Zeke Thurston, of Big Valley, Alta., rides Lunatic Party during saddle bronc rodeo semi-final action at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Sunday, July 14, 2019. Thurston is among five Canadians competing in the 2020 world championship of rodeo Dec. 3-12 in Arlington, Texas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Rough ride to National Finals Rodeo for Canadians in pandemic season

Levi Simpson and his horse Stetson are about to trample the turf where the Los Angeles Dodgers hoisted the World Series trophy.

Simpson, a team roper from Ponoka, Alta., admits it’s unusual for the National Finals Rodeo to be staged in a ballpark.

Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, served as Major League Baseball’s “bubble” for the National League playoffs and October’s World Series.

The ball park is once again a COVID-19 sporting event stand-in just over a month after the Dodgers stormed the field in celebration.

After 36 years at the Thomas and Mack Center on the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus, the NFR opens Thursday at Globe Life.

“It’s going to be a whole new ball game for the team ropers,” Simpson said. “Nobody’s roped in a baseball diamond.”

Spectators were not allowed to attend an NFR in Las Vegas this year because of Nevada’s public health rules around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NFR was shifted to Texas, which allows 50 per cent spectator capacity at professional and collegiate events.

Simpson is among five Canadians competing in the 2020 world championship of rodeo Dec. 3-12.

Two-time saddle bronc champion Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta., steer wrestler Curtis Cassidy of Donald, Alta., team roper Kolton Schmidt of Barrhead, Alta., and bareback rider Orin Larsen of Inglis, Man., also qualified in a season severely contracted by the pandemic.

The NFR offered US$10 million in prize money each of the last six years, but is expected to pay less in 2020.

Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association chief executive officer George Taylor has said the minimum payout will be $6 million, according to the organization’s digital media channel.

The top 15 in the world standings in bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc, tie-down roping barrel racing and bull riding earn NFR invitations.

Results at most Canadian professional rodeos count toward world rankings, but all were cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Canadian competitors were dependent on rodeos in the United States to earn a living.

There have been just over 300 sanctioned rodeos in North America in 2020, compared to 732 in 2019.

Fewer American rodeos meant more competitors vying for prize money at each one.

“Especially through July at some of the rodeos there were twice as many guys than they usually get,” Cassidy said. “They were getting 160, 170 steer wrestlers in some places.

“You can imagine how tough that makes the competition with that many guys competing. It was a lot harder to make money this year, a challenging year to say the least.

“It’s a good thing they’re having the NFR so we actually have an NFR to go to. Qualifying at the end of the year was a sweet deal for those that made it.”

Thurston, 26, is the defending world champion in saddle bronc and also took the title in 2016.

He claimed $170,064 at the NFR in 2019 en route to career-high season earnings of $347,000.

Thurston ranks 10th with $50,523 so far this season heading into Thursday’s opening go-around in Arlington.

“I would say it was probably the hardest year that I’ve been a part of,” Thurston said. “It was hard to win.

“A lot less money to be won, a lot less rodeos and the ones they did cancel were the big rodeos, the big payouts that draw big crowds and for that reason, you’re riding for less money.”

The three-time Calgary Stampede winner hopes Canadian rodeos resume in 2021.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I imagine things have to get going again, open back up and get rolling again,” Thurston said.

Manitoba’s Larsen, who lives in Gearing, Neb., ranks third in bareback in his sixth career NFR appearance.

Cassidy, 42, qualified in steer wrestling a seventh time and sits fifth.

Simpson and Jeremy Buhler of Arrowwood, Alta., became the first all-Canadian team to claim an NFR team-roping title in 2016.

Simpson returns ranked 13th with Shay Carroll of La Junta, Colo., as his heeler. Schmidt is No. 11 with Hunter Koch of Vernon, Texas, as his heeler.

Globe Life holds 40,300 people, compared to just under 19,000 at UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels basketball venue.

“Thomas and Mack is a tiny little basketball arena. The first 25 rows in that arena, you could damn near reach out and touch anybody in the arena,” Cassidy said.

“Comparing that to a baseball field that seats 42,00 people and you’re only putting 15 (thousand) or 16 in it, it’s going to have a different feel.

“Having it on the baseball diamond, it will still be good, but it might not have quite the electric feel that Las Vegas does.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

A firetruck sits in front of a home on Harvey Close in Red Deer Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Firefighters respond to Red Deer fire

Red Deer firefighters responded to a blaze in the north part of… Continue reading

(Courtesy photo)
Red Deer rental prices drop slightly

Renting an apartment in Red Deer became slightly cheaper last month. Rentals.ca… Continue reading

Rylee Trippel was last seen Friday. (Photo contributed by RCMP)
Red Deer RCMP looking for missing teen

Police are looking for a teen who was last seen in the… Continue reading

The Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Adopt a Family program raised $60,000 in 2020. (Photo courtesy Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Facebook)
Red Deer Outreach Centre’s Adopt a Family program raised $60K in 2020

The executive director of the Red Deer Outreach Centre says she is… Continue reading

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

RCMP say missing teen Hope Tivendale has been found. (File photo by Advocate staff)
No foul play suspected after burned body of homeless person found in North Vancouver

VANCOUVER — A burned body, believed to be of a homeless person,… Continue reading

The central zone experienced a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases Thursday, rising from 454 to 508 active cases over the past 24 hours, with 10 people in hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada has approved its rapid COVID-19 test

TORONTO — An Ottawa company says it’s received approval from Health Canada… Continue reading

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole defends decision to back, then oust, Sloan

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says he was once willing to… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault pauses as he speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Non-essential travel ban would violate Constitution but courts might allow it: expert

MONTREAL — Fear that Quebecers will catch a new variant of COVID-19… Continue reading

A woman walks outside the Roberta Place Long Term Care home in Barrie, Ont. on Monday, January 18, 2021. The devastating toll of COVID-19 on long-term care residents in Canada has underscored the need for increased public funding for home care, advocates say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
COVID-19 deaths in long-term care reveal need for home supports: advocates

VANCOUVER — The devastating toll of COVID-19 on long-term care residents in… Continue reading

A Chinese flag is illuminated by sunshine in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, September 22, 2016. China is threatening retaliation against Canada after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned a new security law giving Beijing more control over Hong Kong.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Diplomats contact Canadian held for over 2 years in China

BEIJING — Canadian officials have met online with former diplomat Michael Kovrig,… Continue reading

Marc Gold (centre) stands with senators André Pratte (left) and Peter Harder before being sworn in during a ceremony in the Senate on Parliament Hill, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Senator urges study of vexing barriers to using secret information in court cases

OTTAWA — A Senate committee should examine the hurdles that make it… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Winnipeg ticket holder wins Friday night’s $60 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — A ticket holder from Winnipeg won Friday night’s whopping $60… Continue reading

Most Read