Calgary Stampede is the 'Masters' of professional rodeo
Golf has the Masters, tennis has Wimbledon, and horse racing has the Kentucky Derby.
All three events are steeped in tradition and rich in rewards that garner attention far outside the realm of regular sports fans.
In the sport of professional rodeo, it's the Calgary Stampede that promises that kind of fame and fortune.
Every summer, people come from around the globe to be part of the cowboy world, and watch heroes of the western way of life achieve their childhood dreams.
History built on three elements
It was the vision of a young western entrepreneur named Guy Weadick that first launched the Calgary Stampede. He wanted to create a world famous event and knew that would take three key elements - good cowboys, great bucking stock, and plenty of cash. Weadick managed to collect all three, and in 1912, the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth was born.
In a sports world where most professional athletes are paid ridiculous salaries in proportion to effort, rodeo stands alone. Cowboys and cowgirls are their own managers. They plan and arrange a schedule more complex than a politician's on the election trail. They travel on their own expense tab and pay an entry fee to play. What earnings they make are quickly gobbled up by expenses.
So what Weadick knew back then holds just as true today: if you offer cash, the cowboys will come.
And what cash it has been at the Calgary Stampede!
In 1982 it became the first Half-Million Dollar Rodeo, the richest purse ever offered in the history of the sport. Then in 2004, the bar was lifted again, as it became the Million-Dollar Rodeo.
In 2006, Calgary once again set the professional rodeo world on its ear, by ramping up the big prize to a $100,000 bonus.
Tournament format beckons
Much like the majors in the world of professional golf, the Stampede has now become a showcase for rodeo's elite.
Only 20 contestants in each of the six events - bareback, bull riding, barrel racing, saddle bronc, steer wrestling and tie-down roping - are invited. That includes the cream of the crop from the past season-end showdowns, the National Finals Rodeo and Canadian Finals Rodeo. In the bull riding, the best of the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] are invited as well.
The remainder of the positions are filled by the Stampede, chosen by a special selection committee.
"We felt, with a show of this calibre, that we needed to control our own destiny more," explained Keith Marrington, the Stampede's Senior Manager of Rodeo.
The Stampede now works independent of the existing rodeo associations and, since 2006, has used a unique tournament-style format designed to work better for contestants, and fans.
It's 10 days of the sport's toughest competition in the world, which climaxes with the $1-million final on Showdown Sunday.
"We wanted to make sure anyone selected was for good reasons. We looked at past champions, the current season, and what may have happened with injuries last year," Marrington outlined.
Cowboys are not traditionally known for blowing their own horns. But $100,000 can make even shy guys put together a list of their accomplishments, and Marrington said there was an overwhelming, unsolicited response.
"We got stacks and stacks of profiles and resumes. Contestants wanted to make a case for themselves to be selected for one of those positions. They did that on their own initiative."
Under the new setup, the contestants are divided into two pools of 10. They have a shot at $10,000 dollars each day they compete. Fans will see a winner each time they come through the gate.
Then on the Wild Card Saturday, the money doubles, and there's one more chance to make it through to the last day. On Million-Dollar Sunday all finalists walk away richer - not just the champions. But the number one gunner does pocket a cool $100,000, which is the biggest single jackpot in the cowboy world.
Contestants become part of community
Another way the Stampede has stepped outside the box is by having each invited contestant sign a contract with the Stampede which outlines terms and conditions and expectations.
"We want to create a real fan base for these athletes," Marrington pointed out. "Usually they're gone after they ride, but we want to be able to get them out in the community, signing autographs, visiting hospitals, working with our corporate supporters. Basically, we've got them captured for four days."
Contestants love the chance to interact with fans, and encourage new fans to the sport. They're easy to relate to, and Stampede customers eat up the chance to hear about life on the rodeo road first hand.
They hear tales of road adventures, as the cowboys make long overnight hauls with five or six in a truck to save on gas. They gasp at tales of injuries, and the speedy recoveries cowboys often make because they're not covered on compensation and have no way of earning income when they're off. There are stories of wild horses, unridden bulls, and great roping and wrestling of steeds. And these new rodeo fans get a sense of freedom and the lifestyle that attracts competitors to this sport.
Excitement is beginning to build in the city often referred to across Canada as Cowtown. It's the time of year when everyone wants to share a taste of the cowboy way, if even for a week and they can watch in admiration those who truly are cowboys and cowgirls 24-7.
And for those stars of the rodeo arena who get an opportunity to showcase their skills during the 10 days of the Stampede competition, it's a chance for a world stage, some very big bucks, and the glory of becoming a champion of the Calgary Stampede.