In its public pronouncements, Rodeo Austin casts itself as a fundamental part of Austin right now and well into the future.
Led by its ambitious CEO, Rob Golding, the venerable group plans to become even more crucial to city culture, including plans for a new arena and stadium to replace its current outdated home at the old Travis County Expo Center.
But in a real sense, the rodeo will always be about Austin’s distant past as well.
Travis County has not been an overwhelming agricultural place since the 1950s. Even with the spread of urban farming and farm-to-plate practices, few Austinites have a functional sense of how their food arrives on tables.
Despite his forward thinking, Golding embraces the historical role.
“Austin has seen immense change over the past 50 years,” Golding says, “but Rodeo Austin in many ways hasn’t changed, as the core of our event is still driven by Texas youth and providing a place for the community to come and enjoy with their family and friends.”
For better or worse, rodeo customs change slowly. After all, one of Rodeo Austin’s 21st-century goals is to preserve Western ways.
In fact, when we assembled “rodeo then and now” images for this story, we discovered that some things have changed almost not at all in 50 years.
For instance, evidence of past rodeo fashions revealed a mix of modern and Western themes, not unlike recent rodeo apparel.
Many of the arena sporting events — it was mostly a livestock show, not a full rodeo, from 1938 to 1969 — are essentially the same, although at times in the past there were more women’s events.
What has changed is the scale.
“The rodeo has grown to now be one of America’s top professional rodeos with an audience of over 75,000 annually in our main arena,” Golding says. “Cowboys and cowgirls come to Austin to compete for their share of over half a million dollars each year.”
Yes, you’ll also see all sorts of show animals in a smaller arena dedicated to youth-raised livestock. But now the auctions of winning entries take place at ACL Live.
“The livestock show that began in 1938 is fundamentally the same today, but much larger,” Golding says. “In 1967, for instance, there were 1,500 entries, and today Rodeo Austin hosts more than 8,000 entries annually with the auction raising more than $1.44 million for Texas students.”
The carnival, midway and fairground attractions have become more varied and higher-tech, but the emphasis is on the nostalgic atmosphere. And while the food options have grown healthier and more interesting, you can still get the old unedifying staples.
“The food and beverage scene has flourished in Austin, and Rodeo Austin has followed suit by focusing on bringing in Texas beer, wine and local food trucks,” Golding says. “Yet the fairgrounds continue to play host to the classic fair favorites of funnel cakes, corn dogs, cotton candy and lemonade.”
These days, the musical acts are all over the map, as bookers seek various demographic niches.
“Live entertainment didn’t become a (regular) feature until we moved to the Travis County Expo Center in the ’80s with Willie (Nelson) becoming a staple of our events for many years,” Golding says. “Today we feature more than 100 live performances in the month of March between our main stage and outdoor stages.”
A long year
Rodeo Austin has made the most of a long year.
In late 2016, Golding settled in as CEO after vowing to expand the reach and appeal of the rodeo. A longtime fan who came from the worlds of banking, real estate and corporate recruiting, Golding poked a pin in the rodeo’s perceptual bubble, long content to run its events for the already-converted faithful.
During the past months, backers of the rodeo, which returns to the Expo Center March 10-24, reached out to community leaders, especially those from the surrounding East Austin neighborhoods, seeking a consensus on transforming the neglected center into a magnet for new attractions that would benefit Austinites year-round.
“Before, we didn’t have a seat at the table,” Golding says. “Now we do.”
In December 2017, almost exactly a year after Golding arrived, Austin Sports & Entertainment, a new group of entrepreneurs and athletes, announced plans to replace the Expo Center with a large arena and multipurpose stadium. That site entered the discussion about a possible move of the Columbus Crew to Austin, although owner Anthony Precourt deemed it too far from downtown, one of his main complaints about his current Major League Soccer stadium in Ohio.
Not be discouraged, Golding is forging ahead and often brings up his vision of working closely with South by Southwest, seen by former rodeo leaders as an upstart trespasser on their previously sacrosanct March dates. He sees a return of the downtown rodeo parade and trail ride, which might extend out to the old Bastrop trail, otherwise known as Farm to Market 969, that passes not far from the rodeo’s East Austin home.
“Some people say we have nothing to do with South by Southwest,” Golding says. “But we are an intensely Southwestern attraction and part of what people from around the world expect to see when they come here.”
When: March 10-24
Where: Rodeo Austin Grounds, 9100 Decker Lake Road
Cost: Fairgrounds: $5-$8; rodeo and concert: $18-$175