round-up’. The word was used to describe the act of gathering cattle before a cattle drive.

The website of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association shows a 52 event line-up for 2013 season culminating with the Canadian Finals Rodeo XXXVIIII, in Edmonton, Alberta, Nov. 6-10.

Province           # Events      % of Season

British Columbia      9             17.3

Alberta                    38             73.1

Saskatchewan          3              5.8

Manitoba                   1              1.9

Quebec                     1              1.9

The Rodeo participants and the accompanying industry entourage ricochet through towns for what is often a major cultural, social and economic event of the year; such as Luxton “Pro Rodeo” (BC), Teepee Creek “Stampede” (AB), McCord “Indoor Pro Rodeo and Trade Fair”, in the hamlet of McCord, (SK),  Manitoba Stampede & Exhibition (Morris, MB) and “Festival Western de St-Tite”, (PQ). 

This industry and sport is rich with tradition and Western values often represented and cherished in our memories through post WWII Hollywood pictures.   The values are known far and wide as the Cowboy Code.

The skills, attire and vocabulary are unique to the lifestyle and permeate rodeo.   According to Stats Can, 150 years ago more than 91 per cent of British Columbia’s population lived in rural areas of the province; today less than 15 per cent of the population of BC is rural.  The urbanite lives in a world vastly different from how a real ranch operates – others have observed the modern urban benefits vs. frontier individualism.  Some even long for connecting with nature; notice the participation in gardening, hiking, fly fishing, skiing and clubs that “work” animals like dog agility.  It is not hard to imagine why and how these rodeo activities came to be – what is shocking to most is that in every part of the Western provinces just 100km outside metro boundaries, these rodeo skills are really needed for many daily agrarian chores and activities that operate today’s farms and ranches.  With the skills comes the western wear – often with lively colours.  Interesting to note for the most part the design, fabric and construction is meant for the real hard labour of riding, ranching and rodeo. 

The evolution of these factors showcases why the event and sport of rodeo does such a spectacular job of creating vivid energy, spectacle and atmosphere.

The fans are certain to see the best of what the sport has to offer – which is “Wild Excitement!”

Who are the Fans?  

Interestingly 18-34 year olds see rodeo as professional sport as opposed to entertainment.  Women aged 18-25 outnumber the men of same age cohort by a wide margin (16 per cent of attendance vs. 10 per cent) – and again for women aged 35-44 (22 per cent vs. 18 per cent).  Fifty two percent of Canadian fans are male, whereas in USA, 53 per cent are female – Canadian pro rodeo has an opportunity to further push this strong representation of female fans and grow their participation.  An interesting pattern is told in the research when viewing ‘couples’ who live together (without children) are the biggest fans of rodeo representing more than 50 per cent of the rodeo attendance, and this cohort exceeds 61 per cent for USA attendees; this same age group of couples with children are under-represented at just 18 per cent of attendees.  When asked why, these potential fans expect the costs to take a family to professional rodeo would be “high” – which has been solved by modern rodeo and exhibition organizers.  Lulls in between events have been minimized by the introduction of Specialty Performers and the professional charisma of the announcers that make events and transition periods interesting.

Where there is excitement, adrenalin and perceived danger – role models, even heroes emerge – and this is exactly what these cowboys and cowgirls are to their fans.  The industry and image of rodeo and that of country music reflects the stoic, self-reliant, loyal, courageous and independent, lifestyle of the old West.  Where such deeply rooted emotions merge with commerce and capitalism creates powerful brands.  The marketing allure of these brands resonates the mythic West and traits covered.  The fans are loyal to the brands and the rodeo professionals reciprocate by supporting brands and communities of rodeo. 

A generation ago, contestants referred to as ‘the new breed’ thrust rodeo back into the spotlight – not with shenanigans or the negative stereotypes – but with raw talent groomed and nurtured in The Business of Rodeo. These contestants were young, typically from an urban background, and chose rodeo for its athletic rewards.  The athletes and rodeo operators, as in any professional sport steered rodeo into big business.  Training in their discipline is a daily duty of a professional rodeo athlete – as is the routine with rodeo clowns, sport medicine and so many other ancillary figures in the industry, such as announcers, officials (each of these professionals may have a lifetime of experience and be at the pinnacle of their industry).  Endorsements pay their operating expenses; rodeo winnings provide the pro-sports lifestyle, business prowess keeps them solvent today and provides for their future retirement.

When serious injury impacts a rodeo athlete it is good to know a safety net exists – the Edmonton Rodeo Cowboy’s Benevolent Fund, has since 1989 paid out over $1.4 million to over 200 athletes and their families.

Each business has it musical score – and it is clear that The Business of Rodeo has country music; once extolling the values of the Cowboy Code, transitioning through the Outlaw Country years and then again going through a renaissance with new talent, instruments and content topics in these artist’s repertoire.

So firmly fused is this dance between the Heartland lifestyle, the rodeo and the music – that rodeo is often said to share its role models / idols  between the athletes and the musicians – with the draw at a major rodeo event being the total experience and immersion in the moment.  This was the case with soldiers and families finding it hard to work in factories and office towers after WWII, and is still the case today where we yearn to touch the earth and be one with nature – not live in a concrete jungle.

Sporting Entertainment

What may be most surprising to someone not familiar with rodeo is this sport is most certainly one of the best value-for-money outings a family or a couple can experience.  An immense amount of planning and energy is expended to make the guest experience thrilling and memorable.  A full afternoon or evening of athletic heroism (more than 2.5 hours of Rodeo) and fun family atmosphere can be had for around $25 per adult, and often times, free for children 12 and under.

Major rodeos in Canada include the Calgary Stampede (largest) and Cloverdale Rodeo & Country Fair (second largest).  Both offer free parades to kick-off the event, pancake breakfasts throughout the city which are hosted by neighbours as well as businesses and their employees who see the connection to community as good business practice – and staff flourish when able to reflect and represent wholesome values that are the pulse of their community.  These rodeos also host country fairs/exhibitions.  Cloverdale Rodeo & Country Fair (in Metro Vancouver’s suburb of Surrey, BC) is celebrating 67 years of professional rodeo – and its Association, Lower Fraser Valley Exhibition Association dba Cloverdale Rodeo & Exhibition Association dates back to 1888 (turning 125 in March 2013). 

Cloverdale Rodeo & Country Fair draws in excess of 77,000 attendees – a very impressive number with estimated contribution back to the community of five million dollars over the four day long weekend event.  This is meaningful economic impact and the 140-acre Fairground is transformed into a celebration of agriculture, country character, cooking, dancing and neighbourly hospitality – the values of Heritage and Western tradition.  Literally, hundreds of businesses are involved in putting on the four day event.  In 2012, 365 volunteers willingly gave their time to be part of this community gathering.  The board of directors has a combined 300 years of rodeo expertise.

The events are scheduled to accommodate varying time-availability of fans.  The venues are positioned and purposed to provide for the wants and needs of die-hard fans to new mothers who desire a place to let their baby rest when needed (Momz Zone, within the Kidz Zone).  Other areas provide top-name musical entertainment, dancing and the biggest attraction to the 18-35 year old coveted crowd – a true social experience with friends – an outing that can be safe – with designated areas that do offer alcohol and those that do not. 

The Cloverdale Rodeo & Country Fair and the Calgary Stampede, offer with advance purchase of rodeo tickets – complimentary day-of access to their Fairgrounds – a significant savings.

Organizers are careful to cater the changing needs of patrons – and do so with the intent of corralling these often well-to-do customers within their gates for as long as possible – sometimes for 12 or more hours per day, for the duration of the event (possibly four days (Cloverdale Rodeo) or even 10 days (Calgary Stampede).

Events evolve to respect community interest.  Cloverdale Rodeo hosts the world’s best cowboys and cowgirls in a unique ‘invitational rodeo format that ensures the sports’ premier athletes are showcased throughout five rodeo performances.  For 2013, the Cloverdale Invitational Rodeo will feature Roughstock Rodeo Events (Bareback, Saddle Bronc & Bull Riding) and Ladies Barrel Racing. The top 22 rodeo contestants in each event (as per the 2012 World Final Standings), 2012 Cloverdale Invitational Rodeo Champions & 2012 Canadian Pro Rodeo Champions are invited to participate at the Cloverdale Invitational Rodeo.  These are the best the sport has to offer from North America!

Social media (the new form of word-of-mouth) seems certain to assist the next chapter of rodeo flourish as the main comments from 90 per cent of surveyed fans had a “good” or “excellent” experience – overwhelmingly positive – and summarized as “fun, entertaining, great show, exciting, value”.  The telecom industry is poised to grasp this target market – rodeo professionals live on the road – run their business off their mobile device – their fans follow their updates and in the USA, the Apps of other pro rodeos boast significant followers. 

In summary, professional rodeo is a unique opportunity for a social, entertainment experience, rooted in community and history, yet remains a relevant touchstone to our past in today’s frenetic world.

By R. Brent Lang

R. Brent Lang, CIM FCSI, is active in the fields of finance and philanthropy.  He has received recognition as subject-matter specialist in finance, philanthropy and social enterprise.  He enjoys contributing to enterprising non-profit organizations with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship, planned giving, community impact / donor-relations and board governance.