Jeff Robson with the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. Rodeo Week rides into Edmonton on November 9-13 this year. Today Northlands previewed this year's Canadian Finals Rodeo, Farmfair International and Rodeo Week. SHAUGHN BUTTS / EDMONTON JOURNAL
Stetson Vest is a cowboy, not a must-have piece of rodeo attire.
That handy nugget should help you avoid embarrassment at the merchandise booth as the Canadian Finals Rodeo sets up shop inside Northlands Coliseum this week.
Yes, CFR 43 is a go, and that’s probably the most important thing to know right off the top, since you might not otherwise mosey on over to Northlands on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday night at 7:30 p.m., or Saturday or Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. It is the other arena in town now, after all.
And with all the recent hoo-haw over the CFR’s future, some folks might not have been sure this year’s edition was still being staged at the Coliseum.
But the diehards are definitely on board.
“Judging from ticket sales, it doesn’t look like there was confusion,” said Jeff Robson, a former CFR competitor now working as a consultant for the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. “Sales are healthy. When I checked the stats a week ago, most nights were up slightly over last year and that’s positive.”
In 2015, the six CFR performances drew a total of 89,177 fans, down from 90,049 in 2014 and well off the record crowd of 95,552 set in 2006.
But if attendance numbers for Friday are up, the CPRA will be particularly happy, since the CFR’s third go-round will go head-to-head with the Oilers, who host the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place that night, starting at 7 p.m. When the Oilers called the Coliseum home, they were naturally out of town during rodeo week.
The Oilers also meet the New York Rangers here on Sunday, but by the time they hit the ice at 7:30 p.m., CFR 43 will be in the history books. So too the Canadian Football League’s Eastern semifinal, which pits the Eskimos against the Ticats in Hamilton at 11 a.m.
It’s a busy weekend, and there is new competition for the entertainment dollar at this time of year, but the CFR has its rightful place in Edmonton’s sports scene.
“It’s clear that people like the rodeo here,” said Robson. “We have a long history of six-pack ticket holders and they’re a loyal following. I think most of the feedback we have received is very positive.”
Cracking that 90,000 mark again would be another positive sign for an association that was fractured during a lengthy, bitter fight over the future look, feel and home of the CFR. In rodeo, successful rides last eight seconds. This one went the full eight months.
Though it ended successfully, with the CFR back in the saddle in Edmonton through 2018, it was anything but a smooth trip. The CFR was tossed around like a greenhorn atop the meanest beast in captivity. It was headed to Rogers Place for 2017 and beyond, until the cowboys rejected an offer from the Oilers Entertainment Group. Then it was up for grabs on the open market, and nobody in Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg or any other Canadian locale grabbed for it. Then it was off to Saskatoon for 2017 through 2019, except it never actually arrived. In October, a two-year extension of the CPRA’s deal with Northlands was announced.
Throughout the ordeal, the CFR brand had taken a serious bashing, as the CPRA’s divided board of directors jockeyed for control of the association and its premier product.
That fight is behind them now — the president quit, the GM was fired and five directors resigned in protest — and all have been replaced either permanently or temporarily. But there are still steps to be taken to undo the damage, which includes finding a better long-term home for the CFR. The CPRA clearly hopes that home will be Rogers Place.
“I wouldn’t call us out of the woods yet,” said Robson. “Our board is working collaboratively together to try and move a bunch of things forward.”
He met with members of the OEG on the day the two-year extension at Northlands was announced, but progress on that front, if there is to be any, will come slowly.
“I would describe it as baby steps, one foot in front of the other, let’s kind of start over and see if we can’t make this make sense and do what’s right for Edmontonians,” said Robson.
Northlands has promoted CFR 43 with the catchphrase No time to rest, when it’s best against best. And sure enough, from saddle bronc rider Audy Reed to bull rider Zane Lambert, the usual roundup of Canada’s best, tough-as-nails competitors will compete for money and applause in 10 events, including barrel racing and steer riding. The purse is $1,594,750, an increase of $5,000 over last year’s prize money.
“We’ve always had a focus on putting together the best CFR, as we have the last 42 years,” said Northlands public relations manager Lori Cote, when asked if it was a challenge to promote this event, given all that was happening to the CPRA. “We want to keep it going, like we do every year. We want to provide the best bang for everybody’s buck.”