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On The Trail with COVID-19
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the entire world, and the rodeo industry isn’t exempt. From contestants to contractors to committees, they’ve all been forced to adapt, since the nation was shutdown, starting in mid-March. For bareback rider Kaycee Feild, it took a bit to adjust to the new routine before he could switch roles. “I got lost for a few days,” he said. “My (rodeo) goals were unattainable, and I didn’t do a whole lot for about a week.” Then his focus shifted to being home.
At home in Spanish Fork, Utah, the four-time world champion has done projects around he and Stephanie’s house: welding, building, and grilling.
“I started to build a tack shed,” he said. “Growing up as a kid, we had a tack shed, and I spent a lot of time with my dad in it. So, not having one for the last decade, I’m building one and it’s bringing back a lot of memories.”
He’s spent more time with his kids, too. Elder daughter Chaimberlyn, who is seven years old, is always busy with something. “I have to saddle her horse every day,” Feild said. “She likes going on picnics, or doing puzzles or playing with my wife.” The couple’s son, Huxyn, is four, and is all about dirt bikes. “He’s a dirt bike kid. He’s on it all day, every day. He’s worn out two rear tires this spring.” Third child Remi, a daughter, is eighteen months old.
Time at home has also given Feild an opportunity to work with a few of his sponsors, including Power Pro (www.pwrprocbd.com) and Gel Blasters, a toy gun that shoots orbeez.
Feild thinks that when rodeos start back, competition will be tougher than ever. He and a few bareback riding friends are organizing a practice session with money up for grabs, to get in tune for rodeos.
“A lot of guys are on the same playing field right now, so when it opens back up, rodeo will be the best you’ve seen. There’s a limited amount of time to get to the (Wrangler National) Finals so you’ll see who wants it.
The COVID-19 break has been good for him, physically. “This has put two years on the end of my career,” he said, “to be able to give my body a break this time of year, being able to stay home.”
Leslie Casper, wife of Wyatt Casper (OTT in Rodeo News March 2020) had their second child this past December. “We were able to go a little in the winter and spring with him but it just wasn’t a fun time with a month old and a 13 month old,” she said. “It’s pretty nice to have help with the kids every day all day long. Cooper our 18 month old really LOVES having his daddy home, it’s going to be very hard when rodeos finally kick back up.”
For Binion Cervi, the worldwide pandemic is a double whammy. Not only has it forced the cancelation of pro rodeos for the stock contractor and his brother, Chase, but it has devastated the cattle markets.
The Cervis own and operate a feedlot near Greeley, Colo., and with cattle ready to be harvested, JBS Packing was closed due to the virus. (It has since reopened).
Like Feild, Binion is using the unexpected time at home to do projects that don’t get done when rodeos are in full swing.
“We’re doing everything you usually push to the side: upgrading fences, the ranch, headquarters, we’re doing all that.” They’ve been able to keep their rodeo employees working at the ranch. “The people who would normally be on the road, they’re at the ranch helping us, so we can make sure they have a job.”
When rodeos begin again, Cervi thinks things won’t be the same. “This changes people, and there will be caution in the world, even when everything is cleared to go. Some people will be blazing trails, some will go cautiously. I think you’ll see people with masks on at rodeos, and you’ll see people who don’t care. Everybody’s going to react to it differently.
The pandemic has shifted the way Cervi thinks, as it has for a lot of people. “This is such a reality check for every human in the world. It’s a dose of reality, that nobody controls anything in life.
“This is the real world, and we all get caught up in going so fast, on a personal level, that it’s like, this tells you what is important in life. It’s like God waking you up. There’s more to life than rodeo, there’s more to life than always building a business. That’s the biggest blessing I’m getting, that our whole family is getting.”
The Franklin (Tenn.) Rodeo, didn’t have a choice when it canceled.
Set to be held May 14-16, executive director Bill Fitzgerald didn’t think the long-running rodeo would be shut down.
“For the longest time, I tried to play it off, to say this was going to go away. Then, as it got closer, the government was changing the way we did things. We couldn’t have our meetings, and I was starting to get nervous, like, how am I going to communicate with my committees, with my volunteers, with my people?”
The rodeo is held at the county-owned Williamson County Ag Expo Center, fifteen miles south of Nashville.
“The county actually shut the facility down, and that made the decision (to cancel),” he said. The building is closed through the end of May.
The cancellation was made on March 23, seven weeks before the start of the rodeo, which meant the committee hadn’t spent much money yet. “We weren’t out a lot, because we hadn’t gotten to that point yet,” Fitzgerald said.
He believes that next year’s crowds will be even better because they missed this year’s rodeo. “I honestly believe that folks love the sport of rodeo, and they’re going to come. The fans in middle Tennessee want to be a part of it. We still have people joining the fan club, knowing the rodeo won’t happen.”
Cheyenne Frontier Days is on the front lines of the time line.
The “Daddy of ‘em All” is set to kick off July 17-26, and, according to CEO Tom Hirsig, at this point, the staff and general committee are working to make it happen, with state and local government officials as part of the decision making process.
He’s spent sleepless nights worrying about all the factors, and believes that time will tell, especially as May rolls on. “The month of May will determine a lot, at least for the July rodeos.”
“We’re on the cusp of being one of the first ones that might get to have their event,” he said.
CFD is on people’s “bucket list, the Kentucky Derby of rodeo,” he said, with fans from all fifty states and 31 countries, which is another aspect to consider. He assumes that international travel won’t be opened yet, which could affect attendance.
The economic influence of canceling CFD is enormous. The last economic study done for CFD showed a financial impact of $28 million to Cheyenne and $40 million for the state of Wyoming. “All rodeos have an economic impact on their community, whether it be Meeteetse (Wyo.) or Cheyenne.”
Rodeos also have bills to pay, whether they hold their event or not.
“We are $2 million into our show now,” spent on it. If we can’t have (the event) we lose that money.” And there is the cost of maintenance as well. “We own our own park and we have ongoing costs. Those utility bills don’t go away and payroll doesn’t go away.”
Annual rodeos and events aren’t like other businesses that are open year-round, Hirsig pointed out. “It’s not just that we are missing out on making that money, but we have ongoing costs like any business. It’s just that we have ten days to make that money. It’s going to be hard on a lot of rodeos to recover from this. I don’t know, when we come out on the other side, how these rodeos will be.”
Hirsig said CFD contracts with about 300 people or entities. “There are 300 individuals or companies out there, hanging on what we’re doing.”
CFD sponsors have been loyal, he said. “I keep hearing that sponsors are pulling out, but we haven’t seen that. Our sponsors have been sticking with us, and are glad we’re making an educated decision. Many of them are local sponsors and they understand the long term effect that if CFD doesn’t take place, that increases the deterioration of their bottom line.”
He’s also very aware that he is not an expert in infectious diseases or healthcare. “We are event planners, and that’s where our expertise is. Our expertise is not in diseases, viruses or healthcare. We have to rely on the experts in those areas at the state and county level, as to what is safe and not safe.”
Hirsig also stressed that the decision to cancel or postpone a rodeo is not necessarily in the hands of the rodeo committee. They are “being advised by their health departments” if they can have an event.
Like Cervi, he believes the COVID-19 pandemic will change events and event planning and marketing. “The world has changed. There will be people with masks on, and some without masks, and when you put a bunch of people in a stadium, everyone’s going to have a different feeling about what social distancing means. You’ll have people with masks, and if you get too close to them, they’re going to feel uncomfortable. Or the people drinking and having fun, there could be another level of discomfort.
“You want people to leave your event saying, that’s so fun. I want to come back. You don’t want them to say, man, there’s a lot of people here, I don’t think we should go.”
The goal of entertainment is to provide a distraction from the “regular world,” Hirsig noted.
“What do you do to your brand if you put your event on, and people don’t have a great time? We’ve worked hard to create this brand where it’s fun, it’s away from the real world. With masks, there will always be that reminder, that there is something else going on in our world that you have to be concerned with. You have to measure that to some degree, too.”
Chancey Williams and his band are staying busy as they wait to hear how to better plan for upcoming shows.
“Our last show was March 13 in Houston and they’ve canceled everything through May, some in June, and some in July,” said Chancey Williams, whose band is usually booked every week. They have had to cancel 9 shows so far. “We are getting a few emails and phone calls for things in June and July but we still don’t know if it’s going to hurt us or not. We have two at the end of May that are still holding on – Craig, Good Old West Days is still planning on it.” The band has been making good use of their time off. We spent the time working on equipment, practicing, and Chancey learning how to do the social media live. “It’s been a learning curve, but we’re getting it.” Chancey has been able to help his family with shearing. “Stay positive and work through it – we want to be ready to play – we’ve got a new set and an album coming out – we’ll be ready to go when they open up.”