The Pendleton Round-Up has another record-setting year under its belt. More people attended the 2018 edition of the rodeo than any other in its long history, spending $1.3 million on tickets over the four days. Trademark income topped $2.1 million.
The lines for food, beer and liquor were packed, and the increase in spectators certainly rippled through the rest of the town and into greater Eastern Oregon.
An increased online and social media strategy, paired with a popular whisky bearing its name, have certainly introduced the iconic rodeo to a wider and more diverse audience than ever before.
It’s been a remarkable triumph in a sport that has been on the decline for decades. By trading on its good name while refusing to betray its core values, the Round-Up has become not just an historic event but a must-see spectacle, and one that draws both dedicated repeat viewers and a growing number of first-time guests.
The formula is no secret, but it’s not easy to recreate, either. The ground has been laid year after year over the past century by an army of volunteers, willing to put in a week or more of work (sometimes much more) to make sure the rodeo and all of its auxiliary events and attractions operate smoothly.
It has also put special care into showcasing new and interesting additions, and has been willing to let the entire event breathe across an afternoon instead of cutting and shortening in an attempt to appeal to a new audience.
And of course to make a great rodeo, you need great stock and competitors. The Round-Up has never scrimped on that front, making sure every ride is a potential thrill and every top-level cowboy and cowgirls has its date circled on the calendar.
To reach the next plateau, however, the Round-Up has been proactive, hiring a general manager to dedicate an entire 52 weeks a year to the Round-Up and Happy Canyon’s development and promotion. It has also selected board members for their specific skill set rather than just their history with the organization.
For instance, Randy Thomas isn’t a Round-Up lifer. He joined the board as an ex-officio member when he was the president of the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce and showed a knack for communication and professionalism, so he was brought on as a full member. His last few years on the board have — not coincidentally, in our view — coincided with the years of the organization’s greatest growth. He also showed a willingness to make the rodeo more transparent, an important part of building trust with those of us who live here year round.
It would have been a lost opportunity to pass over Thomas because he hadn’t spent enough time moving fence or taking tickets to meet a volunteerism quota before joining the board.
Paradoxically, the time of the rodeo’s greatest growth has led to some contention among stockholders. Not all are willing to give up the old ways, where a few decades of sweat equity was a primary requirement for a seat on the board.
The Round-Up is something to be proud of, and we’re seeing that play out. No one involved with the event wants to see it shrivel. It has a long history of innovation, from its collaboration with Indian tribes to the spin-off parades, meals and concert that have always kept it marching on.
In rodeo as in any other business, if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward. The Round-Up is fortunate to have a passionately dedicated group of volunteers who sincerely want the best for it. These disputes are a symptom of that passion.
The next few years will see more radical change on the Round-Up campus, but in the history of the event, that’s nothing new. We hope they continue to embrace the evolution.