No Stampede this year could force some cowboys to leave rodeo sports

The rodeo world is worried about the future of the Calgary Stampede this summer and many are wondering how the pandemic will impact their sport.

Retired chuckwagon driver concerned sport won't survive if rodeos cancelled

It's not yet known if the annual Calgary Stampede will go ahead this summer. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The rodeo world is worried about the future of the Calgary Stampede this summer and many are wondering how the pandemic will impact their sport.

Last week, the Calgary Stampede temporarily laid off 80 per cent of its staff — 890 people — due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's not yet known if the event will go ahead in July.

"With the recent restrictions of mass gatherings as a result of COVID-19, the Calgary Stampede is currently facing an unprecedented halt in activity. To that end, we have made significant temporary staff reductions and are working through this with all of our employees," the organization said in an emailed statement March 17.

Kelly Sutherland, a longtime chuckwagon driver who is now retired, says those competing in rodeos are in uncharted territory like everyone else.

"They're on hold mode right now and they're hoping that there will be a full season, but they're unsure what will happen," he told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

He says that it's also uncertain if other rodeos, like Grande Prairie and Ponoka, will also go ahead.

"I think they should have some answers in the next couple weeks to formulate the season, but routinely the training starts around the first part of April," he said.

"They have a number of major stops to make and some start in May, so they need to have some decisions made. Otherwise, the costs are going to be crippling."

He says for chuckwagon drivers they have invested $30,000 to $40,000 in their animals and will have training, farrier and veterinarian expenses in the coming weeks.

"That's going to be a hit alone and I don't think there has been any financial margins left in this sport except for maybe 10 per cent of the individuals winning more than their share, like I did, or have extraordinary sponsorships," he said.

Sutherland, who won 12 Rangeland Derby trophies, says until the drivers get direction, there's no sense in putting money into the sport if there's nowhere to race. As well, he suspects some will leave rodeos altogether.

"I think sponsorships will be down anyways, so it's not going to be a great season for the cowboys," he said

Travel restrictions would impact Stampede attendance

The chuckwagon driver says 60 to 80 per cent of seats at the Calgary Stampede are bought by tourists from around the globe.

"I doubt we will see a lot of travel this year. Everyone is upside down.… That poses a huge problem on the revenue side," said Sutherland.

As well, it's still up in the air if by July the government would allow an event that puts 100,000 people in close proximity.

"The Stampede will open its doors as soon as Alberta Health and the City of Calgary and everybody deems it safe to do so for the public, because really this is about the long-term success of our city and not the short-term decisions we have to make to get there," Stampede CEO Warren Connell said on March 17.

With files from Sarah Rieger and the Calgary Eyeopener.


Natalie Valleau is a journalist with CBC News. She grew up in Okotoks, Alta., and completed her undergrad at Mount Royal University and Masters of Journalism and Communications at Western University.