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Area communities see economic impact of SDRA rodeos

Riders wait behind the arena as women compete in the ladies breakaway during the Winner Elks Benefit Rodeo on Saturday, July 28 in Winner. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 3
10-year-old Taos Weborg, left, prepares to compete backstage with his dad Tony, of St. Charles, and Taylon Ping, 10, of Highmore during the Burke Stampede Rodeo on Saturday, July 21 in Burke. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 3
11-year-old Javon Major carries Sienna Varilek, 8, on his shoulders while Sienna's brother Garret, 12, laughs beside them as they walk along the side of the arena during the 2nd Annual Charles Mix Saddle Club Rodeo on Friday,20 in Geddes. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 3

Speckled across South Dakota next weekend are four small-town rodeos.

It's the busiest weekend of the year for South Dakota Rodeo Association events — which are gaining in popularity and participation, officials say. Pretty much every weekend from the end of May through mid-September, somewhere in South Dakota a rodeo is being held.

This year alone, the SDRA sanctioned 31 rodeos, an increase of two rodeos from last year with the addition of three rodeos and the loss of one from 2017.

"The small towns that host SDRA rodeos put a lot of time and effort into making them successful, which helps grow the sport," said Merretta Anderson, SDRA executive secretary and publicity director.

While there are currently 433 SDRA memberships for people who compete, Anderson said the final number at the end of this season is on par to reach a yearly average that hovers around 500, given there are more rodeos that have yet to take place.

The benefit is a boost to the economy of each town that hosts a rodeo, whether it be through gas sales, lodging or concession sales at the event. Next weekend, Lower Brule, Faith, Martin and Scotland will be seeing that firsthand. And, of course, locals get to enjoy South Dakota's official sport: rodeo.

"It's a sport that is really embedded in these communities, and it's been a part of communities for over 50 years," said Anderson, who hopes to continue the growth of rodeo throughout small town South Dakota.

'Growing in South Dakota'

Dave Marone, SDRA president, said rodeo is continuing to remain a popular sport, as small towns are seeing steady crowd sizes.

"There is no question that the sport of rodeo is growing in South Dakota, and the small towns that host rodeos are a big part of that growth," said Marone, who competes at rodeos throughout the state in the team roping event.

Of the SDRA's 31 sanctioned rodeos, look no further than the Burke and Winner rodeos to understand the level of growth and impact the state's sport has on small communities.

"Burke does a tremendous job with their rodeo, and their seats are full all three of the nights they host their rodeo," Marone said.

Billie Sutton, former Burke Stampede Rodeo president and South Dakota's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has seen strong growth in spectators attending the Burke rodeo.

"In terms of fan base alone, the town of Burke continues to see triple the amount of its population in the three days we host our rodeo here," said Sutton, previously a top-ranked professional saddle bronc rider.

"Rodeos are vital for small town South Dakota, and they keep the culture of the greatest sport in the world strong," he added.

Because of the steady growth and support the Burke Stampede Rodeo has been experiencing, organizers added a new concession stand, announcer's "crow's nest" press box and jumbotron replay screen, all of which Sutton said are very big upgrades for the rodeo grounds.

While a majority of the fan base that attends area small town rodeos are South Dakotans, Sutton said he is amazed at the distance some spectators travel to watch cowboys compete in the Burke rodeo.

"We get people from all over the state and nation to come watch our rodeo, as well as all over the world," Sutton said. "There have been years we've had people come from Germany, and when our announcer asked who traveled the farthest to see the rodeo this year, we had a guy from India stand up."

The SDRA

Unlike the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo — which is a pro rodeo sanctioned by the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) — the SDRA is the state's amateur rodeo circuit, which attracts more young up-and-coming cowboys vying to compete in pro rodeos.

While SDRA-sanctioned rodeos draw amateur contestants, Marone said the caliber of cowboys competing in the amateur rodeos are not that far off from professional rodeos.

"A lot of these young contestants have been involved with the sport for a good chunk of their lives, so fans get their money's worth when they watch an SDRA rodeo," Marone added.

To become a member of the SDRA — which is in its 63rd year as an organization — one must either be born in South Dakota or be an established state resident, something Marone feels helps grow rodeo culture and keep money in the state.

"I remind our sponsors each year that SDRA's sanctioned rodeos keep the money in our state, so they know it will impact our state," Marone said. "We're exclusive to South Dakota, and it's our goal to be the best association in the nation."

Despite the unique SDRA membership process, Marone said the association welcomes out-of-state contestants with open arms as long their state's amateur association is co-approved by the communities who are hosting the rodeo. Meaning, each rodeo host has freedom to choose which co-approved associations are accepted into their rodeo.

According to Marone, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota are common co-approved amateur circuits that bring contestants to South Dakota's rodeos. For example, the Burke rodeo has six total co-approved associations, which Marone said helps draw more contestants to that rodeo.

"It's nice seeing contestants travel all the way from a far out state to compete in our rodeos," Marone said. "In fact, I love seeing cowboys from another state come in to South Dakota and do well."

The fans

Maureen Hollenbeck, secretary of the Winner Elks Benefit Rodeo, helps organize the event and has seen an increase in out-of-state contestants. Hollenbeck said a total of nine states other than South Dakota were represented by a cowboy this year at the Winner rodeo.

"When people come to the Winner rodeo from another state, it lets us know we're doing a good job at hosting our rodeo," said Hollenbeck, who will serve as secretary during next year's 50th Winner Elks Benefit Rodeo. "Most of the out-of-state contestants stay in hotels and eat at our restaurants, which helps the economy."

Hollenbeck also said ticket sales were up this year.

Although most of the state's rodeo contestants are from West River, Matt Jones, vice president of the SDRA, said he's noticed larger crowds are attending the East River rodeos.

"The East River rodeos have a bigger fan base than the West, and it's awesome seeing how excited fans get when I go to some of our rodeos and watch," Jones said. "South Dakota's state sport is alive and well in the small communities, that's for dang sure."

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