Simply put, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is massive. Much more than “just” a rodeo, it’s a nearly month-long celebration of all things Texas — and that includes country music.
Held each year at Houston’s NRG Stadium (home of the NFL’s Houston Texans), more than 2.5 million people visit each year, temporarily making it one of the largest cities in the state. Over the course of its history, the non-profit event has donated more than $500 million in education grants, and is one of the biggest providers of scholarships in the country, spreading the love in go-big-or-go-home Texas style.
But since it’s usually held in the spring, RodeoHouston is also an interesting case study in how huge events have reacted to COVID-19.
It was one of the first big events to be scrapped in March of 2020 — with Kane Brown forced to abruptly pack up his guitars and head home just before show time — and 2021 was a no-go as well. But now, the event is gearing up for a returns in 2022 to mark its 90th anniversary, with two big country names already signed on. Cody Johnson will open the event when it returns next March, and the King of Country himself, Texas icon George Strait, will close it out, as one of the largest gatherings in the nation gets back on its feet. It’s just getting there that has been a struggle.
Sounds Like Nashville spoke with Director of Entertainment Jason Kane just after RodeoHouston was honored at the 14th annual ACM Honors in August. We got a feel for what the event really represents, and how they are navigating a deadly pandemic.
Sounds Like Nashville: Can you explain what the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is really all about? Here in Nashville, I think people might not realize it’s much more than a rodeo.
The general outline is we will run in 21 days in March of 2022 … and like a lot of things in Texas, it’s big! It’s hard for people to really understand sometimes, how big it really is and how many people come. We sell almost 1.4 million concert and rodeo tickets over the run of our show, and we welcome just over 2.5 million visitors through the gates total. There are nights where so many people are on the grounds, that we become the fourth or fifth largest city in Texas, and what’s really extraordinary for me … is this thing has been going on since 1932. The story is really interesting in that it was the middle of the Depression, and a group of ranchers got together and said ‘We’ve gotta do something or else we’re not gonna sell any cattle.’ And it’s been going ever since.
So this started in the Great Depression, and now we have our own challenges. Does that strike you as an interesting full-circle element to this coming year?
Oh yeah, and when you think about that 90 years, a World War and all the changes we’ve seen, you look back on that and think … given how transitory the world is these days, [it’s nice to have something that lasts]. When I joined the Rodeo back on ‘06, I talked to the people who were there — volunteers and other staff members. The one common thread that came out was ‘My parents started bringing me here when I was six years old, or whatever.’ So it’s become a generational event.
So the mission goes way beyond a rodeo — like a celebration of community and tradition?
Right, and the other part that is overlooked is we are a 501c3 charity, and we award scholarships and educational grants, that’s our mission. We’ll give away as many as 350 full, four-year scholarships, and what’s amazing is the forward thinking and planning of leadership … They had the foresight to be able to financially plan so that even in the face of a pandemic, we were still able to complete our scholarship and charitable mission.
Since last year, what has it been like to transition from essentially putting on a massive party, to having to think about public health? With so much history behind this event, was it difficult deciding to cancel?
First off, the whole cancelation, it’s hard knowing what we know now to put ourselves back in the mindset of where we were in February of 2020. Nobody really knew what this COVID-19 thing was, we didn’t really understand the dynamics. So as you look back, it’s something I would never want to have to go through again to be honest. It’s heart wrenching to have to tell people who have worked an entire year to help you put this together that we’re just gonna have to pack it up here and leave in the next 48 hours. As a matter of fact, when the word came down from city and county health officials, Kane Brown was in the house. They were getting ready to go and had just done the load in, so we had to go inform those guys they weren’t gonna be able to play, and it was a shock all the way around.
Part of the challenge is with an event this large, where you’re putting together an entire stadium setup that will accommodate a full rodeo and a full concert after that rodeo, we are front loading those expenses to set all of our stuff up. We usually are able to amortize those expenses over the 20-day run of the show, but we had to take that expense hit straight up after only eight days.
So you paid full price but didnt get to make anything back?
Exactly, so that put us behind the eight ball financially for the rest of the year, where we really had to tighten our belt. But I think great leadership on behalf of our professional staff as well as our volunteer leadership, we were able to make our way through this, from a financial point of view, and now we can come back bigger, stronger and ready to open up — when health authorities will allow. The other thing we have going for us is that Houston is one of the most robust medical centers in the world. Many really great medical professionals are part of our volunteer leadership, so we’re getting great advice and guidance all the way along the way.
So much has already come back in 2021, were you expecting to come back as well?
Yeah we had a plan on the books — well, we had a lot of plans on the books. We stared sorting through what we could and couldn’t do and how we could make it work, and we did have a plan to go in May of ’21. But unfortunately because of the spikes and infection rates, we just weren’t able to do that. We had to again put plans on the shelf and turn toward 2022.
Are we even sure 2022 will happen?
I mean, I’m not sure “100 percent” is the kind of number we’re gonna use in this day and age, but I can tell you this: All of our energies are pointing in that direction. Who’s to say where we’re gonna be come February, but I think by all indications we’re seeing now, hopefully we’ll increase the vaccination rates, and begin to knock down the infection rates from this delta variant.
Will there be vaccination requirements?
We’re studying that right now, and we’ve seen what’s going on with events like Lollapalooza, other major concert events. We haven’t put any of those protocols in place yet. We are of course encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, wear your mask, do the things that make sense to keep everyone safe, and in the coming days we we will come out with those protocols, and announce well ahead of the show.
What’s the plan for the 90th anniversary? It’s a big one, especially if we’re coming out of the pandemic.
We usually hold our full lineup until beginning of January, but we’ve already announced that George Strait is gonna join us, one of the truly hallmark artists of our event. He has played it almost 30 times I think, and obviously George Strait, Texas and Houston are nearly synonymous. He will be there for a concert-only event on 21st day. Then we announced our opening artist is Cody Johnson, who is a great Texas artist and truthfully, he would be a cowboy or a volunteer if he wasn’t making music, and such a great supporter.
It’s gonna be a celebration of Houston, and we’re gonna celebrate not only those 90 years, but coming back together. We’ll all be back together and I think that’s just so important in the face of what we’ve all been going through in the last 18 months.
Big picture, what do you think the future holds for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo?
I think this event will go on long after we’re all gone, and that’s one of the beauties of it. It’s such a privilege to be a part of something like that, because there are thousands of concerts out there, but only one Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.