Electric Rodeo

Rodeo Steels Itself Against Houston's Shrinking Economy

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is now less than five weeks away. The gates of NRG Park will open to the pits and smokers of the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest on Thursday, February 25, heralding Go Texan Day, the downtown parade and Rodeo Run, and the other symptoms of Rodeo Fever that take hold every March. But earlier this week, the rodeo's two top officials, President/CEO Joel Cowley and Vice President/COO Dan Cheney, were allowing themselves a small sigh of relief after clearing last Saturday's ticket on-sale relatively unscathed, especially compared to last year.

“It went very, very well,” Cowley affirms.

Recall that a year ago, the rodeo’s first time using the software of its new ticketing partner AXS, its social-media sites were flooded with complaints by frustrated would-be buyers who had difficulty buying tickets via the mobile app or else encountered maddeningly long wait times to find their seats. Many fans felt marooned in AXS’s “virtual waiting room,” a feature that allows fans to queue up for as many performances as they wish before randomly placing them into a “buying area” for each performance. However, tickets actually went on sale a full hour after the waiting room opened, confusing many fans who thought they would be able to buy tickets right away; others waited past noon, three hours after the waiting room opened, to get theirs. This year Cowley says AXS was much better prepared to meet the mobile demand for tickets, and streamlining the waiting room by opening it a half-hour later also paid off.

“At the point tickets went on sale, there were 34,158 people in the waiting room, and all of those people had been processed through the system — I should say, invited into the store to make their purchases — by 10:40,” he notes. “So a 40-minute wait for those who were unlucky enough to be randomly selected last.”

Besides a greater familiarity with the system on the part of the ticket-buyers themselves, Cowley also credits the efforts of both the AXS and rodeo staffers who were on hand to address customer questions and offer clarifications via its social-media sites; “we think it’s important to monitor and engage, and try to answer questions when they come up,” he says. Embedding an AXS-produced video offering tips for navigating the waiting room also helped, Cowley adds, while AXS safeguards also successfully prevented the as many as 1,000 mechanical “bots” per minute from funneling tickets to the third-party “secondary market.” While tickets might still wind up on broker sites via flesh-and-blood human beings (and have), Cowley says, “we’re confident that we’re getting more tickets in the hands of actual customers than we ever have before.”

The remaining issue that continued to vex this year’s potential buyers was the limited availability of tickets in the stadium’s lower levels. Cowley says that’s a direct extension of the high number of season tickets the rodeo sells, and thus there’s not a lot officials are able to do about that.

“I think that some people in the market here have it in their head that this is a concert rather than a rodeo and a concert, and so when a concert goes on sale typically, that means the whole venue’s available, right?” offers Dan Cheney. “If I’m going to a show at Toyota Center or somewhere else and they don’t realize that this is a professional sporting event and a musical event, and that we have 43,000 or 44,000 [season] tickets. Joel’s video, I think, addressed that, but I think at the end of the day, some people in the market are going to think this is just a musical event, and they’re going to want to know why all the seats aren’t available. Or they think for some reason we’re hiding them from them, and that’s not the case at all.”

Cowley continues the thought, mentioning a performer many fans hope will one day return to play the rodeo again.

“To draw the comparison with a tour, certainly [when] Garth Brooks comes to town and plays the Toyota Center, [if] you’re first in the store, you’re going to have first crack at the good tickets,” he explains. “We’re an annual festival, and as Dan mentioned, a sporting event that also features nightly performances; we have a 20-day season, and we sell season tickets. Based upon the strength of our lineup in the past, we have a tremendous season-ticket base. I believe we’re at a little over 43,000 season tickets being sold.”

In fact, this year’s season-ticket renewal rate was above 90 percent, according to the rodeo’s figures. Still, as of Thursday afternoon, single-performance sales were down almost 3 percent versus this time last year. Only Luke Bryan has gone standing-room only, meaning no more seats are available (the operative word being “seats”); this time last year, three performances had reached the same level. Obviously, the economic climate has changed since then, as the price of oil continues to drop (despite rallying Thursday) and some of the region’s biggest employers continue to announce job cuts. Thursday alone, oil-field services giant Schlumberger announced a $1 billion loss of revenue in the final quarter of 2015, a period when it also shed some 10,000 jobs, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“Obviously we're concerned,” Cowley says. “When we look at the local economy and the current price of oil and how important energy is to the Houston economy, we can't help but be concerned. At the same time, Houston has a much more diverse economy than it did in the mid-'80s. So that gives us a little bit of comfort.
“Historically, fairs and festivals have been fairly recession-proof,” he continues. “I believe it goes back to that ‘staycation’ philosophy. During the last recession, we didn't really notice it, [because] people decided they weren't taking their $2,000-$2,500 summer vacation, but they might come out to the rodeo and spend $200 or $250.”

Therefore, Cowley says the rodeo’s executive committee, whose plan follows a cycle that generally calls for an increase every five years, has decided to freeze prices this year even though they're due for an increase.

“One of the things we think our brand represents is a tremendous value in the market, and a tremendous value for consumers,” adds Cheney. “With the uncertainty now in the macroeconomic world, and also with the price of energy and concerns about affordability for people in the Houston area, we felt it was responsible to keep all the ticket prices the same price as they'd been last year and roughly the past five or six years.”

Offsetting at least some of these concerns is the fact that the rodeo is a formidable economic engine of its own. In 2010, it commissioned an economic impact study by Dr. Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston. Working from a sample of “pretty much every type of visitor we had,” Cowley says, the study found that visitors to the rodeo poured an estimated $220 million into the Houston economy, with $100 million of that coming from people from outside the metro area. It also creates the equivalent of 7,200 full-time jobs; or, Cowley notes, “like a major corporation setting up their headquarters here,” and funnels about $27 million in taxes to various governmental agencies. When all the appropriate multipliers are applied, Dr. Barton’s final total was about $445 million; considering the rodeo’s attendance was several hundred thousand more last year than in 2010, Cowley says that figure is likely much closer to half a billion dollars today.

To put that into perspective, Cowley likens the rodeo’s impact on Houston to the equivalent of hosting a Super Bowl every year. And guess what’s coming up next year?

“In 2017, we get both,” he smiles.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray