CHEYENNE, Wyo. — As they ride out the economic recession, some American rodeos are bucking the hard times while others are sitting on the fence.
Rodeo officials across the country say they've been planning for potential slowdowns this year by tightening their budgets, scrambling to replace lost sponsors and crafting cheap ticket packages to draw in crowds.
The work has paid off at several events. Rodeos in Houston; San Antonio; Reno, Nev.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Jackson, Miss.; have all seen increased attendance over 2008.
"I think everybody was worried and nervous about this, including myself, but I think the nervousness and the worrisome comes from the unknown, and what we're finding out is people feel like rodeo is a value and they're coming," said Keith Martin, CEO of the San Antonio Rodeo and board chairman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. "The thing I think that's interesting is rodeo has sustained world wars and the Great Depression and it's still there — we never stopped."
Martin's San Antonio rodeo, for example, was up 1 percent in attendance this February to 1.3 million.
Most rodeos benefit from the fact that a large part of their work force is made up of volunteers. But they're also heavily reliant on sponsors, both national corporations and local businesses.
Cheyenne Frontier Days, which bills itself as the world's largest outdoor rodeo, was still lining up sponsors on Friday as the rodeo got under way, said Charlie West, the rodeo's general chairman.
"The ones that we've lost and gained are about even," West said. "If we lost a national sponsor, we got another one. Locally, it's the same way."
Other rodeos haven't been able to make up for departing sponsors. Martin said he's heard of smaller rodeos losing from up to 12 percent of their sponsorship funding.
"That's not good, but it's not horrible," Martin said. "You can still maintain with that."
At least a few rodeos haven't been able to hang on during the downturn. Of the roughly 600 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos in the country, at least four canceled their 2009 events for economic reasons. Those include rodeos in Wichita Falls, Texas; Greenville, Texas; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and San Francisco.
The Wichita County Mounted Patrol in Texas gave up on this year's Red River Rodeo scheduled for June when it couldn't raise enough sponsorship funding, said Ronny Cartwright, a rodeo committeeman who's helped organize the event for 33 years. This would have been the 52nd year of the rodeo, which costs from $60,000 to $70,000 to put on, he said.
West said Frontier Days' organizers revisited their budget last September with an eye toward limiting spending and drawing in local visitors and those from nearby Nebraska, Colorado and Utah. Advance sales were good, he said, and Saturday night's George Straight concert was sold out.
"We've tried to be as affordable as we can, making this a destination this year," West said. "I think people are being more frugal. They're being more selective on what they're doing, and I'm going to guess they're not spending as much money as they have in the past."
Ticket sales for the Reno Rodeo in June set a new record, up 8 percent from last year, said Steve Schroeder, director of communications for the rodeo. He said most visitors came from within 150 miles for tickets that ranged from $12 to $27.
"Over 45 percent of our audience each year ends up being new to rodeo, because Reno is just a real unique demographic. We are not a normal Western lifestyle rodeo demographic," Schroeder said. "Our fans have never experienced a rodeo before, and the word's out."
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