Calgary Stampede sponsors pull back, shift strategies amid pandemic
McDonald's, Coca-Cola, UFA, Calgary Co-op among companies to alter plans for 2021 event
McDonald's, Coca-Cola, UFA, Carstar, Super 8 and Calgary Co-op are some of the companies that have either changed their marketing and sponsorship commitments or have pulled back entirely for this year's Calgary Stampede — the first since 2019.
The Calgary Stampede says sponsors routinely update and change their sponsorship agreements. It dismisses the shift as a normal course of business.
However, sponsors and marketing experts say the changes reflect some people's views that it may not be the right time to attend the Stampede — that the risks outweigh the benefits, even though organizers have adjusted their plans, case numbers have dropped and vaccinations tallies have surpassed milestones.
The most noticeable and high profile departure is McDonald's Canada as a "Champion" level sponsor.
The shift comes as organizers prepare to re-stage the annual festival after last year's cancellation led to a $26.5-million loss in revenue for the non-profit organization.
Sponsorship revenue alone went from $11.5 million in 2019 to $4.7 million last year, according to the organization's financial statements.
This year, the list of major sponsors highlighted on the organization's website has gone from 33 to 27.
Companies are listed as either "Champion" or "Stockmen's Club" sponsors.
The Stampede would not say what is required for companies to receive either designation — and several companies contacted by CBC News say those details are confidential.
McDonald's disappeared from the list of Champion sponsors in February. The company had previously sponsored a number of events and was listed as the "official quick serve restaurant of the Stampede."
"McDonald's Canada remains a long-standing supporter and sponsor of the Calgary Stampede," the company said in an email to the CBC.
"We are very proud of our relationships with the agricultural industry in Canada, and continuing partnerships with organizations like the Calgary Stampede remain a priority for us, both this year and beyond," it said.
A spokesperson for the Stampede says McDonald's is now sponsoring just one event called International Agriculture, and it would be inappropriate for it to comment on the company's decision to pull back.
"I can't speak to McDonald's' decision. I don't think that would be fair," said Kristina Barnes.
It's not known how much McDonald's departure as a Champion sponsor will cost the Stampede.
UFA, an Alberta agriculture supply co-operative, says it continues to support the Stampede.
However, it decided to shift its sponsorship money elsewhere this year and is no longer listed as a Stockmen's Club level sponsor.
UFA, which operates dozens of retail farm and ranch supply stores in smaller communities across the province, says it instead chose to support rural organizations that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
TC Energy announced it will continue to financially support "certain Stampede events" as a Stockmen's Club level sponsor; however, its logos and employees won't be there.
"This is a difficult decision for us, but we believe it is the prudent one. Safety is our primary value and nothing is more important than the health, wellness and safety of our people and the communities where we live and work," said spokesperson Suzanne Wilton.
"Participating in Stampede events could create unnecessary health and safety risks for our people and business partners," she said in an emailed statement to CBC News.
Cenovus, another energy giant, says it will continue to financially support the event; however, employees will not be participating in their annual pancake breakfast.
BMO, a Champion sponsor and "long-standing partner of the Calgary Stampede for more than 100 years," says while it has modified its plans around "safe engagement" for this year's event, it is committed to supporting the Stampede financially.
Changes reflect customers' views, values
A Calgary marketing expert says companies that have decided to alter their sponsorship plans are reflecting their customers' views around the Stampede experience within the context of a lingering pandemic.
As COVID-19 restrictions ease, she says, not everyone will be comfortable attending large-scale events, and companies want to reflect that.
"So, if it looks like that experience is changing, if it looks like that experience isn't in line with your customers' values, you really have to respect that and make choices that reflect what they're interested in experiencing," said AnneMarie Dorland, an assistant professor of marketing at the Bissett School of Business at Mount Royal University.
"If brands are deciding that people are going to feel uneasy at the Stampede this year, that's not something they want to be a part of," she said.
Coca-Cola, still a Champion level sponsor, removed its name from a live performance stage, ending a long-standing tradition at Stampede Park. The company didn't answer questions related to the decision, but it did say that each year it develops "marketing plans to best meet the needs of Stampede fans and our business."
'An abundance of caution'
Calgary Co-op, which was not listed as either a Champion or Stockmen's Club sponsor this year, has a long history of supporting the event through sponsorships and in-store promotions. Those plans have changed "out of an abundance of caution," the company said in an email.
"For 2021, Calgary Co-op does not have any sponsorship plans with the Calgary Stampede," the company said.
The retailer has cancelled all of its pancake breakfasts at its stores.
Cervus Equipment, an agriculture and transportation dealer, is maintaining financial support for the Stampede. However, it will not be distributing complimentary tickets and passes for its employees to attend.
The company's president and CEO says they "don't want to take any unnecessary risks regarding the pandemic."
"Particularly with the uncertainty that the rise of COVID variants presents, and want to ensure we do everything in our power to keep our people safe," said Angela Lekatsas in an email.
Moving forward in a 'safe way'
The managing partner at law firm Bennett Jones says the firm's ties to the Stampede go back to the days of Guy Weadick, one of the event's founders.
Pat Maguire says that as a Stockmen's Club sponsor, the firm is looking forward to hosting clients at the company's private suite above the chutes in the rodeo infield — one of the perks of being a major sponsor. Maguire says there will be some restrictions, but he says people are looking forward to mixing and mingling again with clients.
"The Stampede's done a great job of working with sponsors to make sure that they're thinking about safety concerns and how they can provide a great opportunity and yet still in a safe way," said Maguire.
"Everybody's got to find their own comfort level, and for Bennett Jones and the team, we're comfortable participating with the Stampede this year," he said.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.