How the Calgary Stampede makes and spends $150M per year

Virtually every Calgarian knows the Calgary Stampede, but how many of us actually know how it all works? Here's a breakdown of where the money goes and what it does.

Public land, private ventures, performing arts, youth programs and Western culture

Chuckwagons, fireworks, performances by the Young Canadians, and the midway are all part of the annual summer tradition that is the Calgary Stampede. (Robson Fletcher/CBC, Brooks DeCillia/CBC, Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

So, what is the Calgary Stampede, anyway?

Look just about anywhere in the city at this time of year and you'll see something related to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. Flags lining downtown streets. Painted storefront windows. Cowboy boots as office attire. The annual summer mega-event is so ingrained in our culture it almost blends into the background. Every year, it's always just there.

Virtually every Calgarian knows the Calgary Stampede, but how many of us actually know how it all works?

The Stampede, after all, is a complex and unique thing. Nowhere but Calgary will you find such a massive undertaking that combines public land, private ventures (including a casino), youth programs, performing arts, agricultural education and the blending of urban and rural Western culture.

But is the Stampede a corporation? A non-profit? A charity?

And what does it do with the roughly $150 million that flows in and out of its various operations each year?

This year marks the 106th Calgary Stampede so we figured it was about time to look, in detail, at some of these basic questions. You may have an idea as to some of the answers. Others may surprise you. None of it is secret, but a lot of it is hidden in plain sight.

So let's make it visible, starting with the venue. The spot where it all takes place.

Who owns the land?

When you walk through the gates into Stampede Park, you are stepping onto land owned by the City of Calgary.

But the city leases the land to the Stampede as part of a longstanding agreement.

The rate? Ten bucks for 50 years.

The city says the lease will be due for renewal in June 2059, at which point the Stampede will have the option to renew for another half-century at the same price.

But it wasn't always this way.

"The Calgary Stampede originally owned the 94 acres that made up Stampede Park," said Stampede CEO Warren Connell.

"It was actually back then called the Calgary Industrial Exhibition. But it over-leveraged itself and lost its title to the land."

Stampede CEO Warren Connell says the organization plays an integral role in the cultural fabric of southern Alberta. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The land ended up in the hands of a man named R.B. Bennett, who would later go on to become Canada's 11th prime minister.

"R.B. Bennett actually bought the title to that land and gifted it to the city under the proviso that the city would then lease it back to the Calgary Stampede, as part of a way to secure the fact that the Stampede wouldn't be able to borrow against that land," Connell said.

Over the years since, the Stampede has purchased sections of land in the area from the city.

Today, Connell said the Stampede owns the area south of the Elbow River at the south end of the park (the "Trailblazers Site"), the Ramsay Exchange (an old industrial steel mill to the southeast of the Stampede Grandstand), and larger swaths of land north of the BMO Centre and the Saddledome.

So now you've got the lay of the land.

But the question remains: When "The Stampede" owns or leases a particular piece of property, what does that mean, exactly?

The organization in an image

In common speech, the phrase "Calgary Stampede" can mean a lot of things but within the organization it refers primarily to the non-profit entity at the centre of all the various operations.

That entity is legally known as Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, Ltd.

It is governed by a board of directors, most of whom are elected by the organization's shareholders. Unlike in a corporation, though, these shareholders are not entitled to dividends or payment of any kind. They simply get to steer the organization by selecting most of the board.

There are currently about 1,800 of them, all of whom have made their own contributions to the Stampede over the years.

"To be a shareholder, you have to be a volunteer for a minimum of four years," said Connell. "And then you're recommended to our board to become a shareholder."

But the non-profit organization is just one part of the broader operation. It's the hub around which everything else turns, including for-profit enterprises and a charitable arm.

Here's a visual depiction of how the organization is structured:

As you can see, the Stampede owns and operates several business ventures, including Cowboys Casino, but its connection to the gambling facility runs through several intermediary entities.

Two wholly owned subsidiaries — Calgary Stampede GP Inc. and Calgary Stampede Trust — come together to form the Stampede (Casino) Limited Partnership, which in turn owns the casino.

But that partnership is a lopsided one, with the incorporated entity as a 0.01-per-cent general partner and the trust as a 99.99-per-cent limited partner.

Basically, that accomplishes two things, says Bryce Tingle, a professor of business law at the University of Calgary.

Firstly, he said it's a "tax-efficient way to move money from the profitable casino into the parent company without intermediate levels of taxation."

Secondly, it protects the Stampede, itself, so that the non-profit organization "is not liable for any problems that might occur at the casino level." This could include anything from bankruptcy to lawsuits, Tingle said.

Bryce Tingle is the Murray Edwards Chair in Jurisdiction and Business Law at the University of Calgary. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The Stampede also jointly owns Stampede Entertainment Inc. with Castleavery Merchants, a talent-booking agency. This is a for-profit business that puts together productions not just for the Stampede but also for smaller rural fairs elsewhere in Alberta, said Connell.

The Stampede is involved in yet another type of relationship with the Calgary Stampede Foundation.

While the Stampede is a non-profit, the foundation is a registered charity that's able to issue tax receipts. The two entities are closely tied financially and operationally, however.

The Stampede appoints the majority of the board members to the foundation. Money from the Stampede also flows to the foundation. The foundation carries out programming for youth including things like the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts and the Calgary Stampede Showband, which put on performances for the Stampede.

The Young Canadians perform as part of the Grandstand Show at the Calgary Stampede. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Together, the Stampede and the foundation are also partners in the Enmax Park development on the east side of the Elbow River, across from the Saddledome.

The 700,000-square-foot green space is a gathering area for the public and also serves as the new home of the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village during the summer event. Connell said the foundation offers programming for Indigenous youth in the park throughout the rest of the year.

So now you know how the organization is structured. But one major question remains.

What does the Stampede do with all its money?

The financials

The Calgary Stampede, as a non-profit organization, brought in about $143 million in gross revenue from its own activities last year and received another $7.7 million in grants from the provincial government.

That's $150.7 million in total income, about half of which comes from the Stampede itself. The 10-day summer event brought in $78.2 million in gross revenue last year, which is up from 2016 but down from previous years, when Calgary's economy was stronger.

Revenues for the 2013 event were even lower, at $75.5 million, but that year the Stampede went ahead under unusual circumstances. In spite of the massive flood that struck the city — and Stampede Park — just weeks earlier, organizers rallied and the show went on as planned, but suffered depressed revenues in the wake of the disaster.

Here's a visual depiction of the Calgary Stampede's revenues over the past six years.

Click or tap on the interactive graph to see more detail about each revenue source:

Can't see the graph? Click here for a version that should work on your mobile device.

The next biggest chunk of the Stampede's gross revenue last year was $32 million from facility rentals and event services at its various venues, in particular the BMO Centre.

At roughly $14 million, Cowboys Casino was the next largest source, followed by sponsorships at $10 million.

When you look at net income, however, the picture is a bit different.

The casino, for instance, brought in only $1 million in profit to the Stampede last year, after expenses and taxes were paid. Event hosting netted $12 million, by contrast, while the 10-day Stampede, itself, turned a $20.9-million profit.

As an organization, however, the Stampede also carries a variety of indirect expenses such as administration, marketing, park services, interest on its long-term debts and pension obligations to its hundreds of employees.

When all is said and done, the Stampede has run operational surpluses of about $2 million to $3 million in each of the past five years. (Without government grants, its operations were in a deficit position of roughly $4.5 million to $7.5 million each year.)

Here's how the total expenditures look.

Click or tap on the interactive graph to see more detail about each expense:

Can't see the graph? Click here for a version that should work on your mobile device.

The Stampede Foundation, meanwhile, operates separately but in close connection with the non-profit organization.

Last year the Stampede gave $636,000 in direct donations to the foundation and conducted $708,000 in business transactions with the charity to help it deliver programs and host fundraising events. It also provided a $5-million, interest-free loan to assist in the construction of the TransAlta Performing Arts Studios.

The foundation's main operating expenses relate to the various youth and arts programs that it runs.

Last year, those included:

  • $1.1 million — Stampede Showband.
  • $877,000 — Young Canadians School of Performing Arts.
  • $283,000 — 4-H programs.
  • $241,000 — Stampede School.
  • $154,000 — Grants and scholarships.
  • $97,000 — OH Ranch Education Program.
  • $26,000 — Indigenous youth programming.

For every dollar donated to the charity, $0.94 goes toward its programs, according to Charity Intelligence Canada.

The watchdog group gives the Stampede Foundation a "B" rating for donor accountability, overall, raising some questions about the tens of millions of dollars it maintains in cash, investments and other assets.

"Excluding endowments, the foundation can cover annual grants and program costs for more than 10 years," Charity Intelligence says in a report. "This does not indicate a need for donations."

Connell, however, says the foundation saves up money for large capital projects as part of a cautious approach.

"It's pretty high-risk to go out when you're only halfway through fundraising and start building a building," he said.

"So they don't do that. They actually wait until the funds are available and they're fairly sure of the costs so they're not going to then need to panic and go out and fundraise elsewhere. So that's where those cash reserves come from."

A rendering of the Calgary Stampede Youth Campus. (Calgary Stampede)

One such project was the performing arts studios mentioned earlier. That new space opened in March 2017 and is now used daily by Stampede Foundation programs and outside groups.

The studios are part of a larger development dubbed the Youth Campus, which also includes an amphitheatre that opened in November and will continue to grow to include new performance, rehearsal, classroom and archives space.

The area also includes Calgary Arts Academy, a charter school focused on "arts immersion," and will eventually become the new home of Calgary Opera, as well.

So that's what the Stampede is, in legal and financial terms.

But it's so much more than that, too.

'The Calgary Stampede is a community builder'

For Connell, who first joined the Stampede in 1984 and worked his way up to become CEO in 2015, the organization plays an integral role in the cultural fabric of southern Alberta.

"Our belief is that the Calgary Stampede is a community builder," he said.

"It really is about developing tomorrow's leaders today through our youth programs. It's about linking urban and rural. It's about being the gathering place for the community."

Outside of the 10-day marquee event, he said the Stampede grounds host another 1,800 events and three million visitors per year.

"It's very seldom that there isn't something going on down here, and something that's of benefit to the community," he said.

"And we're very proud of that."

About the Author

Robson Fletcher

Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher joined the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

With files from Bryan Labby


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