Friday and Saturday night at the Jackson Hole Rodeo, in any other year, would have a higher pitch to it as bronc riders and barrel racers put in their final performances of the season, looking to shore up year-end titles.
It’s not that way this weekend, at least not entirely. While Saturday will serve as the Yeti Finals, with Yeti coolers given out to winners of the evening, there is no true finals, because for most of the summer organizers weren’t sure how much longer this thing was going to last.
“We didn’t know how long, with the health department guidelines, we were going to be able to run,” operator Phil Wilson said. “It’s kind of just one of those things where we’re just not knowing, so we held back on everything, just in case everything fell through on us.”
The rodeo, which usually begins at the tail end of May, was stuck in a holding patterns until mid-June, when Teton County Health Officer Travis Riddell gave the rodeo the green light.
From there, the rodeo had guidelines to meet. The usual crowd of a little under 2,000 was limited to 600 fans, and the cowboys themselves were required to wear face coverings behind the chutes, an awkward challenge for organizers, with designated crew in charge of handing out masks to whoever needed one and reminding riders to keep their faces covered.
So while the rodeo went on every week, there hasn’t been a plan for awarding year-end champions, with no membership card offered before the season. Now, Wilson said, the plan is to treat this final week of rodeos like any other week, add up all the points from the season and award a somewhat impromptu year-end title to the victors.
“We’re going to have something,” Wilson said. “They were good to come to our rodeo. Everyone pulled together to put a rodeo on, even though it was hard for us. They came and helped support us, so that’s why we’re hopefully going to do something.”
For the most part, the cowboys who graced the Teton County Fairgrounds throughout the summer were just thankful to have a rodeo to come to. Blaine Mathews, the defending saddle bronc champion, is surely well ahead of the field when it comes to year-end points, but the Pinedale cowboy was never terribly concerned about that. Only that there was a place to go.
“It’s so cool that we get to do it again, even with the restrictions,” Mathews said after the first rodeo of the season. “Heck, at least we’re here to rodeo.”
And that is the point that Wilson wished to emphasize, more than money earned from a full grandstand, was providing a place for the region’s cowboys, young and old, to come compete.
“For the guidelines we had to follow, it was very awkward,” he said. “But the only other option was no rodeo.
“One of the reasons we had the rodeo was we felt it’s more a get-together with cowboys. It’s the one time of year where they can get together, see their friends; talk and visit together, and at the same time compete against each other.”
Aside from that, the one silver lining Wilson pointed out about this summer was the attendance. Tickets were in high demand with only 600 available a night, and the rodeo proved a favorite for the COVID-induced tourism spike. Not a week went by without a sold out show.
“We were full all year long,” Wilson said. “We never had a sold-out year in the history of the Jackson Hole Rodeo,” Wilson said. “And this year we sold out all year.”