By Monica Surfaro Spigelman
Heads up! Come February, Western fever will be contagious. The dust billows, boots get polished and buckles come out to cinch our best-cut jeans. Trailers full of livestock, horses and tack rumble into town, filling stables, RV parks – and retailer coffers.
The 88th annual Tucson Rodeo – also known as La Fiesta de los Vaqueros – is a Wild-West convergence of first-rate horsemanship and proof that professional cowboys are indeed alive and well in Tucson and beyond.
“Of 568 rodeos, Tucson is among the top 25 in the world,” said Gary Williams, the rodeo’s GM since 1994. “We’re the first big outdoor event of the pro rodeo season. We have a large arena with the best livestock. We’re the largest outdoor winter rodeo and a key stop on the circuit for all cowboys who want to be part of the National Finals.”
From Feb. 16 to Feb. 26, some 60,000 spectators from around the globe will converge upon Tucson’s historic rodeo grounds to watch world-class pros compete for a purse of more than $460,000 – and a trophy buckle of gold and silver inlaid with diamonds. Some 200,000 also turn out for the Tucson Rodeo Parade – the longest non-motorized parade in the nation.
Tucson’s rodeo is big business. Williams estimates the impact on Tucson’s economy at more than $20 million – factoring in tourists, feed and boarding for animals and contestant spending. The rodeo draws visitors from around the globe, many returning from Europe and Canada year after year. The demographics are split evenly across age groups and gender.
“Rodeo is a very serious sport that’s growing in popularity with events in Europe, South America, Australia as well as the United States,” he said. “And Tucson is in the top tier of this business.”
Williams knows rodeo. A bull rider for 16 years, he was on the professional circuit, with 136 rodeos under his belt. In 1977 he was 24th in the world, winning a purse of $6,000.
Beyond the purse money that attracts the competitors, the total cowboy package is what lures everyone back to Tucson’s internationally acclaimed event. There’s the rodeo’s retinue of bucking horses and bulls and powerful, world-class riders who revel in the competitive spirit – plus a host of ancillary daily events and booths that showcase all aspects of a true Western heritage experience. Think funnel cakes and brisket, vintage buckles, cowboy hats and cowgirl glitterati, even stop-action photography lessons.
Ready to Rodeo
La Fiesta de los Vaqueros is a nine-day ode to the cowboy and attracts more than 700 contestants and about 1,000 horses. There are six rodeos, including the culminating finals on Feb. 24, which bring together the world’s top 12 cowboys and cowgirls from the week’s completion.
Men compete in six events, women in one – barrel racing. The lively competition includes bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, team roping and bull riding, all sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The barrel racing is sanctioned by the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
“The size of the arena dictates how much head start the livestock gets coming out of the chute – and Tucson has one of the largest arenas on the circuit,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be a pro to win at the Tucson arena, and that’s what adds to the excitement.”
Cowboy icons – including defending Tucson all-around champ Bobby Mote of Culver, Ore. – are expected to compete in bareback riding. Local team roper Cesar de la Cruz, a multi-time national finalist, will be back to compete roping steers. Sherry Cervi of Marana, a four-time barrel racing world champ, is expected to compete against other top cowgirls, including Reiney Hatch of Ukiah, California, the defending Tucson champ.
Rodeo animals share the limelight with the cowboys and cowgirls. The livestock are peak-conditioned athletes themselves, brought to Tucson from Beutler & Son Rodeo Co. This century-old Oklahoma cattle business is renowned for raising the best livestock in the industry.
“Remember, in rodeo, the unwritten rule is that your animals are taken care of before you are,” Williams said about the strict rules regarding rodeo livestock welfare.
“Everyone – from the cowboys to the veterinarians on site – is focused on providing exceptional care to these important rodeo partners. They are performers prized as much as their human counterparts.”
This multi-million-dollar tourism and sporting tradition began in 1925. Today the Tucson Rodeo spurs a corral-full of local business and attracts national sponsors.
The two largest national sponsors – Coors and Ram Trucks (Dodge) – have been with the Tucson Rodeo since the 1980s. Wrangler and Coke also support the rodeo through ticket sales and product promotions as sponsors for more than two decades. Desert Diamond Casino & Entertainment and Arizona Oncology are just two local businesses that have partnered with the Tucson Rodeo.
Local restaurants and watering holes enjoy a bonanza throughout the all-things-Western extravaganza. Whataburger, a rodeo marketing partner since 2003, has a bull renamed during each performance for the company. Others, like The Silver Saddle Steak House at Interstate 10, call rodeo peak season and see their tables fill with fans rubbing shoulders with the cowboys. Then there are the stock feeders and stables, where hay sales soar and boarding is full up.
Western retailer Boot Barn, with five stores across Southern Arizona, welcomes rodeo goers with a 3,000-square-foot tent on the rodeo grounds full of updated apparel, boots and hats. “The rodeo means an extra peak season similar to a Christmas-holiday peak in sales,” said Boot Barn District Manager Dirk Gibbons.
“As much as the dollars, the Tucson Rodeo seems to have it all in the way of fan enjoyment, Western pride and the community unity it ignites,” Williams said.
That encourages local sponsors, who welcome back the rodeo with repeat sponsorships and ticket subscriptions. In the grandstands that seat 11,000, long-term season box holders are split about evenly between local companies and individuals. In the Vaquero Club, an enclosed tent for comfortable rodeo viewing, many businesses purchase tables. Some come from outside Arizona – including a Palm Springs tour company that booked a group of 25 for the Vaquero Club in 2013.
The variety of arena action, shopping and culinary experiences make this a rich and authentic Western event. The Quadrille de Mujeres, a women’s precision riding team from Casa Grande, is one example of a crowd favorite. The Quadrille leads off the 2013 rodeo for the 34th consecutive year.
Tucson’s roughstock events – with daring bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding demonstrations of cowboy and animal intensity – are always a dazzling draw. Also popular are slack competitions, a mechanism that allows the Tucson Rodeo to accommodate more contestants to show their stuff and wow the crowd in events like steer wrestling, barrel racing and roping. Athleticism is key – even down to the entertaining barrelmen antics.
When the dust settles after the final rodeo, the Coors Barn Dance tent, now in its third year, rolls out evening activities with food booths and live entertainment. Also on the sidelines is the Western Marketplace circling the perimeter inside the rodeo grounds, with vendors representing all facets of everyday working ranch life. The popular Canon-sponsored photography workshop returns for a third year for enthusiasts who want to learn pro techniques for great stop-action rodeo images.
Ropin’ Future Wranglers
To inspire the next generation of cowboys, there are two pre-rodeo activities. Youngsters 6 to 14 years old compete in the Justin Junior Rodeo, and kids 4 to 6 test their riding skills on sheep in the Dodge Mutton Bustin’.
Year-round educational initiatives include the Rodeo Education and Children, known as REACh, a free program for school groups held at the Rodeo Grounds, bringing the historic sport to life for Tucson area kids. Activities are led by a teacher and former rodeo contestant. The Tucson Rodeo also benefits a University of Arizona scholarship fund, the Lions Club, Rotary Clubs and 4-H groups.
Given the strong, sustained clout of Western art, a sought-after collectible each year is the Tucson Rodeo commemorative poster. The poster series began in 1989 and always features art that captures the essence of the Western experience. The 2013 limited-edition poster features a richly detailed cowboy rodeo scene painted by artist Tom Dorr.
“Everything about the rodeo is a non-stop demonstration of achievement and talent that personifies the spirit of the West,” Williams said.
88-Year Parade Tradition
If the Tucson Rodeo is one of the city’s biggest spectacles, then surely the Tucson Rodeo Parade (this year on Feb. 21) is its cultural centerpiece. Nowhere in the nation is there a rodeo school holiday – except in Tucson. Businesses close to participate either as an entry or an onlooker. Some of the 200,000 spectators arrive early and camp out to claim choice spots along the 2.45 mile route.
Lasting more than three hours, the parade features hundreds of riders, wagons, marching bands, equestrian units, mariachis and floats. This is the longest non-motorized parade in the U.S. and second in the world, behind the annual eight-hour elephant parade in Nepal.
This year’s parade includes 900 horses (not including mules and miniatures), 90 buggies and wagons and 2,100 participants. Entrants come from across the country, including the El Paso Sheriff Posse, a longtime crowd favorite. This 88-year parade tradition bears witness to regional ranching lore and its memorabilia.
“This is the last link to Western tradition for many families. It brings out the inner cowpoke in all of us,” said Bob Stewart. He’s a longtime member of the hardy, all-volunteer 36-member Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee that produces the parade in cooperation with the City of Tucson.
Safety is serious parade business for both the volunteers and the city workers who line the parade route among the spectators. The parade begins at Park Avenue and Ajo Way, winding south on Park to Irvington, then west to the parade grounds.
The Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee also staffs the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum, housed in a collection of historic buildings on the parade grounds. One of the buildings is a sheriff’s 1930s adobe. Another, a blue-skinned hangar, is the original steel frame of the 1919 Tucson Municipal Airport, the site of the first municipal airport in the United States.
Many wagons used in the parade are from the Tucson Rodeo Parade Museum, which opens for public tours January through April, with extended hours during rodeo season. Mercantile and blacksmith displays, original Buffalo Soldier harnesses, buckboards used in John Wayne movies, exhibits documenting Tucson’s role in aviation history and even a Brougham carriage built in 1863 for royalty (and valued by Antiques Roadshow at more than $500,000) are all part of the tour.
“Parts of Western history were written here,” Williams said. “The rodeo, the parade and the museum celebrate a professional sport and a profound Western tradition that’s still booming.”
He noted that the Tucson Rodeo Committee and Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee are both volunteer-based, nonprofit community groups.
“When you stand out in the middle of the arena, it’s electric. The rodeo is an event with a larger-than-life impact on our economy, our history and our community.”