Big names, big rides, and rising tides
Douglas County Fair’s rodeo leaps from a medium rodeo to a Playoff Tour event in just two years
With a total purse in the $40,000 range back in 2014, the Douglas County Fair & Rodeo struggled to attract top names in the sport as well as sell out their performances. Wanting to better their brand and increase their appeal to rodeo fans and contestants alike, the DCF&R board steadily increased their payouts over the years until 2021 saw them offer a $76,000-plus total purse and a product that was selling out all four rodeo performances on the schedule.
Yet they believed they still had work to do.
“We knew 10 years ago that the quality of our show wasn’t there and we knew the fans weren’t responding because our performances weren’t that good,” said John Adams, DCF&R director and chairman of its rodeo committee. “We had very low added money. We couldn’t bring the world champions here or even the top 25 contestants here, so we knew if we provided a really good show that the fans would go home and tell their neighbors that they had a great time.”
That desire to provide a really good show eventually saw them go all in for 2022 by doubling their payout to $150,000 and making a major leap into the PRCA’s Large Rodeo category. The strategy paid off with more sell-out performances and even more top names in the sport showing up to compete. Not content to rest on their laurels, the DCF&R board added even more money in 2023 to become one of the top 60 rodeos in the country and join the elite ProRodeo Playoff Tour category.
“It is a real honor to be involved in the Playoff Tour,” said Adams. “We have been on a path over the last 10 years to try to get to this level. To be in the Top 60 rodeos in the country is a real neat place to be. There are almost 700 rodeos going on, so there is an added benefit for contestants, because they want to hit the Tour rodeos.”
A main reason contestants want to hit the Playoff Tour rodeos is because money earned in Tour rodeos can qualify contestants to participate in the upcoming CINCH Playoff rodeos of Puyallup (with a purse of almost $600,000) and Sioux Falls (with an $850,000-plus purse). The big money earned at those CINCH Playoff rodeos counts towards NFR standings, so being a part of the Playoff Tour means the Douglas County Fair & Rodeo is an important stop for high-profile contestants to earn their way into those CINCH Playoff events and help them qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in December.
“We chartered a plane to get here,” said three-time PRCA world champion bareback cowboy Tim O’Connell about the efforts he and his traveling partner, current defending champion Jess Pope, made to compete in Douglas County. O’Connell talked after his 90-point ride aboard a bronc named Game Trail nailed down a tie for first place and a check for more than $4,000 at the DCF&R. “We go back to the Dodge City Roundup finals after this. I wouldn’t do that at any other rodeo this week, but I will do that for Castle Rock because they gave us a whole opportunity to come here and showcase our talents.”
Other veteran contestants also appreciate the larger payouts at the DCF&R.
“It is great,” said Wyoming bareback contestant Seth Hardwick, who has been rodeoing since 2011 with a third place finish in the world in 2015 in his rearview mirror. Hardwick had just completed an 83-point ride in Castle Rock and was happy to praise the DCF&R behind the chutes. “I always love it when the smaller rodeos — I don’t know how they do it — just get more fans to come watch and can add more and more money and get more and more of the top guys. Especially here, over the last six or eight years, I swear they added a bunch of money. Every year this one just keeps getting bigger.”
According to DCF&R officials, the community response has also been getting bigger.
“This is the fourth year we have sold out all four rodeo performances and this year we actually sold them all out in advance,” said Debbie Mills, a DCF&R director who wears multiple hats in leading the sponsorship, marketing, and royalty programs. “I think the quality of the show has gone up (and) our overall production has gone up. We have got the basics together and now we are working on all the details. And we have got full county commissioner support, which is huge.”
That full support from the county helps propel the budget of the fair, which then uses those funds to increase its profile and attendance, which is an economic boon to Douglas County. More sold-out rodeo performances means more revenue throughout the run of the county fair, so the bigger payout attracting top names in the sport appears to be a rising tide that lifts all boats.
“It does,” said Adams of the fair’s rodeo acting as that rising tide. “This is where the revenue is generated. We are all on the same team, but this really does it. We have a lot of support from the fans, all of my volunteers, the county staff that is involved in this, to the county commissioners. It goes all the way to the top.”
If the growth of the Douglas County Fair & Rodeo over the last 10 years is any indication, the board of directors, with the county’s support, will continue their quest to make it one of the top destinations in the sport for both fans and contestants alike.