CHEYENNE – Cheyenne Frontier Days faced backlash and boycotts when it debuted its tournament format prior to the 2019 edition of the rodeo.
The majority of the consternation centered around travel and the related expenses. Competitors said they were being asked to choose between competing in the finals at other rodeos and qualifying for the “Daddy of ’em All.” On top of that, they were being asked to make as many as four trips to Cheyenne for qualifying, the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. The travel costs negated any increase in pay CFD offered.
The rodeo considered that feedback when it started negotiating this year’s tournament format with representatives for each rodeo event. The result was minor tweaks that have made the tournament-style rodeo more palatable, CFD Rodeo Committee chairman Chad Mathews said.
“We don’t want to push this format down anybody’s throats,” Mathews said. “We want this format to work for both sides. We want a better TV product so we can get more sponsors, more exposure and more money into the purse for the contestants.”
The biggest concession CFD made was allowing tie-down ropers and steer wrestlers – groups who were most critical of the change in 2019 – to choose which days they compete. Today through Thursday, 24 contestants in each event will compete in an early morning qualifying round. The top 12 in each event advance to the tournament round that afternoon. The next 12 will immediately run their second draw before heading to their next rodeo.
“That shortens the amount of time they have to leave open in their schedules,” Mathews said. “Some still aren’t happy about having to leave three days open, but it’s a lot better than it was.”
Having 24 tie-down roping and steer wrestling contestants per day competing for six days still allows for CFD to be the all-comers rodeo that regularly sees Cinderella runs, where part-time rodeo contestants win championships at one of the rodeo world’s marquee events. And it maintains that status without increasing contestant entry fees.
Raising entry fees is one way some rodeos increase the purse they can offer, but a lot of contestants don’t want to compete for their peers’ money, Mathews said. That means rodeos must increase the purses themselves, and the best way for them to do that is through sponsorships.
CFD signed a broadcast deal with the Cowboy Channel prior to the 2019 competition. TV deals have driven more big-name rodeos to adopt tournament formats because they help casual rodeo fans get excited about and understand what they’re watching by delivering daily winners.
That isn’t the case for the traditional rodeo format, where contestants advance to finals based on how they do in one or two runs.
“Nobody wants to watch an NFL football game where they stop in the third quarter and then come back the next week and finish it. They want to know who won the game,” Mathews said. “Rodeo is no different.”
Feedback from the public was positive. The Cowboy Channel got positive reviews from viewers, and CFD saw its ticket sales increase for the semifinal and final rounds in 2019, Mathews added.
The tournament format also eases the burden on stock contractors, who no longer have to worry about finding a pen of 72 horses or bulls that will provide an even competition per round. They only need to find a couple dozen to compete every few days.
The tournament also eliminates weather variables that come from CFD being contested at the time of year Cheyenne sees a lot of monsoonal moisture. Timed-event contestants who competed on rainy days often posted inflated times because of the sloppy arena conditions. Now, all of the contestants are competing under the same variables.
“Cheyenne gets really deep at the bottom (of the arena), and the ground changes day to day, and it rains sometimes, so some days the ground is really fast and you have a great advantage, and some days you don’t,” said barrel racer Hailey Kinsel, who is from Cotulla, Texas. “So, being able to compete against just your set that day is a great thing for this kind of rodeo. ... It’s a fair playing field.””
Steer roper Vin Fisher Jr. likes the winner-take-all format of the finals because it gives contestants with slower times or lower scores a realistic chance to win it all.
Fisher had the 10th-fastest qualifying time Thursday, checking in at 34.9 seconds on two runs. He is 6.4 seconds behind Cole Patterson of Pratt, Kansas, who needed just 28.5 seconds to complete two runs. Fisher would have needed a lot of help to leap from 10th to first under the old format, but he needs one good run in Sunday’s finals to walk away with his first CFD buckle.
“Before, you’d want to come back in the top five because that was your best chance at winning first,” the 40-year-old Andrews, Texas, resident said. “Now, I can come go from 12th to first if I just make it back for the finals, where it’s a sudden-death, one-header. The key now is just getting to that short round. I kind of like that.”
WyoSports reporter Robert Munoz also contributed to this story.