Rodeo kicks up deals to survive 2009

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Skiing brought Rob Powers to Steamboat Springs, but Tuesday evening he wore his allegiance on his head. A brilliant white cowboy hat led the way as he cut across a snowy and dark Lincoln Avenue in downtown Steamboat.

"We believe one of the most underutilized resources this town has is the rodeo," he said, sifting through peanut shells at Steamboat Smokehouse while discussing the future of the Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series. "It's not going to be business as usual this summer for the rodeo. Customers won't notice any difference, but I think this is going to be the best summer we've had."

The rodeo won't ride again for six months, but Powers and the 10-week, 20-performance events committee are working harder than ever to make sure their baby survives the spate of economic sickness.

In the face of large cuts in city funding and a 15- to 20-percent drop in sponsorship dollars, the rodeo will introduce several new programs this summer, including a season pass available to locals for about $30 and a junior bull riding circuit.

The rodeo won't be cutting anything, committee member Jeff Nelson said. There will be just as many performances. There will be the same level of stock, and there will be the same number of acts and rodeo clowns.

"If anything, you're going to see a better product," Powers said.

Looking to locals

The push to cover for the absent funds starts with the locals season pass. Powers and Nelson repeatedly expressed interest in pricing the pass at $30, though that is not yet definite. Whatever the price, the pass will restrict owners to sitting on the concrete stands to the south of the arena. It also won't be valid for the July 4 weekend performances, but it will be good for any of the 18 other summer shows.

Regular adult tickets cost $15 each last summer, so users could make up the difference in just two trips to the downtown arena's weekly Friday and Saturday night performances.

"We want to make the rodeo affordable for locals in a way that has never been done before," Powers said. "We're willing to put the rodeo series on the line by running it at the highest quality and by dipping into reserves, and we're looking for locals to help out by putting their pass on the line for Western heritage."

Committee members also hope a second fireworks show will help. Last year's July 4 rodeo - followed by a massive fireworks display put on by the city and the Tim Borden family - was the most well-attended performance of the summer. This year's July 3 fireworks show, running about half the length of and in addition to the July 4 show, could lead to a second sold-out crowd.

No cutbacks

There's little hope those changes will make up the difference in city funding.

Powers and Nelson said the rodeo has done slightly better than break even, and growth has remained flat for the past several years. They hope to attract the same amount of business in the coming summer as they did in 2008.

The committee could use its reserves to cover the remaining costs.

"That's why you have reserves," Nelson said. "We want to use our reserves rather than curtail the quality of the show. We want to give the public what we're known for."

There are no plans to scale anything back. John Shipley will continue to serve as the primary voice for the event, announcing in 2009 even more than he did in 2008.

Colorado native J.W. Winklepleck, a regular bareback rider in Steamboat and twice a clown last summer, will perform at half of the rodeos.

Troy "The Wild Child" Lerwill - one of most recognized and expensive acts in the business - will showcase his barrel and motorcycle stunts on two different weekends.

The committee toyed with the idea of cutting back from the 20 performances. That presented a number of problems, however, one being the break from a long tradition of at least a 20-performance calendar.

Instead, the committee voted to try to ensure all who do weather the economic storm and show up to support the rodeo won't notice any dark clouds hanging over the arena.

Bulling through

It's a potentially dangerous track. Even a simple rained-out weekend - a true nightmare because the rodeo still would have to pay for scheduled acts and stock, all while missing out on money from the gate and concessions - could spell disaster.

It's not a gamble the rodeo will be able to take twice.

"We're spending our reserves with anticipation this is a one-year deal," Nelson said. "Growth has been somewhat flat, but it's been good enough to allow us to cover what we're going to do right now."

His white hat sitting on a ledge just behind his head, Powers spoke to the rodeo committee's concerns, its hopes and its plans. Despite the cuts, the uncertainty and the worry, they're pressing through, he said.

Dangerous? Perhaps. But he remained certain there was really no choice.

"Chris Wilson, from the city, came and gave us a heads up that like everyone else, we'd face some major cutbacks," Powers said, recalling an October meeting. "Brent Romick stood up and in a sort of cowboy rally call, said, 'I'm willing to do whatever it takes, boys. Who's with me?'

"We can't do this two years in a row. We're going to flirt with our reserves and double our volunteer hours. And, we're going to give you the best damn show you've seen."

- To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail jreichenberger@steamboatpilot.com

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