Rough ride to National Finals Rodeo for Canadians in pandemic season

·4 min read

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