Rodeos in Montana are an economic driver for small towns and a way of life for the state’s rural population.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana is facing the very real possibility of rodeo cancellations and postponements, which would be devastating to both competitors and communities alike.
“It's the biggest social activity that there is in Montana," said Montana PRCA president Jack Stensland of Wolf Point.
But with public gatherings limited to 10 people during the first phase of Governor Steve Bullock’s reopening plan, Stensland says the early part of the Montana circuit rodeo schedule remains uncertain.
“These small rodeos in these towns, it's the biggest weekend of the year,” he said. “I don’t know if the later rodeos are going to be OK. It's just a waiting game. It's shame that we're in this game, that's for sure.”
Rodeos are typically the centerpieces of fairs, parades, class reunions and other large gatherings. They rely on sponsor support and gate admission to help with payouts and covering expenses. While many sports are discussing a return to competition without fans in attendance, that’s not possible for pro rodeos in Montana.
Many sponsors are retail shops and establishments that rely on rodeo revenue and event dollars. Without fan attendance, there are no sponsors. Without sponsors, there are no rodeos.
“We need butts in the seats,” Stensland said. “If you don't have your sponsors helping out, you are not going to be successful. It's what's in the seats and the fans coming to the summer activities that we have that keep rodeos going. In Wolf Point I don’t know that we could even pull off a rodeo with just 1,000 fans. It would be a detriment. A disaster is what it would be.”
While no Montana circuit rodeos have been canceled yet, even a move to Phase 2 and an increase in gatherings from 10 to 50 people wouldn’t provide much relief or opportunity to hold a rodeo.
Rodeos as we know them likely won’t be possible until Phase 3 when restrictions on crowd sizes are lifted. But without a clear timetable of when Montana might emerge from the pandemic, the livelihoods of competitors, contractors, businesses and entire communities hang in the balance.
“Nobody's been in this predicament before and it is scary,” Stensland said. “I would hate to be in the retail business. It's tough enough to be in agriculture. You have no idea where everything's at and where we’re going, and you still got to pay the bills.”
Stensland said most rodeo committees across the state are holding off on making any sort of decisions about canceling or postponing rodeos until June 1. The Montana Circuit season is scheduled to kick off with the Dawson County Fair & PRCA Rodeo in Glendive on June 12.
For a full schedule of Montana PRCA events currently scheduled in 2020, visit montanaprorodeo.com
The pandemic is affecting rodeo at all levels.
As opposed to the PRCA, there’s nothing the Montana High School Rodeo Association would like more in our current reality than the opportunity to hold competitions without fans.
But according to MHSRA president Lane Yeager, local proposals for a return to competition while following strict social distancing guidelines and other steps to prevent transmission of the coronavirus have been shot down by county health departments across the state.
“Our board put together a policy that copies the governor's directives and we added more and it's pretty severe,” Yeager said. “We included restrictions for camping and families standing next to other families and restricted all co-mingling. Only essential personnel allowed in the arena at a time. We've gone above and beyond what it takes to satisfy them, but we've been pigeonholed and sidelined.”
Yeager believes that state and county health departments have instituted a “one size fits all” policy that fails to account for the differences between individual counties and communities.
“The state has a round hole and they’re trying to stuff a square peg in it,” he said. “Because every community and county are different, and these health departments aren’t seeing the difference.
“They don't believe we have the ability to keep these people separated. Even though you can go into a restaurant that's rated at 200 people and, under the new covenant, you can bring 100 inside. Well, it's really hard to get 100 people at a high school rodeo, even in a normal scenario.”
Without entry fees from rodeos, MHSRA events beyond 2020 are hanging in the balance, as well.
“Our financial base that runs our operation is based off when a kid enters a rodeo, then the association gets a piece to take care of our secretarial services and our other end-of-the-year opportunities that keeps us going for the next year,” Yeager said. “And so, it’s a huge financial hit for us. It's going to be hard to recover from if we don't get some rodeo going.”
As of May 1, most of the scheduled high school and junior high rodeos have been canceled or postponed. Even though the competitors, families and board members are willing to take any step necessary to follow guidelines and return to action, there hasn’t been much optimism.
“Right now, we don’t have any opportunities to go to any rodeos anywhere,” Yeager said. “No openings in sight, anywhere at all. I haven’t heard anything positive back from anybody. They don't feel that we are responsible enough to follow the directives of the governor to practice social distancing.”
For updated cancellations and postponements, visit mhsra.com.