My Condolences

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Just before the books closed on Tuesday, I withdrew my entry from Cheyenne Frontier Days. It hurt. I view it as a lose-lose decision. It’s sure gonna be cheaper, but I don’t get to go to the Daddy.

by Adam Gray

There are only about ten rodeos that make the hair on my neck stand up when I walk through the gate, and Cheyenne Frontier Days is one of them. I love everything about that rodeo—the heritage, the tradition, the setup, the prestige. I first roped at Cheyenne during my rookie year in 2008, and I’ve been back every year since, except in 2017, when I was out due to hip surgery. They call the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo the “Daddy of ’em All” for a reason. I love that place. I’ve done well there. Which is why it tears me up that I’m not entering this summer.

My sincere message to the Cheyenne Frontier Days committee members: I’m sorry I can’t be there. I tried to make it work. I did, along with thirty or forty other top tie-down ropers I was communicating with, but we just couldn’t see a way due to the change in format. These are some of the smartest, most seasoned rodeo cowboys competing today. We went back and forth. Does anybody see how this can possibly work? We discussed chartering jets and sending rigs, turning out and trading. We rope for a living, and we go to rodeos to earn our pay. This year, the numbers just didn’t add up for us to go to Cheyenne.

The problem at that time of year is the logistics. In previous years at Cheyenne, we roped two head—in either a slack or rodeo performance—with a shot at coming back for the short round. We knew in advance when we were up in the go-rounds, and we knew to plan for a possible slot in the short round.

This year, the committee is introducing a tournament-style format. Timed-event contestants will participate in two slack rounds, and the top forty from each will qualify for two rodeo perfs. The winners of those perfs advance to the finals. So the format went from two head and a short-go, to four head and the finals. It used to be you were entered in either the slack or the perfs. Now, you’ll need to be there for both. Or you hope you will. But since the slacks are now qualifying rounds, you won’t know in advance. And if you do qualify, you won’t know which perfs you’re going to be in. That’s a lot of unknown over a nine-day period when there are a bunch of other rodeos to get to.

I saw two options for myself, neither of them very good.

Option Number One: I could leave the first round at Nampa, Idaho, and drive 775 miles to Cheyenne. That’s fifteen hours if you drive 80-85 mph on the Interstate the whole way, never stopping. That would put me there about 8:00 a.m., and I’d have to rope in an hour. But then, how would I get to all the other rodeos that week, like Salinas, California; Spanish Fork or Ogden, Utah; Deadwood, South Dakota; and possibly the short-go at Nampa? There’s no way around it: With the new format at Cheyenne, it’s going to be in and out and in and out.

I rodeo with a rule: Don’t drive all night long. Get there safely and sleep and be rested and let my horse get some rest, too. I try not to take my life into my hands just to go to a rodeo.

Option Number Two was to fly—myself and a driver. I travel alone most of the time. I don’t have drivers. But if I decided to fly, I’d have to start by flying a driver into Boise, Idaho, after my first run at Nampa. I would then jump on a plane for Denver—the latest possible flight out that night from Boise. I’d rent a car and stay in Denver that night because there are no motels available in Cheyenne during the Frontier Days. I’d drive up to Cheyenne the next morning and rope on a second horse I’d have waiting for me, along with someone else I was paying to take care of him. After that, I’d fly out and meet up with my driver and horse at Salinas or Spanish Fork or Ogden and possibly Nampa again. And then, if I qualified for the perfs at Cheyenne, I’d have to fly back for those.

In the past, we knew in advance when we were up first at Cheyenne, and we could adjust accordingly when we went to all those other rodeos, including trading spots with other guys. Now, with the progressive format, you have no idea, and everybody else is in the same situation. Nobody really knows when they’ll be up at Cheyenne, so trading out for spots at Spanish Fork or Ogden or Deadwood won’t work. More likely, you’ll be faced with a really hard call—to either progress at Cheyenne or turn out at Cheyenne and rope at Nampa or Salinas or Spanish Fork.

And even though the TV deal the committee at Cheyenne made adds $15,000 to each event, that money gets divided up among more rounds. In other words, the new payout doesn’t justify missing your chance at some of those other rodeos. More than likely, guys will leave Cheyenne with a big expense bill rather than a paycheck. It deserves repeating: We rope for a living, and we go to rodeos to earn our pay.

Other rodeos feature a similar tournament format, but they don’t run into the same logistics issues as Cheyenne. There are two main differences—the time of year and the payout. There are not a lot of other rodeos conflicting with the big progressive winter rodeos, like Austin and Houston. And even though the Calgary Stampede is a summer rodeo, the format is clear and simple—you compete in four daily perfs, which you know about well in advance, for a chance to compete in the finals—and the payout is rich enough to make it worth your while to stay put.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen

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Rodeo’s Future

I understand that the rodeo committee members in Cheyenne have people they’re obligated to. They’re not putting the rodeo on specifically for us, the calf ropers, or the bull riders or the barrel racers. They’re putting it on to host an event in their town, to bring large numbers of people in and make money. The committee doesn’t like that whoever’s winning the rodeo might have roped in a slack and nobody got to see it. When somebody makes a winning run, they want the fans to see it. They don’t just want it on the scoreboard. I get that. Heck, last year, after spending 2017 recovering from hip surgery, I wasn’t in the top fifty, so I roped in the slack at Cheyenne. I won the second go-round and came back second high call and nobody saw me do it.

I understand why they changed the format, but it doesn’t mean I like it. I don’t mind progress. I’m all for meaningful change. But we tie-down ropers don’t think this format change equals progress. It doesn’t work. We’re not just being selfish or greedy. We’re thinking about the future of rodeo. This change worries us on a deeper level. We worry that it’s a step in the direction of making Cheyenne a limited-entry rodeo. True, they currently limit the ropers to 150, but that still leaves room for a lot of guys to compete. If Cheyenne goes the way of a lot of other rodeos and limits the number of timed-event contestants down to, say, the top fifty, then what happens to guys ranked 51 to 150? The sport of rodeo needs those guys entering rodeos.

Guys ranked 51 to 150 aren’t rodeoing for a living. They’re doing it because it’s their passion, a lifestyle they want to be a part of. I’ve always appreciated Cheyenne for giving those 51-to-150 guys a platform to compete against the top guys and have the opportunity to win a whole lot of money. If you take away their ability to enter the few really big rodeos they can still enter, they’re going to lose interest. They will have no incentive to buy membership cards. When you buy the same price card that me and the other top ropers do and only get to go to small rodeos, you’re not gonna go anymore.

The Cheyenne Frontier Days is one of the most important traditional rodeos we have. I’m afraid that if Cheyenne changes, all these other rodeos will follow suit, because Cheyenne is a leader, whether the committee members know it or not. I’m afraid of the domino effect, that every rodeo will change to the point where it’s not clear that they’re even rodeos anymore. When you’re only down to fifty guys roping against each other, it’s going to become a modern-day Wild West show, where everybody there is essentially contract labor. Are we trying to modernize ourselves too much?

In the end, our tie-down roping representative negotiating on our behalf never reached an agreement with the committee members at Cheyenne Frontier Days. But the committee decided to change the format anyway, without our consent. We told them it didn’t work, and we meant it. I think they misunderstood what was at stake. It wasn’t Cheyenne versus one other rodeo. It was Cheyenne versus four or five other rodeos, where we stand to win some decent money and advance towards the National Finals Rodeo. That’s why none of the top thirty or forty ropers—the ones who rodeo for a living—will be at Cheyenne this summer.

It Hurt

Like I said, I tried hard to make it work. When the books opened for Cheyenne, I put my name down. And then I called and found out what a flight from Boise to Denver would cost. And I found out what it would cost to fly a driver up from Dallas-Fort Worth to Boise. And then I realized I couldn’t book the return flight from Denver to Boise because I wouldn’t know when—or if—I would be up again at Cheyenne. There were so many extra things I was having to schedule and pay for. Still, I thought, this was the Daddy of ’em All. I was on the fence. I could choose the Daddy or I could choose four or potentially five other decent-paying rodeos and not have to hire a driver and fly him and me around.

Just before the books closed on Tuesday, I withdrew my entry from Cheyenne Frontier Days. It hurt. I view it as a lose-lose decision.

I’m really gonna miss walking through the front gate at Cheyenne and the hair standing up on my neck and the cannon going off to start the show every day. It’s sure gonna be cheaper, but I don’t get to go to the Daddy of ’em All.


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