In a world where many pro athletes are paid far beyond a real, productive value, cowboys are a refreshing change.

 Like ordinary folks in North America, they struggle with mortgages, high gas prices and days without a paycheque. Oh sure, there are a select few who’ve hit the million dollar club, but that’s been a long road, and not near as much of those career earnings are in the bank account as in the record books.

Rodeo competitors plan their own schedules, keep track of their own balance sheets, and pay their own bills, including fees paid to enter a rodeo. They also seek and look after their own sponsors, who often make the difference between profit and loss by helping offset some of the expenses of the rodeo world.

That’s why they all love Calgary so much. Like founder Guy Weadick knew, if you offer the money, the cowboys will come. But today’s Calgary Stampede organizers want to lead the pack in bringing rodeo up to speed in today’s world of pro sports.

The Stampede knew it would have to offer big bucks and extra incentives to survive, since earnings here don’t count towards world or Canadian standings.

Showdown Sunday

So that’s why there’s Showdown Sunday, dubbed rodeo’s richest afternoon.  The thought of riding away with $100,000 for a single ride or run is the stuff cowboys dream of.

But that’s not the only reason the contestants are high on the Stampede. They’re treated like true professionals here.

The new format requires them to sign a contract. There’s no entry fees to be paid. Instead, they’re paid an appearance fee, just for coming. They’re asked to do some corporate appearances, and to be available to meet with fans. They get to stay in one place for four days, and at this busy rodeo time of year, that’s a real treat. Many mark it on their calendars, bring their families, and consider it a working holiday.

When I spoke with roper Stran Smith, he was heading out with a sponsor to test the fishing on the Bow River, with his boys. 

The American contestants especially comment on the Canadian hospitality, and the enthusiastic fans.

They get to meet some of them during the daily autograph sessions. The Stampede promises to deliver a champion every day, and each event winner has trading cards to sign for fans. But they’re also asked to sign posters, programs, hats, and more

Personable heros

I get to watch and talk with these competitors regularly during the summer, so it’s kind of neat for me to see them in the superstar limelight at Calgary. They deserve it. The personable heroes answer all kinds of questions about what they do. Those who come in contact with these athletes are thrilled to be able to meet them close up.

And the Stampede’s approach seems to be working. Since the athletes don’t have to dash away, they have more time to spend cultivating a new fan base. When the announcers do their daily crowd poll, the people attending their first rodeo greatly outnumber those who are rodeo regulars. That’s exactly what the sport needs these days.

The cowboys know it too, and have become used to the rounds of interviews after a good day. They’re willing subjects and talk to rookie and veteran reporters alike. I’ve heard seasoned camera operators and sports reporters comment on how down-to-earth these athletes are. They shake your hand, look you in the eye, and are glad to have met you.

Bobby Mote

Today I asked World Champion Bobby Mote about his most memorable Calgary Stampede moment. The 32-year-old has been to his share of Stampedes, but has never won the big cheque here.

He recalled his 2001 experience, back in the days when Calgary earnings did count for the world championship race.

"That was the first year I had a good shot at making the NFR," the Culver, Oregon cowboy said. "I broke a vertebrae in my back at Pleasant Grove, Utah in mid-June. So I ‘doctor released’ out of all the rodeos in the U.S., but stayed entered in the Stampede."

"I was feeling better and better, but knew I was probably still not supposed to get on yet. I told my wife if I had a good horse in Calgary, I’d have to go."

"Well, that was the year I got Explosive Rocket, and I said there it is, that’s my answer."

Mote had called the guru of pro rodeo sports medicine in the U.S., Dr. Tandy Freeman about the injury. He’d sent along the x-rays, and was waiting to hear back. As the date got closer, there was no call.

"I figured it must not be that bad then, so I came to Calgary, rode, and got an 88.5. I was just pumped because I went from thinking my season was done, to having a realistic chance at the National Finals again.

"Shortly after I rode, Tandy called me on my cell phone and said after checking the x-rays, the word was I should probably wait another month (before competing). I told him he was too late. I was 88.5 and staying in," he smiled.

Tales of true grit, road adventures, and wild horses and bulls captivate us all. Because these are the folks still living the independent life that reminds us of how the West was won.

BEHIND THE CHUTES:  Momentum is a wonderful thing in sports, and can you think of a better place to ‘get on a roll’ than at the Calgary Stampede? Three of Thursday’s winners know what that’s all about. It was Cody Wright’s third straight day at the top of the saddle bronc riding, two in a row for steer wrestler Jason Miller, and while she had to share top honors one day, it was the third time in front of the barrel racing pack for Lindsay Sears. Rodeo funnyman Flint Rasmussen joked to the crowd it was time for them to let somebody else in their events win some of the money!