I have to confess. John Travolta is responsible for my infatuation with rodeo. “Urban Cowboy” was the box-office blockbuster in 1980 when, coincidentally, I was relocating to Tucson from St. Louis. As luck would have it, I landed a job as marketing director at Old Tucson where the University of Arizona staged its inter-collegiate rodeos. There I became immersed into the world of the truly American sport.
Though event marketing campaigns often reflect trends, the 36-member Tucson Rodeo Committee is steadfast when it comes to the messaging aimed at luring visitors to La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the Tucson Rodeo. The common denominator in the success of the first rodeo in 1925, and of every rodeo since, is the fascination people have with “The West.”
Gary Williams, general manager of the Tucson Rodeo, and a former rodeo bull rider himself, believes, “Rodeo gives people a way of touching the West; seeing, feeling and getting close to it. If visitors just want to escape the cold, they can go to Florida — this is The West, this is about cowboys.”
On average, 38 percent of attendees to the Tucson Rodeo come from outside Arizona with more than half visiting Tucson specifically to attend the rodeo.
“Tucson is the first big outdoor event of the Pro Rodeo season,” explained Williams. “It’s a key stop for cowboys and cowgirls working their way to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and a welcome break from indoor arenas for both contestants and fans.”
Sonora state in Mexico, with its ranching and vaquero traditions, is a prime drive-in market, along with Sierra Vista and other Southern Arizona communities.
Surprisingly, it was tourism that spurred the creation of the Tucson Rodeo, now one of the top 25 professional rodeos in North America. The brainchild of La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, Leighton Kramer, was a transplanted Easterner who headed up the Arizona Polo Association.
It’s no surprise that locals back in the early 1920s depended on tourism dollars, too. But the visitor season fizzled out by the end of January leaving Tucson a virtual ghost town. Kramer, real-life cowboy Ed Echols, and area dude ranch and hotel owners joined together and created a grand scheme to keep visitors around through February’s Washington’s Birthday holiday.
Two key elements contributed mightily to the event’s success. First, with the blessing of appropriate officials, a two-day school holiday was established so local ranchers and residents could participate in the rodeo and the big parade. Next, Kramer convinced Southern Pacific Railroad to run special “rodeo” trains from Los Angeles and El Paso to Tucson — the occupancy was 100 percent on every run.
Bottom line, every ranch and hotel was booked solid. To accommodate the overflow, Southern Pacific converted its stationary train cars into sleepers and residents offered room and board in their homes. Tucson, with its Celebration of the Cowboys, was on the map as a prime tourist destination.
While the tourism value of the Tucson Rodeo and Parade was established early on, many Southern Arizonans viewed the rodeo as a celebration of their own cowboy culture. Author and rancher J.P.S. Brown of Patagonia shared his memories of the first Tucson Rodeo he attended in the early 1930s in an article he penned for American Cowboy magazine.
“I was there to watch my father and uncles compete and to have a look at my relatives. I was related to every Christian, pagan, Texan, and cowman in Southern Arizona. My whole world and the people in it depended on the rodeo,” Brown wrote.
Hollywood also found Tucson an ideal film location when a scene called for rodeo action. Robert Mitchum tested broncs in the Tucson arena for the 1952 classic “The Lusty Men” and the rodeo was a backdrop for the 1953 movie “Arena.” The most successful of the rodeo-themed movies, “8 Seconds,” which depicted the life of the late bull rider Lane Frost, shot action scenes in Tucson in 1994. To the delight of the crowd, Tom Selleck did his own bronc riding in the Tucson Rodeo arena for the 1996 Showtime movie “Ruby Jean and Joe.”
Today, the quantified economic activity generated by visitors, 685 contestants, and more than 1,000 well-fed horses and bulls is worth $16 million to Tucson. When the weather cooperates, about 60,000 fans fill the grandstands at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds and the cheers for an eight-second bull ride can be heard all the way to Nogales. The recent additions of the Vaquero Club, a private pavilion with hosted food and beverages, and the skybox-style Gold Buckle boxes have upped the participation of local and regional businesses and groups.
“The Pioneer Spirit lives. Heroic memories never die. The Old Frontier will be revived at Tucson as a community revival. We are proud to offer this attraction to the people of America as a glorious reminder of yesterday,” wrote Kramer on the rodeo’s opening day in 1925. The Tucson Rodeo Committee couldn’t have said it better.
Joan Liess is an independent marketing professional who has served as marketing director for the Tucson Rodeo since 1989.