Rodeo’s tradition rides on, growing in Arizona and the West

The Prescott Frontier Rodeo Days grounds fills with spectators from across the state during the annual rodeo. Like many other communities across the state, Prescott receives a influx of tourism and business thanks to its rodeo culture. (Photo by Torrence Dunham/Cronkite News)

For more than a 130 years, rodeo has been an integral part of Arizona’s identity. It is ingrained in the state’s history, its development and its culture.

Arizona without rodeo would be like a cowboy without his boots, and the sport continues to thunder along through professional and amateur events held every year across the state.

“If you look at the longevities of these events, what it says to me is that rodeo strikes a responsive chord, not only among our citizens but with visitors to our state,” said Gary Williams, a former competitor and general manager of the Tucson Rodeo, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. “This is a way to celebrate and bring to the forefront the western heritage that the state of Arizona enjoys and the heritage of the cowboy.”

Williams heads the historic event that dates back to 1925. Now an integral part of the community, the Tucson Rodeo attracts more than 200,000 people to Tucson to see western-themed floats in the parade, Mexican folk dancers and, of course, the rodeo competition.

The rodeo is ingrained in the community. Over the years, the Tucson Rodeo has grown from a three-day event to one that now spans nine days. Local schools even give students two days off during the rodeo.

The popularity of rodeos goes far beyond Tucson, however. After a national dip believed to be caused by the recession, rodeos in Arizona and across the country have recovered in attendance and participation. The sport doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association reports it sanctioned 624 rodeos in 2015, up from 560 in 2009. Last year saw an increase in the number of participants as well, with 117,144 contestant entries at all of the association’s events. The average for previous eight years was a little more than 116,000.

Some of those involved with rodeo in the state have seen a similar trend in Arizona, especially considering the state’s history in the sport, including claims of both the world’s oldest rodeo (in Prescott) and the world’s oldest continuous rodeo (in Payson).

Dan Fowlie, a rodeo announcer who travels to competitions across the country, believes the sport’s tradition and the money it brings to state competitors, businesses and charities has great value to Arizona.

“It’s been, I would argue, as big or bigger than what spring training has done for Arizona over the years,” he said.

What is rodeo?

Rodeo grew out of the development of the West. As Americans moved onto land that would eventually become states like Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and others, cowboys and ranchers began competing, using skills they developed making a livelihood.

Migration from Mexico and South America brought cowboys with new skills and techniques as the sport continued to develop.

“It’s the only sport that evolved from the world of work — things cowboys did on the range and their extra-curricular activities,” Williams said.

That’s true today and part of the reason why places like Arizona continue to see rodeo’s popularity carry on, especially in rural areas where ranch work continues.

Saddle bronc riding — where a competitor sits in a specialized saddle and rides a bucking horse — grew out of the old task of breaking wild horses for ranch work, something that was part of a cowboy’s routine throughout history, according to the PRCA.

The need for capturing calves and cattle for branding and other concerns developed roping and riding skills, which led to roping events at rodeo competitions.

The cultural significance of these events, how they reflect the history and the culture of the state and region, a reason the sport maintains its popularity.

“We’ll always have one thing that you can’t get anywhere else, and that’s the image of the cowboy,” Williams said, adding that one of the big draws for fans is the look and lifestyle of cowboys. “(Fans) want to emulate the dress of the guys; it’s a big deal. You don’t usually see that in any other sports.”

The “cowboy code,” a message of honesty, doing what’s right and being taken at your word, is another part of cowboy culture that Williams believes keeps the tradition alive in families and through other fans who look up to competitors. That sentiment expands even through the youth and ameteur ranks.

“When you’re going to rodeos growing up, you’re around other people with the same ideology of respect and doing unto others,” Fowlie said. “When they see your kid stepping out of line, everybody has that village mentality in wanting this to be a better world to hand over to the next generation.”

Rodeo’s future in Arizona

Many involved in rodeo believe the sport will maintain its popularity and importance in the state and region well into the future. Even with technology changing the way people view and follow sports, rodeo’s traditionalism has transitioned well into the 21st century.

While it might be odd to imagine cowboys integrating computers into their sport, technology has been good for the rodeo on a professional level.

Pageviews from the PRCA’s mobile app surpassed 9 million last year, for example, up 39 percent from 2014, according to the organization’s annual report. The sport has a substantial television audience as well, reaching 35 million viewers last year. Close to 10 million rodeo fans watched coverage of the National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas, according to the report.

It has all helped grow attendance at live rodeos. From 2011 to 2015, attendance at PRCA events grew 35 percent, from 4 million to 5.4 million.

In Cave Creek, demand for its live rodeo events has been difficult to meet as the sport’s popularity continues to rise. Traci Casale, who has volunteered with the Cave Creek Pro Rodeo Association for 12 years, said the growth has been so rapid that fans have been turned away from sold out events.

To Casale, the tradition of rodeo has played a part in its growth, but she said the sport’s affordability also has appeal to fans.

“PRCA is a professional sport and it’s still affordable,” she said. “That’s why the fanbase has grown so strong.”

Williams said that trend has carried over to the Tucson Rodeo and others across the state, even with the loss in 1997 of what was once the Valley’s premier rodeo event, the Phoenix Jaycees Rodeo of Rodeos.

“The rodeos that remain are very strong and viable financially. We just had one of the best years from a financial standpoint in our history,” he said. “The culture is still there. It’s still thriving in Arizona. We all try to help each other out as much as we can because we want to see each other get stronger because that helps the culture of rodeo within the state.”

That extends to small towns across the state as well, where rodeos continue to be an important source of tourism and revenue for local businesses.

In Prescott, “The World’s Oldest Rodeo” is a major economic driver every Fourth of July as the centerpiece of Prescott Frontier Days, which includes an arts-and-crafts fair, a rodeo dance and other events.

“That’s our busiest week of the entire year, due to the rodeo,” said Don Prince, Prescott’s tourism director. “All the events taking place during that week tend to make it the most important time of the year for us.”

Prince and the city estimates that 35,000 people clad in western wear come to Prescott for the rodeo and other events during Frontier Days, nearly equalling the city’s population of 40,000. When the last economic-impact study was conducted more than a decade ago, it concluded that the rodeo brought $13 million into the city and its businesses.

Now, Prince said he wouldn’t be surprised if that impact approaches $20 million.

As far as competition goes, Arizona is raising talented world-class athletes from a wide pool of interested young people. Young cowboys from across the state are earning national recognition in professional and college competitions.

“From a timed-event aspect, (the talent is) phenomenal and very promising,” Fowlie said. “That is just the tip of the iceberg. There are some kids in northern Arizona (with) unbelievable talent. The atmosphere on the mid-level or the semi-professional level of rodeo is thriving. They’re setting records as far as incoming classes of talent.”

At a young age, future competitors are being introduced to the sport through 4-H Clubs, ametuer associations and rodeo schools. There are also strong junior high and high school associations that often fill up entries at competitions, according to Williams.

That means there should be plenty of excitement in the sport for years to come.

“The culture is still there. It’s still thriving in Arizona,” Williams said. “Rodeo will always be around.”