Taking Stock of Change
With less than a month until the National Western Stock Show throws open its doors and pens, general manager Chuck Sylvester is still putting out fires. On this mid-December morning, for starters, he has had to pull the plug on the team-penning competitions due to a lack of paying contestants. And now, at a lunchtime meeting over subs and chips, Sylvester must address a more, uh, delicate subject.
Kitty Divis, a dramatic-looking redheaded woman decorated with silver, about half of which is contained in a giant belt buckle like the ones everyone here seems to wear, has been in charge of "cowboy hospitality" for five years now. She has proposed a few new touches for the rodeo participants while they wait between rides. She notes that in the past, the hospitality room has had only a single couch to rest on.
"I've seen cowboys lined up waiting to sleep on it," she says plaintively. But this year, Divis says, she has convinced a sponsor to donate a "wagon" that could be used as a private place to catch a little shut-eye.
"Wouldn't that be great?" she asks.
The others at the meeting appear oddly nervous about the idea. "We're not in the business of providing sleeping arrangements," Sylvester points out. "We can't watch it 24 hours a day. If the contestants want to go to those rodeos that offer more fun, full meals, daycare, sleeping areas, then they can go there."
"I don't think we want to have a 'closed space,'" adds Virgil Holtgrewe, a longtime volunteer. "I think we should keep things in the open. You can't get into privacy issues."
But Divis persists. She has a soft spot for the cowboys and their comfort. "It's just a place where they can sleep for a few hours," she says. What's the big deal?
"Okay, I'll put it right out there," Sylvester says with a flat, this-subject-is-closed inflection. "You get a sixteen-year-old girl raped there, we're gonna be liable for providing a facility."
As the meeting breaks up, he is sympathetic, always interested in mending fences. "We can't be all things to all people," he tells Divis.
Maybe. But in this, its 97th year, the Stock Show is flourishing precisely because more than other shows of its kind across the country, it has been successful in, if not being all things to all people, becoming enough things to most people. As Denver and Colorado have changed, so, too, has the show. To its enduring credit, the National Western has been able to walk a fine line necessary to survive -- between its old, rural roots and its new, citified audience.
It makes sense that stock shows -- essentially trade shows for farmers and ranchers -- aren't as important a part of the cultural landscape as they once were. In 1906, when the National Western started out with 15,000 visiting stockmen, about 35 percent of the country's workforce labored in agriculture. By 1950, that number had shrunk by two-thirds. Today, those who earn a living from agriculture make up barely 1 percent of the United States workforce.
Like the farmers and ranchers they once catered to, many big stock shows have simply disappeared. Chicago's was the main event at the turn of the century, the largest ag show in the country. By the mid-1970s, it was gone. Other once-glorious stock shows remain in name only. Kansas City's American Royal is shrinking, and San Francisco only sporadically operates its Cow Palace as an actual palace for cows.
These days, there are but a handful of cities with big stock shows of any significance: Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Denver. The only "new" stock show that has been a success is the thirty-year-old North American International Livestock Exposition, in Louisville, Kentucky, which receives state support. (Swiping the National Future Farmers of America annual convention from St. Louis four years ago also helped.)
Yet the National Western has thrived. When Sylvester took the reins of the show, attendance was about 240,000 and stagnant. Last year, nearly three times as many paying customers pushed through the turnstiles -- the largest crowd ever. The show has grown into an $11 million-plus annual business.
The biggest reason for the success is that, unlike many other shows of its kind, the National Western has managed to keep a close eye on its potential audience, and not just its traditional supporters. That distinction is crucial. National Western planners have recognized that those who make a living off the land don't drive the success of the modern stock show. Rather, it is the people who have a nostalgia for it -- or, as time passes, those who have a nostalgia for what they imagine the West was like.
Even though attendance had stalled when he became general manager, Sylvester wasn't inheriting a dog. He had something to work with from the start. This included a strong regional tradition -- and a sweet deal from the City of Denver.
National Western -- an educational nonprofit corporation -- owns the hundred or so acres of prime real estate north of I-70 just east of I-25, and it had built a handful of buildings there for the show. (The first was built in 1909 by the Denver Union Stockyard Company.) Today the land is at Denver's epicenter, a rural reminder of the city's roots planted at the confluence of the state's main east-west and north-south arteries. Last year, National Western pegged its worth at about $55 million.
As a showpiece of the Western lifestyle and the largest city in the Rocky Mountain region, National Western and Denver were always joined in a sense. But the financial tie between the two was formalized a half-century ago. In 1950, when Denver wanted to build a new coliseum but couldn't afford the total cost, it was National Western that rode to the rescue, raising nearly $1 million to pay the construction bills.
In return, the city signed a fifty-year deal (renegotiated in 1990) that leased the new showplace to National Western for $1 a year. Denver has continued the support, backing a $30 million bond issue in 1990 that financed renovations to the complex, including the Education Hall and the Events Center.
Talk of yet another $50 million bond issue for National Western has been put on hold while the city negotiates its current budget crisis. The arrangement has worked out well for Denver, too, which collects about $350,000 a year in seat taxes, not to mention the more ambiguous $80 million that Stock Show officials say the National Western contributes to the local economy each year.
What Sylvester took over in 1978 was a far different show from what spectators will see this year. It was still, in many ways, a genuine stock show -- a place where mostly those in the ag industry congregated once a year to buy stock, learn about new developments in the land business, reacquaint themselves with each other and watch real cowboys show off their hard-earned, ranch-useful skills.
It is to Sylvester's credit, however, that he recognized that cowpokes alone were not going to cut it as the future of his show. His first move as new GM was to hire a consulting firm in the hopes of preventing the National Western from trickling into oblivion. After weeks of observations, interviews and analysis, the company reached its un-earth-shattering conclusion: The people who came to the Stock Show were primarily interested in...stock. And there just weren't that many of them.
"What we had before was a great show -- for people within the livestock and rodeo industry," Sylvester recalls. "It was a cattle show. But how many cattle butts can you look at until you're done? I wanted to add something that spoke to urban people not familiar with the agricultural lifestyle."
The first move he made was small but carefully considered: to re-establish the draft-horse show as part of the National Western. Originally a major part of the Stock Show during its first four decades, the giant workhorses had been discontinued in the 1940s, when draft animals were becoming obsolete on the farm, thanks to tractors. Many people who still remembered when the animals were actually working were thrilled to see them again.
Yet the draft horses -- commonly used in various settings to create an atmosphere of a particular lost time and place -- also evoked a sense of cultural nostalgia in those who had never actually lived on a farm. The draft-horse show proved a huge draw to National Western's once-dead second weekend.
"Usually, the second Saturday, you could shoot a cannon through the show and not hit anybody," Sylvester says. "The draft horses changed that."
Sylvester quickly realized that the National Western needed to broaden its audience base even wider, and he started venturing further from its roots. Acknowledging that cows and bulls just weren't interesting enough to the growing number of ranchette owners springing up along the Front Range, he decided to add llamas and other "alternative livestock" to the show's exhibitions and competitions. (Elk and yak were added later.) Real ranchers may have shuddered. But the crowds grew larger.
In 1988, Sylvester threw any agricultural pretense to the winds, blurring the line between "stock" and "pet" when he introduced the dog pull, later adding dog agility competitions. "We noticed that 50 to 60 percent of households have pets," Sylvester says. Miniature horses were also included in the National Western's "stock" mix.
"We got some heat" from genuine farmers and ranchers, Sylvester adds -- "even when we added the mules. People would complain, 'Why are they important?' And I'd say, 'Well, people love mules...'" Recognized at the time or not, the transition from featuring what people used to what they liked was a turning point.
Mutton-busting, in which kids ride sheep as if they were broncos, was started in 1993. It appealed to boomer parents always looking for another activity for their children to experience. The event has proven so overwhelmingly popular that what began with just a couple of performances in its inaugural year has grown to seventeen separate shows in the course of National Western's sixteen-day run.
"We get so many letters from parents asking us to let their kids participate," says Kelli Lombardi, the show's director of volunteers. "This year we have one family that has sent in an entry form every day, hoping their kid will get picked."
The full-blown Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza was added in 1995. (As a small specialty act, the Mexican rodeo had been part of the Stock Show since 1986.) The Extravaganza was slated for a traditionally slow Tuesday-night slot, but ticket-takers had to turn away more than 500 people after the show sold out. As a result, a second show was booked in 1996, and the event was soon moved to the weekend.
The success of the Mexican rodeo proved two things. One, while animals would always prove interesting to a certain number of people, it was entertainment that would bring in more of the city folk. And two, there was a huge population of Hispanics just waiting to be invited to the National Western.
"We realized that Anglos came because they wanted to see [Mexican rodeo founder] Jerry Diaz and his horses, but the Hispanics" -- many still much closer to their agricultural tradition than citizens north of the border -- "came because of their cultural heritage," Sylvester says.
The next challenge, then, was to convince the potentially huge Hispanic audience along the Front Range to come for an entire weekend day. "We knew Hispanics are big on family, particularly on Sunday," Sylvester says. So the following year, at Diaz's suggestion, National Western added an 11 a.m. Catholic Mass conducted in Spanish. (An English service had been available for cowboys since 1979.) A priest rode into the chapel on a white mule.
"I thought as a gesture to the Latinos, 'Why not celebrate a bilingual Mass?'" says Diaz from his ranch outside of San Antonio. "There's a tradition of going to church with the family and then spending time together. I thought the Latinos could stay on the grounds and be part of the general Stock Show activities and then go to the rodeo at night." Today Diaz estimates that at least half of the audience at his rodeo shows -- which are announced in English and Spanish -- are Hispanic.
(By contrast, National Western has not met with the same success in enticing blacks to the Stock Show. "We've tried and tried to market to the African-American community, but we've never really been successful," admits Marvin Witt, director of marketing. "They have a different background.")
With the weekends filling up, Sylvester turned his attention to Mondays and Tuesdays, days on which the National Western practically shut down for lack of interest. "We used to give away free hot dogs in the stadium to try to get people out -- anything that might work," he recalls.
In 1996, Sylvester debuted "An Evening of Dancing Horses," in which horses went through choreographed paces to recorded music. (Efforts to bring in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra have not been successful, but the Pueblo Symphony has performed with the equines.)
That same year, Sylvester attended his first Professional Bullriders Association competition. Once a small corner of the rodeo, bullriding has exploded in recent years, finding its way onto ESPN and even network television. Billed as extreme rock-and-roll rodeo, the sport has built a fan base that is as rowdy and loyal as hockey spectators. Randy Bernard, the PBA's director, admits that he has unabashedly tried to copy NASCAR's formula for success -- highly accessible personalities/athletes, carefully cultivated and coddled sponsors -- in an effort to promote the sport.
Sylvester invited the bullriders to the National Western in 1998. "You can't believe it," he says. "The PBA ticket price is our most expensive" -- $50 this year, up from $40 -- "and still it's the first ticket that sells out."
Since then, Sylvester has always kept his eye out for new acts (or old acts with a new twist), aware that today's city audiences can be fickle. This is especially true in Denver, which in the past decade has seen the construction of three new professional sports arenas, an amusement park and a music venue in the core downtown area alone.
Sylvester always has his radar on for customers milling around at loose ends. Five years ago, he noticed that many people arrived on the weekends, hoping to get into the rodeo only to find it sold out. So they'd buy a general admission ticket and wander around the grounds, cash burning a hole in their pockets.
Observing a potential audience that had already shown a willingness to part with its money, Sylvester invited a former rodeo announcer to bring his Wild West Show to the grounds. People unable to get into the rodeo flocked to see it. "So instead of getting just $5 or $7 out of people, now we get $12," he says proudly.
Sylvester also added a "free-style reining" competition to another slow day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (It sold out last year.) In the evening, he beefed up the horse-jumping competition, which now includes the $30,000 Gentleman's Jack Grand Prix award, giving the contest the appearance and feel of an elite, premier event. The show, sponsored by Jack Daniel's, has since become a sort of high-society night, drawing well-dressed crowds of upper-crust Denverites.
Also significant is what National Western has not done in its efforts to modernize. Unlike many county and state fairs with an agricultural bent, for example, "we've stayed away from bringing country [music] entertainment to our show," Witt says. "We always thought it might make our show unaffordable. Plus, there's already a ton of venues for singers here in Denver.
"We've got a niche, and we stayed there."
In fact, he adds, today, with nearly 80 percent of National Western events listed as sellouts, there is only one disaster that could stall the show. "Our biggest fear is the Broncos in the Super Bowl," Witt says. Then, not only is nearly everyone's attention elsewhere, but "every media outlet takes its entire sports section and ships it off to the Super Bowl for two weeks.
"The good-feeling stories just don't get done."
Because National Western is a state-sanctioned charity, some people donate money to the Stock Show. Last year the organization took in about $2.6 million in gifts, but officials say it was an unusual year because former chairman Nick Petry passed away and left the show a substantial bequest. The show also collects about a half-million dollars in interest each year from investments and accounts.
But for the most part, National Western earns its keep. A portion of the organization's income -- just under 20 percent -- usually arrives in the spring, when it subleases the city's facilities for big trade shows, such as the Home and Patio, and Sports Boat and Travel shows, as well as various auto and motorcycle swaps.
But the bulk of National Western's income derives from the Stock Show itself. In addition to its ticket sales, the show pulls in money from its exhibition booths, donations and livestock sales -- and, these days, through lucrative corporate sponsorship deals.
As the show has become more popular, so, too, has the desirability of showing off merchandise to the hundreds of thousands of spectators who mill about the exhibition halls. Each year, many more companies than the show has room for apply to man a booth during its sixteen-day run. The demand puts National Western in the enviable position of having to turn away companies that want to give it money.
According to Emily Tumlinson, National Western's commercial-exhibits coordinator, the show gets about 400 new applications per year. But with only a 4 percent or 5 percent turnover rate among exhibitors, most of the newcomers have to wait. At the moment, the waiting list of companies hoping to set up a temporary shop at the Stock Show stands at about 800.
There are few restrictions on the displays, although National Western's charter calls for 51 percent of the exhibits to be "agriculture-related." Tumlinson also says she tries to limit the number of some booths; jewelry, horse trailers and leather bags tend to become overrepresented if left unchecked. And if a company appears to be struggling, chances are it won't be invited back the following year.
The exhibits are straight profit for National Western, a simple space-for-rent proposition (electricity is a separate expense, paid for by the companies). The show leases about 900 exhibit spaces, at an average of $900 each, to 365 exhibitors, many of whom rent multiple booths (an individual booth measures eight by ten feet). Corrals West and Chevy are the biggest single renters, purchasing the equivalent of more than 50 and 35 individual spaces, respectively.
As is the case with exhibitors, demand for sponsorships tied to the National Western far outstrips supply. "Everybody wants to get in the show," says Witt. In a sports town with possibilities for corporate tie-ins that range from arena football to lacrosse to whatever it is the Nuggets do, it is to National Western's great advantage that it stands out as different from the typical mid-level jock-sponsorship deal. "If you can't be involved with the Broncos or Avalanche, National Western is the next best thing," Witt boasts.
Still, until very recently, the show had operated as if it were lucky to have companies willing to give it money for a few signs. "We didn't have any real clear criteria in terms of packaging," says Nancy Johnston, National Western's sponsorship coordinator. "We would have a sponsor who'd come in and say, 'This is what we'd like.' They'd select whatever they wanted, and we just did it. They called the shots."
"We were latecomers getting into the sponsorship game," adds Witt. "We're having to play catch-up."
Last year, seemingly suddenly aware that it had become a desirable commodity, the Stock Show hired another consultant, IEG Corporation of Chicago. The company, which also works with the mountaintop of sponsorship, NASCAR, provided tips on how National Western could capitalize even more on its strong brand image and exalted status in the Rocky Mountain region.
As a result of the consultant's recommendations, Johnston says, this year National Western offered several different levels of sponsorship packages. At the top are "partners." Costing anywhere from $120,000 and up, partners get top billing in the rodeo, as well as constant and visible "recognition" at the livestock and horse shows. This year, three companies signed up: Coors, Dodge and the Denver Newspaper Agency (which exchanges much of its sponsorship fees for column inches of advertising and, less formally, blanket editorial coverage during the show).
In addition to the regular signs and logos that big sponsors typically get, National Western has added several new features. For example, before ticketed events, a thirty-second "mini-commercial" featuring major sponsors will be shown to the captive audience. In addition, big spenders will hear their names mentioned at the end of each radio spot promoting the Stock Show.
In another advertising innovation, each sponsor will get its own flag paraded alone around the arena after a particular event. Previously, all of the sponsor's flags were flown together -- easier on the busy eyes, perhaps, of spectators, but unappealing for a company looking to make its logo stand out from the crowd. "We're trying to get away from the 'logo soup,'" Witt explains.
One tier down from "partners" are "major sponsors," a designation that will set a company back anywhere from $50,000 to $120,000, depending on specifics of the deal. The show's concessionaire, for instance, will sell only Jack Daniel's bourbon -- a major sponsor. Corrals West, another major sponsor, will have exclusive rights as sponsor of the steer-wrestling competition.
Other major sponsors cut deals that offer in-kind services that the Stock Show would otherwise have to purchase. Frontier Airlines provides tickets to fly competitors and acts into Denver. Marriott will put them up in a room.
And 9News gives away airtime for ads, as well as other coverage that can seem to blur the line between advertising and news. For example, Johnston says, the station agrees to provide live coverage of the half-hour auction of livestock champions. "They go over and above in terms of covering the show," she says. In all, a dozen companies have purchased the designation "major sponsor."
Next on the list are "official sponsors," a title that will cost publicity-hungry companies anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. For their fee, many of these businesses earn the designation "official so-and-so of the National Western Stock Show." Profile Nutrition Feed, for instance, is the official feed company of the National Western, meaning the show's feed supplier must buy Profile for all of the stock during the show's two-week run. (In an example of a sort of meta-sponsorship, Isle of Capri, a casino, sponsors a stagecoach ride around the arena during each rodeo performance. Inside the stagecoach are sponsors receiving recognition from National Western.)
Last on the list are plain old "sponsorships," which cost a minimum of $10,000. A couple dozen more companies have signed on for this level, which buys them varying levels of signs and attention. In all, Witt says, sponsorship deals annually bring about $1.5 million to National Western.
Although run like a business (its two highest-paid employees, GM Sylvester and president and CEO Pat Grant, earn $107,600 and $118,300, respectively), the National Western Stock Show is technically a nonprofit charity, with a mission of educating the public about agriculture. For tax purposes, the National Western Stock Show Association Scholarship Trust was recently split off from the rest of the show; financial statements indicate that it has about $2.5 million in assets.
The primary way the association fulfills its charitable/educational promise is through scholarships. Each year, National Western gives 58 agri-business students in Colorado and Wyoming a stipend to help pay for college.
Additionally, five medical and three nursing students who promise to practice in a rural area receive National Western grants. "We're pretty specific when we say 'rural,'" says Susan Christiansen, who administers the program. "Broomfield is not rural." The agricultural and medical scholarships range from $1,500 to $4,500 each. In all, the trust disburses about $200,000 annually.
The trust also gives an award to the winners of the Stock Show's Junior Livestock Competition. But thanks to the show's own hype, that program is more than self-sufficient.
Each year, one of the high points of the Stock Show is the junior livestock auction, in which the top lamb, hog and steer raised by a youngster is sold to the highest bidder. (All entries are drug-tested after 1995's Grand Champion steer was found pumped up on an illegal steroid-like drug and disqualified.) The event is more PR than genuine livestock auction, however.
Two years ago, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House paid $100,000 for the top steer -- several times the animal's actual market price. (Last year the winning bid, also by Del Frisco's, was a more modest $57,000.) The winning steer then goes "to tea" at the high-toned Brown Palace Hotel -- a juxtaposition that always merits a photo in the newspapers.
The high-bidding steakhouse doesn't actually get the meat. It's sold to a packer, which then resells it at a more reasonable, market-driven price. (Or it's donated to a food bank.) But everybody still comes out a winner.
The junior rancher is a winner because he or she receives most -- but not all -- of the winning bid at auction. National Western is a winner because it takes 25 percent (that's $25,000 two years ago, $14,250 last year) off the top bids to fill its scholarship fund and cover costs. Additionally, 10 percent of all livestock sales go to the trust. Last year, the auction yielded $55,000 to National Western's scholarship fund.
For its part, Del Frisco's gets a ribbon, a large, ceremonial belt buckle and a ton of publicity (see 9News, above). Equally nice, however, is that because its winning bid is run through the charitable National Western before being disbursed to the champion child, the steakhouse also logs a T-bone-sized tax deduction.
The scholarship trust earns money other ways, too, including through an art sale and the annual Citizen of the West Award. The award, which receives extensive coverage by the media, originally was affiliated with the March of Dimes. It was absorbed by National Western in 1989, when its administrator left the March of Dimes and was hired by the Stock Show.
The award dinner is a gala affair, attended by many Denver socialites. Tickets cost $250, and each year, the party's 850 seats sell out. After costs, the trust pockets about $125,000 annually. It's not a huge amount in the context of celebrity or political dining fundraisers -- but it's not pocket change, either.
The Stock Show has flourished because it has kept a close eye on its financial statements and its paying audience. Yet there are less tangible reasons the show has managed to thrive in Denver, in particular. Chief among these is National Western's carefully crafted and meticulously maintained bridge between city and ranch and past and present.
The connection appeals especially to urban Coloradans -- people who like the idea of the country but prefer city life. The Stock Show is alluring because for sixteen days, it conveniently brings the region's rural way of life into the city. (By comparison, the state fair is struggling because it demands that city-dwellers actually make the drive into the country.) It's an occasion for people to wear their Tony Lama boots around genuine livestock -- but without necessarily getting them dirty.
Being connected to the show has become popular among the city's elite because it permits buttoned-down executives to boast an aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth credential. "We have a history of having influential leaders on our board," says Witt. "It's just part of Denver."
In the past, of course, many of Colorado's movers and shakers staked legitimate claims to the land in general, and the Stock Show in particular. The 1941 National Western Grand Champion steer was raised by then-twelve-year-old Kenny Monfort. In 1945, future governor -- but then junior rancher -- Dan Thornton received a record sale price for his two Hereford bulls.
Today, however, the ties to the ground are less essential and more affected. It's no coincidence, for example, that Jerry McMorris is a member of National Western's executive board. Although he happens to keep a ranch in Larimer County, McMorris is primarily a businessman who clearly enjoys the decidedly urban perks and prestige of owning a professional baseball team (and, prior to its bankruptcy, a family trucking concern).
Same with Bill Coors, another boardmember, whose agriculture-based brewery business diversified long ago. Boardmember Susan Anschutz-Rogers, sister to rail-entertainment-telecommunications magnate Phil Anschutz, lives on a ranch in Wyoming. Her brother, who has made his billions in city-side businesses, still maintains his own spread in Weld County. Multimillionaire John Elway occasionally takes out-of-town guests to dinner at the National Western Club, where he is a member.
The new demographics of the National Western Stock Show are best symbolized by two apparently separate but linked events this year. The first was the last-minute cancellation of the team penning events -- the first time ever an event has had to be canceled (excluding the show's 1915 shutdown due to a hoof-and-mouth epidemic). The second was the nearly simultaneous announcement that this year's show received more breeding-cattle entries than ever before.
Team penning, in which teams of cowboys try to cut out three pre-designated head of cattle and herd them into a pen, stands out among events with a ranching history as one that is still populated mainly with working cowboys. While rodeo and bullriding have their own circuits, team penning is a skill still practiced on working ranches; many entrants take time off from their work as ranch hands to compete.
It is also expensive to enter. Regular teams pay $270 to enter, plus boarding fees. The NW Shootout, a sort of skin game for penners, costs $3,000 per team to enter. Last year there were twenty teams. While it's a popular event, this year the number of entrants plummeted to less than a third of what they should have been. Of those that did enter, Sylvester says, two-thirds had yet to send checks to cover their entrance fees.
Two weeks ago, Sylvester pulled the plug. "We'll lose money on it," he sighs. "What we're trying to do is minimize the damage." But as a fourth-generation rancher, he also understands why the event wasn't on everyone's to-do list this year. "The commercial livestock business is hurting now," he says. The drought, the cost of feed, the falling price of beef -- all have conspired to put the squeeze on ranchers.
But if that's the case, why are so many cattle being entered in the show? This year, according to National Western's livestock manager, James Goodrich, 4,491 head will be on display -- eleven more than the previous record for entries, set in 1998.
Part of the reason for more and more cows to look at is a swelling number of breeds. Up until fifty years ago, most stock shows featured three breeds: Hereford, Angus and Shorthorn. But in the 1960s, says Witt, imports from Europe raised the number of competing breeds to around twenty.
Another reason for National Western's persistently large number of shown livestock is that, unlike a generation ago, when big ranches sent their animals around the country on a giant circuit, touring all the stock shows, today's tight economy dictates that the ranchers concentrate their efforts. Most now focus on hitting a smaller number of major shows -- like the National Western and the larger Texas events.
More than that, though, the continued increase in the number of cattle and other livestock being shown -- despite the harsh economics of ranching -- can be traced directly to a different kind of rancher who is keeping the modern stock show alive: the hobbyist.
"I'm a classic example," Witt admits. "My stepdaughter has always shown horses, and this year we're showing Shorthorn cattle. I enjoy it, but it's not my livelihood."
As a result, it's not just cowboys you see these days at stock show exhibits. Today's agriculturists include plenty of people whose livelihood lies miles away from the farm or ranch. Former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw takes his daughters and their Quarterhorses to stock shows. Same with race-car legend Kyle Petty. Mel Gibson's Beartooth Ranch, in Montana, almost always enters cattle.
One of the country's largest breeders of Limousin cattle is from Colorado. But the Magness family is better known for its cable connections than its cows. Witt says he has seen Mike Shanahan's daughters show their Arabian horses. Dan Issel's kids were regular entrants at National Western as well.
Which, for better or worse, is what much of Western agriculture from Santa Fe to Cheyenne has become. "If you go back, the emphasis at the Stock Show was the heartland -- farmers, ranchers, cowboys -- who'd come in when things got slow in January," says Witt. "But if you're gonna sell rodeo these days, you need to look at the Front Range. You gotta push the market."
Last month, Sylvester announced that this year's National Western Stock Show, which runs from January 11 through 26, will be his last as general manager. Although he has agreed to consult on the show's centennial celebration in 2006, he vowed early on to stay for 25 years, and he aims to keep his promise. "There's some other things in life you'd like to do before you hang it up," he says.
One of the things he is leaving National Western for is to get back to the land. It won't necessarily be easy; during the past couple of years, his family has sold off more than 40 percent of its cattle herd. Still, the lifestyle exerts a powerful draw: Sylvester's great-grandfather began farming just outside of LaSalle, in Weld County, in the 1860s, and today, Sylvester and his son -- the fifth Sylvester generation to live on the farm -- still work about 200 acres.
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