When Paul Vickers, owner of Penny Lane Entertainment Group and Cowboys Dance Hall, first moved to Calgary in 1996 from Edmonton, he really had no clue what chuckwagon racing was all about.
Local businessman Ron Mathison, however, changed all that.
“I remember him asking me to sponsor this chuckwagon. I didn’t know what it was. But he got me into chuckwagon racing. He told me it was going to help my business,” says Vickers.
“I remember at 10:30 in the morning I was thinking: what the hell is going on. There’s a lineup trying to get into my bar. The first day of Stampede 1996. Oh my gosh. That is crazy.”
That first year, Cowboys sponsored a Calgary Stampede chuckwagon tarp for $31,000 and it has continued to be involved every year since. This year, it bid $85,000 for chuckwagon driver Mark Sutherland’s tarp.
“Sponsors really are partners with people you do business. The reason you bring in partners is really like a layer of your business…. The Stampede helps the city of Calgary and it helps our community. For me that helps grow my business. I have no problem giving back to them and supporting them,” says Vickers.
Over the years, the annual chuckwagon canvas auction in March has been recognized as the bellwether of the Calgary economy. A booming economy translates into higher bids by companies wanting to advertise their brand in front of thousands of attentive spectators each evening during the GMC Rangeland Derby at the Stampede’s Grandstand.
For example, in 2012, the Stampede’s centennial year, the 36 chuckwagon drivers hauled in just over $4 million in bids with the average $111,528. The highest bid went to chuckwagon legend Kelly Sutherland at $300,000.
This year, the total was just over $2.4 million for an average of $67,236 with the highest bid at $110,000 – again for Sutherland’s tarp.
Each year big money is at stake and no one knows that better than the drivers themselves, who race 10 evenings for $1.15 million in total prize money up for grabs. The big draw is the final night – a dash for cash with the winner taking home a cool $100,000 for his efforts.
Sutherland, a 12-time Stampede champion from Grande Prairie, Alberta, who first won the title in 1974 and last won in 2011, says he is happy with his tarp sponsorship this year from Air Canada and Tervita, considering the political and economic environment in the province.
Money gained from sponsors, he says, still represents about 80 per cent of the driver’s income and it’s creeping higher because the prize money in Calgary hasn’t changed in 15 years.
Unfortunately, at the same time, costs have risen at least at the rate of inflation every year.
“You can’t negotiate fuel and you can’t negotiate the repairs to your equipment. Those rates have not dropped. It simply hasn’t happened,” says Sutherland, the flamboyant driver who was one of the first in the industry to recognize how much of a business it really had become over the years.
For the circuit each summer, Sutherland estimates his operating costs including wages at about $150,000. That doesn’t include the cost of replacing equipment and livestock.
Chuckwagon racing is indeed a costly sport. A driver would need on average $500,000 to $600,000 capital to get started with trucks, liners, RVs, equipment and livestock, says Sutherland. The cheapest to get in would be about $300,000 to $350,000.
“The prize money is minimal besides the big dash so sponsorship is hugely important,” says the iconic driver who at the age of 65 will be hanging up his trademark cowboy hat, adorned with a feather, after this year of racing.
“I’m done at 65. That’s 50 years for me; that’s enough. I just think for myself it’s time; time to quit. It’s a fast-moving sport. Fifty years. I think as you age your reaction times start slowing down. It’s time for me to leave.”
While Sutherland will surely miss the excitement of the chuckwagon dash and its competitive nature, he likely won’t miss the headaches and pressures of the business part of the sport. And worrying about how the overall economy is going to impact the amount of sponsor dollars available for chuckwagon drivers.
When times were tough following the financial markets collapse in 2009, the chuckwagon canvas auction saw the pain first-hand with total bids of only about $1.7 million with the average at $47,000.
It was evident at this year’s auction that the Alberta economy is rebounding and on a slow recovery – a positive for the drivers and for the Stampede.
“The results exceeded our expectations. It’s a modest gain over the previous year; about six per cent. Overall, we’re certainly thrilled with that. In the current state of the economy to have an increase of any kind is remarkable,” says Michael Piper, chair of the Stampede’s chuckwagon committee. “If we look back, it has been the unofficial barometer of the economy – the unofficial bellwether.”
To try and mitigate the uncertainty of the ups and downs of a volatile economy, about five years ago the chuckwagon committee put in place a key initiative allowing companies to partner up so they can share the costs of sponsoring a canvas.
“Over 1.4 million people see your brand in a very unique environment on television. Not to mention sold-out grandstands. Locally it can really elevate your brand to be affiliated with something that is truly unique to Western Canada, probably North America, honestly,” says Piper.
This year, in part due to the still uncertain economic conditions, the Stampede did something different. It helped introduce companies to each other rather than just allowing companies to go out and seek partnerships on their own.
Piper says there are no plans to change the auction in the future. The Stampede likes the simplicity of the proceedings which simply mirrors the same format as any other auction. Many of the sponsorships continue after the Stampede into smaller market areas where the chuckwagon circuit has competitions throughout the summer.
“Businesses see a lot of value in reaching their target audiences,” says Piper.
Businesses like Cowboys who have been religiously participating for the past 21 years.
Vickers says the chuckwagon sponsorship landscape has changed a lot over those two-plus decades. When Cowboys first started sponsoring, massive high-profile brands were at the forefront. Companies like Cowboys were the little guys on the block.
“Now we’re pretty much, depending on the year, always one of the biggest guys. The big corporations are out now. They’ve got big overhead. There is a changing of the times with new technology, the shift and movement of business and the newer companies doing better than maybe the traditional older guys,” says Vickers.
The trend now is for smaller companies to combine resources as they see the value of attaching their name – their brand – to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. It is an opportunity for them to have fun while getting more exposure for their brand.