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The rodeo polls season-ticket holders, volunteers and the general public several times a year. It's gotten to the point where -- especially with country acts -- Shafer can predict almost to perfection the number of tickets a particular entertainer will sell.
(Among the oddities: If a 55-year-old female is polled, given the names of three acts and asked if she would attend those shows -- and says "yes" to all three -- there's only a 13 percent chance she'll come to any of the three, Shafer says. If it's a 24-year-old female and she says "yes" to just one, there's an 85 percent probability she actually will.)
With 20 shows to book, it's not simply a matter of getting the hottest acts possible. Shafer has to take into account what type of crowd an entertainer will draw and figure out the best day for them.
The rodeo gets its revenue from tickets sold, from the food and other merchandise sold, from the "corral clubs" that sell liquor and from the carnival rides.
"So let's take Hannah Montana," he says. "Hannah Montana is going to do zero in our corral clubs. Not gonna happen. Hannah Montana will be a tremendous carnival day. So what we need to do is put her on a day that's not a great club day to begin with -- Sunday. Let's say we've got George Strait. His audience is getting a little bit older now; there's not a heckuva lot of carnival-crowd kids that go to see George Strait anymore. He's a pretty good corral-club night, so he should be a weeknight entertainer. And we know he's going to sell out any night we put him on, so let's put him on the hardest night to sell -- Tuesday night."
A few years ago, rodeo officials insisted on getting Julio Iglesias despite Shafer's computer analysis ("His audience profile is going to be that narrow," he says, holding his fingers oh-so-slightly apart. "Middle-aged to older white women, and husband is usually not coming with them.")
The only date open was a Sunday. "It was an abysmal carnival day, it was an abysmal corral-club day, and we didn't sell as many tickets as we should have," he moans. "If we had put him on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, that's normally a bad night anyway, but if you were a Julio Iglesias fan you were still going to come out to see him, and you wouldn't have drawn down the carnival on a good carnival day."
SECRET TO SUCCESS
About half the tickets sold each year to the shows go to season-ticket holders, and most of them are country fans. Affluent, older country fans. But Shafer's job includes appealing to the general audience and getting people into the rodeo who haven't been there before. So he has to book classic-rock acts and shows for teens and tweens.
Those noncountry acts have to pass one of two tests for Shafer to keep the season-ticket holders appeased: They either have to sell out Reliant Stadium ("The season-ticket base knows we're a charity and need to have revenue") or they have to make people want to get their hands on those tickets.
"If their grandkids or their friends, neighbors or employees want those tickets, then the season-ticket base is happy," he says. "I can guess, with about 100 percent suretyÉthat not one person who buys a season ticket knew who Hannah Montana was when we signed her, but when every grandkid and every friend of a grandkid said, 'You gotta get me tickets to that,' they're going to buy into that," he says.
If you can't entertain them, at least make them feel important and privileged. Not a bad way to keep a ticket-buying base happy.
Beer AND Booze For the Kids
This year the rodeo opened, as it always does, with the Barbecue Cookoff. Which sounds pretty tame, right? Maybe if they called it Cowboy Mardi Gras they'd be closer to the mark.
Just as in New Orleans the parades are mostly just an excuse to drink, here in Houston the judging of barbecue skills is secondary to the primary purpose of the event: getting wasted. (In moderation, of course.)
Hundreds of tents are set up on the grounds, featuring teams with names like the Thirty Minute Gang, the Lost Village Cooking Team (Motto: "We May Not Know Where We Are, But We Can Sure As Hell Tell You Where To Go") and the Always Able But Confused Cookers.
Corporations such as Continental Airlines and Stewart & Stevenson have elaborate tents, too. The Stewart & Stevenson one, designed to look like an Old West store, has signs saying "Carriage & Wagon Builders" and "Horseshoeing Carefully Executed"; we looked but didn't see one that said "Defense Department Boondoggles Cheerfully Done."
The key to enjoying the event is getting into the tents, preferably as many as possible. Sure, you walk by some and see a tired cover band butchering "Proud Mary" or a bunch of white folks trying to dance to "Ice Ice Baby" and you think you're better off outside. But inside is where the free drinks are.