After a long stretch of wondering and plenty of community support, the Jackson Hole Rodeo is officially back on.
Teton County District Health Officer Travis Riddell announced Friday that the rodeo has permission to go on, albeit with ribbons of red tape to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Exactly what that looks like will be seen on Saturday, when the rodeo returns to the Teton County Fairgrounds to kick off the summer slate.
“We’ve really got to thank the community,” operator Phil Wilson said. “People in the community reached out to the health department, and lord willing we ended up getting approval. The state worked with us … it just took a while.”
Aside from doing away with the calf scramble, Wilson said the action in the dirt will look the same as it has in any other year. Where the variations will be noticed is in the stands, where only 600 spectators will be allowed in for any given rodeo. Wilson said that’s roughly one-third of the audience he averages in a normal year.
In early May, while all sports across the state remained in limbo, Wilson said the only way the rodeo would go on would be if it was allowed to have enough paying customers to break even on operating costs. Wilson doesn’t know yet if the limited crowds will be enough to reach that goal, but he’s going to try.
“If we can just pay for our livestock, feed them and not have to sell our livestock, that’s the big thing,” Wilson said.
A silver lining could be the turnout on the contestant side. Like most summer events across the country, rodeos in the West have taken a hit. Cheyenne Frontier Days was canceled, along with rodeos in Thermopolis, Sheridan and Laramie. The closest recurring rodeo still scheduled to go on is the Dubois Friday Night Rodeo. The Cody Nite Rodeo is scheduled to resume Saturday, too.
That leaves few stops on the usually well-lit map of rodeos for cowboys chasing cash through the summer.
“That’s one thing where we’re blessed,” Wilson said. “A lot of cowboys out there are looking for a place to rodeo, so we’re hoping [to get them] but we just don’t know yet. ... We really want to take care of everyone so we can try to work out the logistics.”
Though the prospect of not pulling an income from the rodeo isn’t terribly fun for the Wilsons, it’s not without precedent. Wilson said when he took the helm of the rodeo over a decade ago, he was unable to pay his family that took part in putting on the show. That’s changed in the years between then and now, but he and his team will be back in that boat this summer.
“Everyone realizes we’re in a hurting way,” he said. “But we’ve got all the staff coming back, and a lot of people have volunteered to help.”
Wilson expects the first few rodeos under the health guidelines to be trial and error, as his staff works to keep grandstands segmented and the cowboys themselves spread out. But for him, his family and the community that helped ensure the show goes on, it’s enough that there will not be a year without rodeo in Jackson.
“Normally we just all come in and have a rodeo,” he said. “Now we have to adjust that, so there are certainly changes that are going to happen.”