In a state with fewer than 1,000 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, six rodeo committees stepped up and canceled their 2020 events.
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced May 27, that major festival events in Cheyenne, Cody, Casper, Sheridan, Laramie and Thermopolis won’t go on as planned. Gordon, a former competitor and self-proclaimed rodeo advocate said this decision was one no one wanted to take on.
“Here in Wyoming we have never shirked responsibility,” Gordon said. “When there is a fire or a flood, we run to help. When a neighbor is in trouble, we lend a hand. That is the way we've always done it here in Wyoming. And that's what makes today so hard.”
Many of these events would not go on with out the volunteers who put them on.
“Thousands of Wyoming residents volunteer their time and expertise to make sure our biggest summer events goes smoothly and come off without a hitch, especially our big rodeos,” Gordon said.
The past several weeks, the governor’s office, the Wyoming Department of Health and others have been trying to find a way, any way to hold these signature events—Cheyenne Frontier Days, Cody Stampede, Central Wyoming Fair and PRCA Rodeo, the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, Laramie Jubilee Days and the Thermopolis Cowboy Rendezvous.
“In true Wyoming fashion, we sat down and looked at all angles possible trying to find a way to hold these iconic events,” Gordon said. “Still, 2020 has presented challenges that are not easy to overcome safely, responsibly, or in ways that make business sense. Unfortunately, today's circumstances and the enormous number of unknowns have forced some decisions.”
Gordon struggled with the choice, and realizes no matter what happens in 2020, he believes it’s highly likely large events going forward are going to be different, and it’s important to think about the future.
“While also thinking about the health of our volunteers, rodeo fans, contestants, and even the communities in which these events are held,” Gordon said. “To proceed in these uncertain times would be touch-and-go at best and could quite possibly compromise these events capacity to put on a rodeo next year.”
A bad experience for any of the six rodeos canceled May 27 could do “enormous harm to Wyoming and the events’ reputations. Because so much rides on these decisions, we held off as long as we could,” he said.
“Still, each of these events has to be able to plan well ahead and be assured of a reasonable chance of success. In the end, going off half-cocked, in the collective minds of everyone up here just wouldn't be worth it,” Gordon said. “This coronavirus thing sucks. There are just no two ways about it.”
Because of the way the coronavirus is transferred, and how close contact many of these events are, Gordon believes people need to be aware.
“Some think it's no big deal. Others are worried sick. The fact is we need both groups to attend our rodeos and feel safe,” he said. “If these rodeos are going to be successful, we in Wyoming are always ready to cowboy up.”
Other considerations need to be taken into account. Holding these events without some of their signature events—concerts, parades, carnivals—would not provide the same level of value as before.
“Simply having these events does not guarantee folks will come,” Gordon said. “No matter how we tried to find solutions collectively, we recognize the challenges were exceptional, and the risk of failure could set these rodeos back for years to come.”
Daddy of ’em All
Cheyenne Frontier Days has a 124-year history, and hasn’t let war, the Great Depression and other significant events halt the show. This year, however, the pandemic is the exception to the rule.
Tom Hirsig, president and CEO of CFD, was the spokesman for the six rodeos at the press conference. He described the process as to which the committees, governor and the departments involved made their decision—one that wasn’t taken lightly. Hirsig’s family has been involved with the event since its inception and thanked the governor for his passion for rodeo and the events that go along with it.
“My story is not unlike many of the people that work or volunteer to put these amazing events on. They put their hearts and souls in every one of these celebrations,” Hirsig said. “Most of the leaders in these events are volunteers and spend many hours planning their events. This was not the season they were hoping for, but, true to form, they stepped up when the going got tough.”
The planning for the 2020 events might go unrecognized, but Hirsig hopes each community will thank the committees and volunteers for their hard work and effort thus far.
“They deserve at least that,” Hirsig said.
Six weeks ago the committees began talking about the components of their respective events and the parameters under which event components could operate.
“We worked hard as a group brainstorming and trying to come up with solutions and it became very clear to all of us that some of the components of each of our events logistically cannot take place with respect to social distancing,” Hirsig said.
Events like parades, carnivals, Indian villages, street dances, beer gardens and concerts are “successful because of the lack of social distancing,” he said. Excitement brings fans back year after year.
“It is entertainment for all ages, 1 to 100,” he said. “Sheridan with no parade. Laramie with no street dance. Casper with no carnival. Each celebration has its own components that make them special. These events have worked for years to build these incredible brands that are iconic. Not only in our state but nationwide and some worldwide.”
For Hirsig there’s only one way to build events, and that is to make them bigger and better every year.
“So that people leave saying I can't wait for next year,” he said. “When you consider social distancing eliminating many of your core pieces of your event, your event becomes very common.”
Having a splintered event in 2020 has the possibility of setting the event back, where it took “many of us over 100 years to get where we are,” Hirsig said.
There were many factors outside of the health parameters that played into the decision to cancel these events.
“From sponsorship to availability of volunteers,” Hirsig said. “We not only have concerns for volunteers, spectators, and contestants’ health, but also recognize the possible lack of participation from our great volunteer workforce in 2020. They are the keys to producing all of these events.”
Many CFD volunteers are part of the at-risk population susceptible to COVID-19 or have family members who are part of that population.
“More importantly they are part of our family and risking their health, it's not something we're willing to do,” he said.
Besides providing community entertainment, the mission of these great events is to provide an economic impact on the communities in which they’re held.
“This has always been the case,” Hirsig said. “This will be a sorely missed impact to not only the communities, but the entire state of Wyoming. One of the worst things we could do to cause our state to go backwards in the recovery process is to shut down businesses.”
Sponsorship of these events is “maybe the most important financial impact to having successful events,” Hirsig said.
“Many of our sponsors are hurting already, because how this has affected aspects of our economy,” he said. “It would truly be a struggle for some to support these events in the same fashion they have in prior years.”
All events are going to suffer a financial loss just by canceling. Some have already spent large amounts of money trying to get to this point in the year. Delaying the decision any longer would cost more money, without a guarantee it could take place at a later date.”
“Cowboys, cowgirls, stock contractors, announcers, etc., all parts of our rodeo family are struggling and we need to pray for them in these tough times,” Hirsig said. “Know that we will return.”
Many of these events have vendors, concessionaires, carnival operators and others who depend on these events as a source of income.
“We are entertainment planners, not health specialists,” Hirsig said. “We rely on our state officials to give us guidance to our events. We appreciate their time and the jobs that they must take on. We do not envy any of their decisions.”
According to CFD, in 2019, visitors spent over $28 million during the 10-day run, generating over $1 million in local and state taxes, more than $5 million for overnight lodging, and almost $9 million for retail businesses. It also created over 300 jobs resulting in $5 million in wages and salaries during the event.
Fans who have already purchased rodeo or concert tickets are asked to visit the CFD website for information about account credit rollovers or refunds at www.cfdrodeo.com. The Thomas Rhett, Eric Church and Blake Shelton shows have been rescheduled as part of the 2021 lineup, and tickets will be reissued when 2021 tickets go on sale.
Gordon did make light that the Wyoming State Fair is still being planned, and he was heartened to learn the volume of traffic that went through Yellowstone National Park during Memorial Day weekend was 200 cars short of 2019 gate traffic. Only two entrances to the park were open at all.
“That's good. It's good because it means our tourism is picking up,” he said. “Those are important dollars and it's good because it means the demand for oil is also picking up and that's a good thing for Wyoming.”
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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