Rodeo curtain closes on shattered attendance record

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The Houston Rodeo busted through its all-time attendance record this year, bolstered by a massively popular Go Tejano Day concert and three weeks of beautiful Texas weather. Despite a shooting scare and concerns about Border Patrol‘s presence, the festivities drew more than 2.6 million people, about 100,000 more than the previous 2013 record.

Thousands of Texans snagged last-minute fried Oreos, snuck closing peeks at livestock in NRG Center and took final trips on the 65-foot SkyRide overlooking it all as the nearly three-week rodeo roped in its final hours Sunday.

“The Monday before the show started I sent out an email with the subject line: Best. Show. Ever,” said Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo CEO Joel Cowley. “And I think we accomplished that.”

More Information

2017 Rodeo Records:

Overall attendance: 2.6 million

Single-day attendance: 185,650

Go Tejano Day: 75,557

Grand Champion Art: $235,000

Grand Reserve Art: $221,000

This year’s festivities broke records for single-day attendance total, Go Tejano Day paid rodeo/concert attendance and day one barbecue contest attendance.

“I think we did a great job this year, operationally,” Cowley said. “The show went really, really well, but anytime you bring 2.6 million people through the gates there will be some unexpected things.”

A shooting scare sparked an evacuation during the rodeo’s second week, although no one was injured. Days later, a chuck wagon driver ended up in the hospital after a nasty spill during a race. Reports of Border Patrol’s presence stoked fear in the Latino community, although the agency was only on scene to recruit potential employees.

Still, Cowley branded the rodeo a massive success, citing the nearly 33,000 livestock and horse show entries as a point of pride. A new foal and mare presentation, which showcased a bronco matriarch and her offspring, was “well-received,” he said

And the organization explored new ways to use technology to interact with guests, even letting rodeo-goers use an app to vote on a grand champion market steer. More than 357,000 people mentioned the event on social media.

Looking ahead, the 2018 show could offer even more attractions, including a new performance stage in NRG Stadium. Other changes would be announced later in the year, Cowley said.

For many concert-goers, the biggest 2018 attraction will be opening and closing shows by country legend Garth Brooks.

“That’s pretty exciting,” Cowley said with a grin.

During this year’s event, vendors and animal handlers churned out much excitement of their own. Nearly five dozen piglets and 20 calves were born. Visitors ate 47,480 tamales, 38,000 cinnamon rolls and 41 miles of turkey legs. (That would span 3 miles longer than Loop 610.)

Carnival-goers scarfed down two fields of corn, two orchards of apples and 6 miles of hamburgers. Lost-and-found volunteers collected a hearing aid, a baby shoe and dozens of licenses and credit cards.

A boy’s 1,339-pound steer, the reserve grand champion, sold to country music star Zac Brown for $330,000. Two bottles of wine sold for a combined $275,000 at an international wine competition. And the Rodeo committed just over $26 million to youth and education in Texas.

Eighty semitrailers of teddy bears found new homes with prize-winners. A man won his wife two of those stuffed animals, whom she named Squishy and Cow Lee.

Logan Wagnon, 18, asked his girlfriend to senior prom with a poem: Roses are red, class winners are blue, we’d be named grand champion if I went to prom with you. She said yes.

Parents pushed tiny tykes in strollers, pointing excitedly at the rides around them. Families waited in line for artery-destroying concoctions from scorpion pizza to fried cheesecake on a stick.

“You wanna win something?” Jass Foy asked her 5-year-old son Ty Jones as they strolled up to the first booth inside the gate Sunday afternoon.

Sporting a cowboy hat and a red plaid shirt, Ty gave the wheel a spin and walked away with a red bandanna, perfectly matching his Western get-up.

A few hundred yards down the midway, 17-year-old Kylie Williams hoisted a freshly won giant stuffed unicorn over her head with a smile.

“She came back specifically for this, and I said, ‘You’re not gonna win this,'” her mother Taanya Bell said.

The Katy family turned up for the rodeo three times this year, catching concerts for The Chainsmokers, Luke Bryan and Zac Brown.

“We came back today for the Zac Brown show,” Bell said.

“No, I came back for the unicorn,” Williams interrupted.

Inside NRG Center, vendors did brisk last-day business. Rick Bishop of Western Tradition carefully shaped and brushed cowboy hats for sale, just as he has every year since 1979.

“Black is still my No. 1 seller,” he said, adding that year’s numbers were about the same as last year’s.

Veronica Ambriz of Ambriz Jewelry in Fredericksburg said she and her husband sold “lots and lots” of necklaces at what is typically their last event of the season after months on the road.

“We’re like marathon runners. We start our season at Frontier Days in Cheyenne in July,” she said. Then they wind through the country, with stops at rodeos and fairs all across the Midwest.

“But you know Houston is our favorite – it’s the biggest and the best.”


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