The Canadian Finals Rodeo, set for its third edition in Red Deer this fall, is in jeopardy after many rodeos have already been cancelled this summer. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Pandemic puts Canadian Finals Rodeo in doubt

When Jeff Robson thinks about the 47th edition of the Canadian Finals Rodeo, and the possibility that it might not go ahead, there’s really only one conclusion.

“It’s the cowboy way, nobody wants to give up,” he said.

Robson has been in plenty of tight spots in the rodeo arena as a team roper – but perhaps none tighter than the one he finds himself in this summer, outside the arena as the general manager of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association.

Robson has been tasked with leading the organization through an unprecedented season, one that has seen most rodeos postponed from now until September because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With so many dates dropping off the calendar, it has cast a dark shadow on the association’s bell-cow event, CFR 47, set for this fall in Red Deer.

After 44 years in Edmonton, the event moved to the Centrium two years ago, and is still on tap for the third, as it stands right now.

“It’s a pretty well-thought-out scenario, and the trouble is, you really don’t control the variables,” said Westerner Park CEO Mike Olesen.

“It is a bit of an ongoing battle. Timing is everything, and there are a lot of factors when it comes to a major event, one that involves live animals and athletes and fans.

“We’re continually evaluating it. It’s definitely the next big piece on our radar to deal with. The short-term future for CFR47 is not necessarily certain,” he said of the event, which pours closes to $30 million into the Central Alberta economy.

That could change depending on a number of factors. From sponsorships, ticket sales, gathering limits and competition readiness, there’s an endless list of what it will take to get the event off the ground this year.

“Sponsorships are going to be very difficult for companies to engage with. There’s ticketing pressure, because there are going to be a lot of folks who have had financial impacts themselves.

“Those are a number of factors, and you want to be successful, let alone COVID-19 and physical distancing,” he said.

“One of the core areas of our business obviously is major events, so I’m not interested in cancelling events. But at the same time, we do need to make sure that they’re run responsibly, and if it’s the right thing to do.”

Olesen said between Westerner Park, the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce and the rodeo association, it will be a joint decision if they can hold the event.

The decision will likely be made in the next month or so.

Robson said without the proper qualifying, he’s not sure the CFR would mean the same thing to competitors, who typically regard it as a badge of honour.

“You could possibly end up with people who did well once and got there,” Robson said.

“It’s a journey to get there. I know that myself, personally. Just to get there is the hardest part, and then to truncate that season, where it’s not the whole experience, it would be selling ourselves short.”

And nobody quite knows that journey like saddle bronc rider Zeke Thurston.

The 25-year-old has won everything there is to win in the sport – a multi-time Calgary Stampede champion, national champion and Canadian champion.

The latter he only added to his trophy case last fall, when he was crowned a CFR46 champion at the Centrium, while earning more than $50,000 for a week’s worth of work.

Beyond the money, the CFR is one of his favourite events of the year. The friends, the atmosphere and the big stage all make it so.

And when the Big Valley native hears that this year’s event is in jeopardy, naturally, he doesn’t like the news.

“It would for sure suck for a lot of people in a lot of ways. Red Deer brings in quite a few people for a week-long deal. Businesses probably thrive off that. Hope they can figure it out,” he said.

“It’s awesome. We really have a lot of fun and it’s a great atmosphere. A lot of our living and income comes from final settings like that.”

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