JONES: CFR feeling more at home in Red Deer this year

Curtis Cassidy took part in the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Red Deer this weekend. File/Postmedia

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RED DEER — After 44 years of the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton, the event had to find a new home here last year. It took until this year, however, to actually make it home.

A bit of a gong show out of the chutes in 2018, CFR46 returned with a nothing-went-wrong song this go-round.

“Last year was a little bit sketchy in places,” admitted Brad Williams CEO of The Westerner, the exhibition entity that owns the rights to present the event for five years.

“It was our first year and there were a lot of things we didn’t know about putting on a rodeo of this size and scale. We did a lot of work with our customers last year and went to work first on our major issues and we believe we’ve succeeded,” he said of the rodeo that wrapped up with a capacity crowd and just about everybody singing Happy Trails To You until they meet again here next year.

Last year just about everything that could go wrong went wrong. This year they made just about everything right.

“One of the big mistakes last year was charging admission to get into the cabaret room that holds about 2,200 people. Some nights we had less than 100. Last year being a paid event, it was not well received.

“This year we put 1,600 people in there with free entertainment other than Saturday night when we featured Corb Lund and sold it out. We had far, far more people staying and enjoying the evening. This year we had our guests having a great time from the time the arrived until they left and that’s what we wanted.”

It wasn’t the $70 million a year of economic impact as Edmonton experienced, but the provincial government estimated it at half of that for openers.

“It’s a big event for Red Deer and it was bigger and much better this year,” said Williams.

The cowboys pretty much put a sock in their mouths last year but gave it rave reviews on the re-ride.

CPRA GM Jeff Robson, for one, called it a night and day difference in presentation from CFR45 to CFR46.

“Last year our primary focus was just to make sure we pulled off a great rodeo between the boards, which I thought we did. This year, really our focus became to really switch gears a bit and while continuing to put on a great rodeo to primarily focus on the fan experience and to create some activations. This year there were 55 new activations.

“We had a breakaway roping competition and paid out $19,000 there, we had ultimate cowboy competitions, horsemanship competitions, hot dog competitions and just a whole ton of things to see and do,” he said of events scheduled throughout the day.

There was a massive 100,000 square-foot trade show in the new pavilions.

Autograph sessions, a daily hot stove event, pancake breakfasts, a Rising Stars Canadian Junior rodeo championship, an extreme equine obstacle events, mini chuckwagon races and much more.

“There were big complaints last year about food and beverage lines being too long and taking forever. This year they did a really good job of elevating that experience for our fans,” said Robson.

A big thing, he said, has been how the contestants have been embraced in Red Deer.

“It’s been exceptional. I think it’s been tremendous. Everywhere you go, people have been happy to see us.

“Our live-stream viewer numbers of the telecasts from last year to this year have been almost double.

“I’ve been walking the concourse a lot this week and everybody has told me the vibe is just so much different this year than last year.

“To move an event after 40-some years, you’re going to have learning curves, but I think people here would agree that we delivered on the fan experience better than what our goal was and the rodeo itself this year was nothing short of being spectacular.”

Happily-ever-after didn’t look like it was going to happen when the Northlands Coliseum closed and the CFR had to find a new home in Rogers Place.

But it’s onward and upward in Red Deer from here now.

“They definitely did a lot of improvements and got a lot of rough areas ironed out. Obviously last year was a big learning curve for them but they got a lot of it worked out this year,” said steer wrestler Curtis Cassidy.

There was nobody on the property more qualified to make comparisons than 23-time CFR competitor Cassidy.

“Definitely on the whole they did a lot better job this year.

“It was a good production this time. Everything from the announcers to the soundman and all of that was definitely stepped up a notch. They ran the rodeo off fast.

“I wouldn’t say it’s put Edmonton behind us. I’m curious to see somewhere down the road if Edmonton does want it back. Obviously Edmonton was a big venue and when you come close to filling it with close to 90,000 over the week, it didn’t take much to make it a grand event.

“But being in an arena that seats over 7,000 here and it’s right full to the rafters every night with the crowd right on top of you like it is here, that’s not a bad thing either. They have created a good atmosphere here in Red Deer as well.

“It was a great show in Edmonton for a lot of years but for the last few years there were a lot of things that needed improved on. So I’m not saying it was a bad thing it left Edmonton because there were some things that needed to change there and be better but they just weren’t going to change the way it was,” he said of the final new years at Northlands before they closed the Coliseum.

“I think this year everybody could see that Red Deer wanted it to be as good as it could be here. This year it was pretty damn good.”