With $100,000 payouts, $2 million in total prize money and the chance to compete on live TV, the Calgary Stampede has grown from a haphazard beginning into one of the biggest spectacles in Canadian professional sports.

It’s that prize money and prestige that have kept the best cowboys coming to southern Alberta for generations.

"It can make or break your year for you," said Tanner Girletz, who goes into this year’s Stampede with $7,700 to show for his work on the Professional Bull Riding tour so far this year.

Girletz, competing in his fourth Stampede this year, calls the event "the greatest one there is."

And, as one of only 20 cowboys invited to compete in each event, he feels lucky to be a part of one of the most exclusive rodeo events in the world.

"It’s tough to qualify," he said. "But when you do, it feels pretty good."

Big money beginnings

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Tanner Girletz, from Cereal, Alta., gets bucked off during bull riding action at the Calgary Stampede rodeo, July 5, 2009. Girletz, competing in his fourth Stampede this year, considers it 'the greatest.' (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Guy Weadick cemented the Stampede’s reputation as a big money event even before it had started by declaring to cowboys far and wide that "the money is here, come get it."

The American promoter offered a prize purse of $20,000 that he claimed was more than five times in excess of any that had been offered anywhere in the world up until that time.

"It was a really significant part of the 1912 Stampede. Without the prize money there was no draw for cowboys to come up to Canada, to Calgary to compete," said Aimee Benoit, an archivist with the Calgary Stampede.

A nostalgic spectacle

Weadick’s vision of what became the Calgary Stampede was thrown together during the soggy first days of September 1912.

With the backing of "the Big Four" local cattlemen, he staged the first Stampede as a one-time nostalgic extravaganza: an homage to a prairie ranching culture that was already widely seen to be dying out by the early 20th century.

Right from the start, showcasing cowboy games as the organized sport of rodeo proved to be a hit.

Amid the autumn rain and muck, money-seeking cowboys rode broncos, roped cattle and bulldogged steers in front of 12,000 fans.

So in 1923, when promoters were looking to boost the flagging appeal of the Calgary Exhibition — an agricultural fair that started in 1886 — combining it with the rodeo was an easy economic decision that transformed the Stampede into its modern form.

"The rodeo — when it became part of the event annually — it became a really significant draw," said Benoit.

"Had that not happened the Exhibition wouldn’t have survived."

Changing face of rodeo

Today, rodeo is a full-time sport with a regular competition circuit offering paydays as big as $5 million at the season-ending National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

But, like any century-old sporting event, rodeo has modernized itself throughout the years to remain relevant to contemporary audiences.

The Stampede first appeared on CBC radio in 1936 and was featured on CBC television starting in 1958.

In recent years more obscure events like Wild Cow Milking and the Wild Horse Race have been dropped as a nod to modern audiences. And the presentation of the daily events has been tightened into a condensed, more television-friendly format.

Bigger, badder and better bulls

Scott Byrne has seen the face of rodeo change while working in the sport as a professional bullfighter for almost two decades. This year will mark his ninth time at the Stampede.

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Bullfighter Jesse Byrne, centre left, comes to the rescue of Aaron Roy, left, from Yellow Grass, Sask., during the bull riding rodeo at the Calgary Stampede, July 13, 2011. Scott Byrne and cousin Jesse Byrne are bullfighters at the Calgary Stampede, and not the Spanish kind that wear sequins and swing a cape at a bull. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

As a bullfighter it’s his job to keep the riders safe by distracting the animals.

 "It’s my job to put my body on the line and put myself in the way of harm," said Byrne. "Kind of like the secret service."

Byrne pointed out that the animals have grown over the years along with the stature of the Stampede.

"They’re bigger, badder and better. They have more kick and more hook," he said.

The competition on the infield dirt has changed but so to have the faces in the stands.

"The whole city gets on board with the Stampede," he said. "But I think because it’s so huge, the word has gotten out more and it’s reached more tourists now. It’s more international."

But Byrne says that despite all the changes, the Stampede remains true to its roots as a big money cowboy contest.

 "It truly is still the greatest outdoor show on Earth. You have to come and see it to understand what it’s all about. I don’t know how else to explain it."