Thriving rodeos seem to have recession roped and tied

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?"

• In Arizona, the Tucson Rodeo was up 16% from last year, selling an extra 9,000 tickets despite going against three Major League Baseball spring training sites and a PGA Tour event that featured Tiger Woods. A four-day weekend, often used by locals to go elsewhere, wasn't much competition either. "Because of the economy a lot of those people stayed home this year," said Gary Williams, the rodeo's GM.

• In the Dallas area, eight businessmen were gung-ho about buying the Mesquite Rodeo late last year, but had to endure 10 frustrating months to get their financing settled.

Once the deal was done, they pumped several million dollars into the product, improving the performances and gussying up the arena with video boards on both ends and remodeling luxury suites. They also cut prices for tickets, parking and concessions, made the programs free and got the cowboys to serve as greeters.

Voila. Attendance jumped an average of 300 tickets per night over each of the first 10 dates.

"It's word of mouth," said Mike McCall, head of the investors' group. "People are talking about how much more fun the rodeo is than it used to be."

In Spanish Fork, Utah, longtime Fiesta Days Rodeo chairman Steven Money greased sales by offering a free child's seat on opening night. It worked a little too well.

"The ticket office had to hire extra help," Money said, laughing. "I tried to talk to the manager, but he couldn't talk for very long because they were just being bombarded."

Still, there is bad news, too.

Cheyenne Frontier Days was lining up sponsors even as the rodeo began in Wyoming's capital last week. And at least four of the roughly 600 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos canceled their 2009 events for economic reasons.

After a 51-year run, the Red River Rodeo in Wichita Falls, Texas, took the summer off because organizers feared they couldn't make up for a $20,000 dip in sponsorship. Even the good news in Tucson was tempered by the loss of an airline sponsor after 17 years. Organizers patched together several smaller sponsors to make up for it.

Gimmicks like the free kids' ticket in Utah, the cheaper prices in Mesquite and the roughly 1,000 tickets for $10 each added at every PBR stop have helped fill seats.

But do the math and you realize those efforts are more about generating goodwill than revenue. Organizers are hoping the rodeos — the new, snazzier rodeos — become a can't-miss-this option each year.

"Right now, people say, 'We've been to the rodeo,"' said McCall, the Mesquite investor. "No. You haven't been to this rodeo. You need to come out and try it."