Riding For the Brand


The Emerging Vision of Rodeo in the New Millennium


oct-nov04Imagine a nationally-televised professional rodeo series. The cowboys do not pay entry fees. You ride the best stock. The judges are impartial and accountable. National sponsors cover all travel and living expenses. All the rodeos have day money and short gos. You earn a guaranteed wage and the winnings are yours. You get endorsement deals. All you have to do is ride or rope or barrel race. Are you dreaming? No. The world of professional rodeo is about to change dramatically.

Enter into the rodeo arena, Dr. Bob Steadward.

The words “world leader” and “internationally-acclaimed” were coined for men like Dr. Steadward. In fact, they don’t do justice to the man. The short version of his education, academic, business and volunteer positions as well as major awards and achievements runs four pages. And that’s in small type. After three decades, he is legendary in the international world of elite athletes and organizers, and his legacy in the Olympic and Paralympics movement is unimpeachable. Today, Dr. Steadward has come home to his roots…rodeo.

Now retired from his many commitments in international sport, Dr. Steadward chooses to dedicate his energy and expertise to the enhancement of professional rodeo in Canada. As a founding board member of the Friends of Pro Rodeo (FOPR), Dr. Steadward has been instrumental in the development of programs designed to raise funds, improve business relations and elevate career opportunities for professional cowboys.

As well, he is actively developing long-term strategies for marketing, sponsorship and developing television and coordinated marketing initiatives. Big words that look good on paper, but what does it all mean?
Well, think of a shinny game of hockey on an outdoor rink. Now compare that to Hockey Night In Canada(tm). This is the future of professional rodeo in Canada.

Dr. Steadward buzzed into the offices of Canadian Cowboy Country magazine and immediately the energy level soared. Confounded by traffic and a schedule that would sink most CEOs, in a matter of moments this warm, (“call me Bob”) 50’s-something “retiree” originally from Eston, Saskatchewan had hands shook and names memorized. If ever there was a man who had earned the right to be elitist, it was him. Instead, his focus is not on his own accomplishments but on the future of rodeo and the rodeo athletes.

A rodeo fan all his life, Steadward has attended the Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR) for the last 28 years and his comments were pragmatic.

“I was quite disappointed and discouraged at the quality and the presentation of the event,” he said. “If this is truly the best of the best for professional rodeo athletes, then we have to do a better job of organizing and presenting the event, but we also have to engage the city of Edmonton and the province. So I got involved in the creation of Friends of Pro Rodeo.”

Their vision?

“In very simplistic terms, we want to help rodeo and the contestants make a living, and secondly, to ensure the preservation of the CFR in Edmonton and enhance its profile.” As well, the goal is to raise a million dollars in prize money for CFR 2004.

Through his participation with FOPR, Steadward realized the whole city had to be involved, and this led to the creation of Edmonton’s River City Roundup – a western festival encompassing plays, artwork, singers, gallery walks and cowboy poetry – all designed to complement FarmFair International and CFR.

“I’ve always believed that if I’m critical of something, then, I always make sure I’ve got a solution. I’m also prepared to get involved with creating the solution. Otherwise you have no room in complaining about anything.”

Steadward goes to thirty to forty rodeos a year – a gruelling schedule even for a competitor. His ease with people behind the chutes, in the stands and the boardrooms encourages open communication. And because of his political and international experience in sports, Steadward recognized a terrific need for some significant changes and help for the CPRA and rodeo, beyond what FOPR is doing and what River City Roundup will accomplish.

His first mission was to be on the inside looking in and not on the outside looking in. He made a presentation to the CPRA convention last CFR, and to the CPRA board on how they could re-look at the sport of rodeo.

Unabashedly he states, “I felt that they could benefit from my thirty-five years of international sport experience, because whether it’s basketball, hockey or rodeo – it’s sport. Sport is entertainment, entertainment is business, and if the cowboys really want to be professional athletes, they have to look at their sport of rodeo as a business first.”

That is the bottom line. But how do you make it happen? Surprisingly to some, it’s not the rodeo that comes first, but the branding of the identity of the rodeo. Consider it this way – do you brand your new horse then turn him out, or vice versa?

For years, non-agricultural companies talked about branding being the single most important thing for the success of a company. No one understands the importance and significance of branding more than the agricultural community. The brand is a symbol – not just of ownership but of everything that brand represents.

When you start developing business relationships in a company, you need an identifiable brand, a logo, a vision, a mission, structure and governance. They’re all interrelated and exactly what your business is all about.

What was Steadward’s opinion on the current CPRA logo? “It’s very traditional, it’s historical and I’m not being critical of it – but it’s time to modernize their logo. You don’t have to investigate what the five rings signify, you know it’s the Olympic logo. The Swoosh – you know it’s Nike. I presented my branding strategy to CPRA and they accepted it. Now, we will begin to implement a strategy right away.”

His vision is electrifying. Create a professional rodeo series. Start with six to ten rodeos and perhaps name it after the major sponsor. The CPRA would create an organizational template that would be available for the rodeo committees to follow.

“Whether you go to Ponoka, Cloverdale, Wainwright or Grande Prairie, you’re going to see that the top six to ten rodeos are all organized the same,” Steadward explains. “They have the same look, they have the same logo. Just like when you go into every NHL arena. They are all presented and produced the same way because they are presenting a brand – NHL properties. We want CPRA properties.”

“Each rodeo in the series will have national TV coverage, they’re all going to have short gos, they’re all going to have day money. We start with that series and then gradually expand it – like the NHL expanded from six teams to thirty,” explains Steadward.

But what if towns that currently have a successful little rodeo don’t want in?

“There are more towns interested in being a part of the series than not,” explains Steadward. “They can see these rodeos will be the ones to have. I have already talked to a number of rodeo committees. Strathmore, Wainwright, Cloverdale, Morris, Manitoba and others want to be a part of it.”

In fact, there are so many that want in, it doesn’t matter if a particular town opts out.

With the brand and series in place, the package is sold to a television network, generating money and more national sponsorships.

“It goes back to the rodeos and to the cowboys,” said Steadward. “The CPRA increases the rodeo series prize money. Attendance increases. Visitors to the towns generate money. Now, say Wainwright is one of the six or ten top rodeos on the circuit. Their whole environment is spruced up. With a short go, day money and national TV in their arena – Wainwright is on the map in Tulsa, OK and Miami Beach.” Steadward’s enthusiasm is contagious. “My God, what’s that going to do for that town? It’s going to give them more exposure and create more business and all of that turns into support for the cowboy.”

One of Steadward’s missions and visions in this whole rodeo scene is a winner every day. “When a fan goes to Strathmore rodeo – say they can only go the first two days – they don’t know who’s won. The winner is found out the very last day. We’ve got to find a way to get enough money into the rodeo so that there’s prize money every day. You bring back the best cowboys and the best stock for another day for the short go. We continue to make these kinds of changes so the cowboys are going to have an opportunity to make more money. Also we take away all entry fees.”

His opinion is blunt. “Professional cowboys should not have to pay people to come and watch them perform their sport. Period.”

The lifeblood of the sport is the rodeo stock, and raising bulls and bucking horses is not luck-of-the-draw, but a lifelong commitment to bring the toughest stock to the toughest competitors.

Their pay is by the gate; every time the gate swings open and their stock blasts into the arena, it’s added to their paycheque. How much is added depends on the rodeo committee – and this is the area where the CPRA would step in to support the rodeo series.

“We need a commission to regulate and help develop the stock contractors’ programs. It’s expensive raising stock, and a rodeo series commission would monitor, evaluate and assign the best stock to the series,” explains Steadward. The upshot is stock contractors have the potential to receive lucrative financial contracts. “[Financially] they’re going to want to be there,” said Steadward.

Judging is another area that will see changes. “Again,” explains Steadward, “judges need to be trained, monitored, assigned and evaluated by a commission. Like NHL referees. To help create and develop more judges and get cowboys who have retired to go into judging.”

“Because rodeo is a high-risk activity there should be sports medicine specialists at every single rodeo. [Currently] they might get a small amount of money for expenses and perhaps a $100 honorarium. We need to have a commission within the CPRA for sports medicine. They need to cover [a lot of] rodeos and we need to be able to pay them for their time and expertise”.

There is also an idea that has worked well in the past, most notably with the pro chuckwagon tour. “What’s wrong with getting together once a year and having corporations coming in and draft teams?” questions Steadward. “The company would pay X amount of dollars to draft one professional cowboy/cowgirl from each event. Then the corporation is responsible for sponsoring that team of the four-timed events and the three rough stock events – so they’ll own a team. That way, the cowboy gets a wage, the business takes a greater interest in the sport because they’ve invested money in it, and they get exposure with the company’s name on the team jackets and shirts.”

“We have to start working with the committees and reschedule rodeos so a cowboy can increase his personal profile. Keep them in town for two days for two gos. When they’re in Ponoka we can take them to five or six businesses and the hospital as opposed to riding, jump in his truck, going like hell up to Prince George and then back again for the short go three days later.”

The training ground for future stars, Steadward’s vision of rodeo includes tomorrow’s champions.

“We also have to look at ways for the high school and amateur rodeos to grow, develop and flourish. That’s where athletes like Guy Shapka and Cliff Williamson started. Sometimes there are three or four rodeos on the same weekend in conflict with one another. Perhaps we could look at scheduling the amateur, permit and professional rodeos so there are not so many conflicts.”

In truth, you cannot reach Dr. Steadward’s level of international acclaim in competitive sports without a deep understanding of human nature. He’s sympathetic yet practical. Change, or wither on the stalk.

“You’re still dealing with a culture, a tradition, a way of life that makes rodeo unique. Because in other sports, they participate then go home. In rodeo it’s not like that. It’s their way of life. It’s more than a sport and therefore a greater challenge to convince them that change is necessary and will help them. Change is inevitable, and if they want the TV, the sponsorship, the profile, the image, to earn more money and get more fans, they have to change.”

Rodeo cowboys have a history in revolution. In 1936, contestants boycotted the World Championships at Boston Garden and formed the forerunner to the PRCA. Big changes occurred then and big changes are happening right now. The branding of CPRA has started. The groundwork is laid, and the meetings with television networks have already taken place.

“By the CFR in 2006, you’ll see a new look,” he concluded.

It’s a lot to take in at first glance, and like a colt there are those that have braced their feet. In a sport that evolved from a ranch contest to the glitz of a Las Vegas arena, the cowboys have always paid the price. Today, through more than a century of adaptation, the cowboy has come full circle, and may once again, ride for the brand.

For more information on Dr. Steadward, O.C., LLD (HONS) the website for the Steadward Centre, www.steadwardcentre.org.