Stock Show weather arrived before Friday’s opening day, but make no mistake, freezing temperatures do little to deter folks from attending the livestock extravaganza.
The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo is beginning its 122nd season and has stayed strong by keeping its focus on what it does well — cowboys, cattle, horses and agriculture — while making annual tweaks to its programming to attract new fans.
More than 1 million people attended last year’s Stock Show and officials said Thursday that they have received a record 35,515 livestock entries for this year’s 23-day show.
Much of what goes on this year will be familiar to Stock Show fans — rodeos, livestock competitions, eclectic vending booths, awards ceremonies and a wide range of food and drink.
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But there are always a few changes and additions. This year, they include a new venture focusing on wine cultivation and consumption, an easier way to pay for your rides on the carnival midway and some steps taken to improve safety for the cowboys and stock participating in the event’s numerous rodeos.
The “Vine 2 Wine” program, which seeks to bring the art of making and drinking wine under the event’s umbrella of agricultural pursuits, will focus on Texas products.
“I have been fantasizing about this for 20 years,” said Pam Wright, the Stock Show’s special events manager. “Wine if one of the hugest types of agriculture in Texas. We have a long history with the wine industry. But it is so overshadowed by cattle and oil that I don’t think our wine industry gets enough credit.”
The events of Vine 2 Wine take place on Jan. 24 and 31, which have been designated “Wine Wednesdays.” On those days, patrons 21 and over will be able to take part in a “Wine Camp” or a “Sip & Shop” stroll through the Stock Show’s enormous (and frequently jammed) main exhibits hall.
“One of the beautiful things about this agricultural product is that the learning never stops. There’s always a new wine to experience, or a new grape you haven’t tasted, or a tidbit about a winery or region nobody has ever heard of before,” said Stephanie Baird, a professional wine educator from Houston who was brought on to guide the Stock Show’s first waltz with the grape. “People are always seeking to expand their knowledge of wine.”
To that end, each of the wine camps will offer a presentation by an expert, tastings and discussion. Sip & Shop is a more free-roaming event.
The venture also requires something of a cultural shift from the rough and tumble world of riding and roping, toward the more refined world of sipping pinot noir and noshing on tapas.
“When we first started in 2004 [at the Houston Livestock Show], people were like, ‘are you kidding me? We are all about beer and barbecue. What is this wine stuff?’” said Baird, who also oversees the wine efforts at that show. “Maybe it will eventually be able to attract trendy young professionals who are into wines but never thought of coming to the show here, like it did in Houston.”
Magic money on the midway
One of the enduring features of the Stock Show is its midway, with its spinning rides, neon lights and carnival sounds and smells.
Previous, patrons bought coupons that were used for admission to the rides and attractions. This year, Magic Money — a reloadable wrist band that replaces the old paper system.
“It uses RFI: radio frequency identification,” said Mary Talley, who owns and operates Talley Amusements with her husband Tom. “It is a little more expensive [for us] than buying paper tickets, but it is going to save me a lot of time on the office side of things. And you can look in at any given minute and see in real time exactly what is going on on the midway.”
Midway goers purchase a wristband and load it with tickets. Each ticket is a dollar and there is a one-time fee of $2 for the initial band purchase. The wristband can be reloaded at the midway’s ticket booths (which will be accepting credit and debit cards for the first time this year) or by visiting the Magic Money app.
“They can even keep them and use them next year,” said Talley, who has provided the midway offerings at the Stock Show since 2003.
Among the rides for which Magic Money can be used this year is a brand-new, 100-plus foot Ferris wheel, recently acquired by the Talleys from the Netherlands.
“It will be the tallest mobile wheel owned by any Texas operation. There are not very many of these in the United States,” Talley said.
One of the measures of how the Stock Show has evolved comes in its commitment to the digital world.
The Stock Show has long used the internet for all sorts of operational duties, such as competitor entries, results and access to the show’s premium book (a sort of bible for the livestock competitors.) Social media has been used to promote events, and the Stock Show’s app has offered not only information, but also some interactive possibilities with events.
But while the Stock Show’s response to the digital revolution has been largely predictable and organic, it has not always gone exactly as expected. Take the example of the efforts to get the audience off their phones and involved with the excitement at the rodeos.
“[Stock Show president and general manager] Brad Barnes complained that we couldn’t get people to stop playing on their cell phones at the rodeo,” said Jordan Simons, Stock Show social media manager. “So about five years ago, we started ‘Score It.’
Score It is an app-based interactive game that allowed rodeo patrons a chance to pit their ride-scoring skills against the judges.
“We saw that the number of participants was declining each year. So we started a new interactive game called ‘Are You Smarter Than a Bullfighter?’ We tried to develop this game for children to play during the rodeo because they would put down their phones,” Simons said. “But when I saw the analytics, they showed that it was people over 40 who were playing the games. So we were totally off base on who we were trying to reach. I was shocked. So we decided no more games, let’s just do straight social.”
This year, she’ll be doing Facebook Live presentations featuring rodeo announcer Doug Mathis that provides commentary about previous and upcoming rodeo performances.
Their efforts have netted results, with 259,000 Facebook followers and 21,000 on Instagram.
“We feel it’s important to use digital technology to enhance the experiences of the traditional aspects of rodeo and livestock shows,” said Barnes, the Stock Show president.
Building a better wall
Last year’s Stock Show was marred by the shocking tragedy of seeing two horses suffer fatal injuries in separate incidents during the rodeos, both resulting from crashing into the rodeo arena’s walls.
Such incidents are extremely rare. Stock Show communications manager Matt Brockman points to a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association survey that found an injury rate of 0.05 of 1 percent for rodeo animals. And, anecdotally, even some the oldest of Stock Show veterans expressed stunned amazement at the rarity of last year’s shocking events.
But the Stock Show felt action was needed, and set themselves to the task as soon as the 2017 show ended.
“The first call our president Brad Barnes made was to Eddie Gossage at Texas Motor Speedway,” Brockman told media representatives who recently gathered in the Will Rogers Coliseum, home of the world’s first indoor rodeo, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
Barnes wanted to know how NASCAR and Gossage dealt with cars crashing into track walls, to see if there were lessons to be learned that could make his rodeo safer. Those discussions were followed by months more research that included talking to the manufacturers of pads for gymnasts and the engineering department at the University of Nebraska, which had helped NASCAR with safety issues.
The result is a pipe, panel and cable wall that has been placed in front of the existing concrete walls, which have been in place since the facility was built in 1936. The new wall is intended to dissipate the energy of a collision, and reduce the chance of injury.
Even the colors used for the wall — contrasting browns and whites — were based on discussions with the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine about animal behavior and sight.
“All these years, we have had these clean, white walls that we have been very proud of. And yet, perhaps that fact may have been contributing to that type of accident,” said Barnes.
In addition to providing better safety, the new wall surprisingly also offers slightly better visibility for rodeo patrons seated at floor level.
“That was kind of a low priority, but we did verify that,” said Barnes. “[The new wall] is all about trying to create a better experience for patrons, our athletes and our animal athletes.”