A few steps into the air-conditioned Mesquite Rodeo is all it takes to feel the relief.
Cool air. Cheap prices. And the stars of the show sitting nearby, ready with a smile and a pen so they can autograph the program given away at the door.
No wonder the vast majority of rodeos are thriving. Even though some sponsors have pulled out and a handful of rodeos have been shuttered this summer, attendance is up about 12% for each of the two major circuits, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR).
Rodeos historically have been up when the economy is down, according to PRCA commissioner Karl Stressman, but this surge is still a pleasant surprise with the recession well into its second year.
"We've had a continued growth pattern for the last 20 years, but this year it's phenomenal growth," Stressman said. Added Randy Bernard, CEO of the bull riders' group: "I'm tickled to death with what I'm seeing."
Both men credit several factors, though they agree it begins with vacationers staying closer to home. Those people still need to be entertained and more of them are discovering, or rediscovering, "the greatest show on dirt."
The lure begins with affordable tickets, around $10 at most rodeos, even those with concerts as the nightcap.
Shows are a little more than two hours of fast-paced action, man (and woman) vs. beast. The rules are easy to figure out and even the most restless kid can stay focused for an 8-second ride or watch the clowns.
Plus, it's a chance to see real, live cowboys — guys with names like Cody and Bo, from places like Crooked Creek and Mingus — show just how tough they really are, then brush off the dirt and pose for pictures for anyone who asks.
Rodeo folks also brag about their sport offering a wholesome atmosphere, though animal-rights activists disagree.
"People who live in rural areas naturally come to rodeo because it's their sport of choice. To people in urban areas, it's a chance to see a living piece of American history that goes back to the working-ranch days," said Andy Stewart, who spends more than 10 months a year traveling the country as an announcer for Smith Pro Rodeos.
"Rodeos have evolved, but it's still about cowboys getting on animals or taming animals. It's dangerous. It's exciting. There's victory and there's defeat. Blood. It's unpredictable. There's a different twist around every corner. It's everything you want in entertainment. And, most of the time, when the crowd is really into it, there always seems to be a little magic inside a rodeo arena that people always remember."
Rodeos are held in big arenas and small ones, indoors and out. Some last a few days in a row, others run for weeks or even months.
Nearly all are thriving, too. Consider:
• This time last year, the PBR was trying to make the best out of stops in Tulsa, San Antonio and Nashville This year, Bernard is predicting a 150% jump in Tulsa and big successes at the other two stops.
• The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo sold out 14 of its 19 shows and was up 5% to 1.3 million attendees. Research showed that nearly 85% of the crowd came from within 50 miles, many lured by a new ad strategy that featured lines like, "Want the most fun for the fewest bucks?"