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COVID-19 rodeo cancellations impact western community

As the summer progresses alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, rodeos, athletes and the communities that support them have been forced to cancel events or make stark changes to how events happen.

Rodeos and other major equestrian events have not been spared from the COVID-19 outbreak and the restrictions it has required. In Colorado, the Rooftop Rodeo has been canceled until 2021, and the State Fair is currently looking into social distancing rules and canceling some events, according to press releases from both organizations. On a national level, the Kentucky Derby has also been postponed.

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Rodeo is a very strong community. rodeo is a very strong heritage. We’re going to grow and continue to meet the goals we set for ourselves and for our group.”-Branden Ferguson, CSU rodeo team head coach

Branden Ferguson, the head coach of CSU’s rodeo team, made it clear that students were using this time away from competition to train and strengthen their bonds with their horses to give them an advantage when sporting starts again.

While recruitment and involvement rates are a current concern of most cultural and athletic organizations, Ferguson said that he believed the strength of the rodeo community would prevent that.

“Rodeo is a very strong community,” Ferguson said. “Rodeo is a very strong heritage. We’re going to grow and continue to meet the goals we set for ourselves and for our group.”

“If anything, we’re a little more prepared than some other groups. These kids are already very focused on their horses and on their safety,” Ferguson said, noting that the sport generally only requires athletes to work with their animal rather than other athletes.

Ferguson said that he has trust in medical experts, as well as those in charge of restrictions, to ensure that the safest options available to those competing and participating in rodeos were being used if and when events are held.  

These events and their scheduling shifts aren’t exclusively affecting athletes involved with equestrian sporting; they are also affecting the towns and organizations that host rodeos across the country. In the Northern Colorado community, both the Greeley Stampede and the Rooftop Rodeo in Estes Park have had to cancel events that were expected to be held in the summer of this year.

In Estes Park, the Rooftop Rodeo normally brings in massive crowds the week after Independence Day. Chairman Mark Purdy of Estes Park Western Heritage, Inc. has a deep understanding of what the rodeo means for the community, having raised his children with the Rooftop Rodeo.

“We’re very proud, (and) we’ve done very well over the years,” Purdy said. “This would’ve been the 94th year. … Over the last 20 years, we’ve been recognized as one of the top rodeos in the country. We’ve been up for rodeo of the year just about every year during that period, and we’ve actually won it five times.”

Even with their great success, holding Rooftop Rodeo spectator-free or postponing would’ve caused further financial devastation, and this difficult truth was clear even as discussions started in late March.

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Estes Park’s rodeo is also unique in many ways — especially as it’s a rodeo occurring in a prime tourist destination.

“Most of the crowd on any given night is first-time rodeo people,” Purdy said. “At one point, we thought as many as 75% of our crowd had never been to a rodeo before. At one point, we had somebody from every state and over 40 countries … (visiting) the Rooftop Rodeo.”

“We didn’t have a crystal ball, we didn’t know where we were going to be with the whole pandemic come July,” Purdy said. “Reality was, even by late March, 95% of the sponsorship base that we would’ve used to help put on the rodeo had already said, ‘We can’t help you out this year.’ … It was an economic decision.”

While Estes Park Town Administrator Travis Machalek agreed that financial circumstances played a huge role in the cancellation, he also felt that protecting the public and the image of the rodeo demanded the full cancellation of the 2020 Rooftop Rodeo.

Machalek and Purdy both felt that the rodeo held an important value when it comes to preserving Western social and cultural identity.

“It means a lot to our town in terms of our identity,” Machalek said. “It means a lot to our business community. It’s hard to describe how much it means to the town.”

Editor’s Note: Kota Babcock is the news director at KCSU.

Kota Babcock can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @kotababcock.

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About the Contributor
Kota Babcock, Arts and Culture Director
Kota Babcock is the 2021-22 arts & culture director for The Collegian and began the role in summer 2021. He's a fourth-year at Colorado State University studying journalism and media communication. Babcock grew up in Denver and immersed himself in the local alternative rock scene in middle and high school, looking up to writers at Westword. Additionally, he participated in marching band and won fifth place in the Museum of Contemporary Arts Denver's Failure Awards after creating a sculpture out of a book. While he originally planned to study creative writing at art school, Babcock found his home in student media at CSU. Currently, he serves as a mentor with All The TEA (teach, empower, advocate), an HIV-focused group within a Denver LGBTQ+ space. He works with KCSU as the news director. In his free time, he takes fun pictures of his bearded dragon, Sunshine, and makes dioramas of movie and video game scenes. In his work as arts & culture director, he hopes to feature CSU's cultural centers and lesser-known local artists and musicians in ways they haven't been previously. He looks forward to a year of writing and working with the local community to express their stories accurately. Kota Babcock can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @kotababcock.

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