There’s growing corporate sponsorship in the world of rodeo — but not the typical rodeo most Americans envision. No, these rodeos are just a bit different.
Ahh, rodea, the heritage of the great American West: livestock, cowboys, patriotism and ... drag queens?
“Why are you shocked?” asked Denver-based businessman John Beck. “We all have to work together, we have to live on this earth together, right?”
For Beck, gay rodeo isn’t simply a hobby. It’s part of daily life.
“On average, there are 23 rodeos on the circuit,” he said. ”“In the last few years, I’ve done 15 to 18 of them.”
Beck was among the competitors vying for cash prizes at the 17th annual International Gay Rodeo Association U.S. finals recently held here in Tulsa.
At a gay rodeo, you’ll find everything from bronc riding and calf roping to steer riding and goat dressing. And you’ll find some things you won’t see at other rodeos.
“The demographics of the folks who come here is really across the gamut,” said Tom Sheridan, whose day job is with Ford Credit in Nashville, Tenn.
“From those born and raised with livestock — pure country — to people looking for camraderie, friends,” he said. “It’s a great environment to do that. Folks are easy to be with, friendly.”
Corporate America is growing increasingly friendly as well. The spirits industry is here, as are automakers and automakers, some of whom sponsor their own employees.
By far, though, the biggest presence at gay rodeos is brewer Anheuser-Busch and its Bud-Lite brand. Anheuser pays a reported $6,500 per rodeo for official sponsor status.
We don’t know why, but Anheuser executives refused CNBC’s repeated requests to speak about the company’s involvment with gay rodeo.
But American Airlines did talk. American is the official air carrier for the rodeo.
“Lots of research has shown that gay, lesbian, bi- and transgender customers do have expendable income,” said Robbin Burr, national sales manager with the airline. “They like to travel, and in premium class. So it’s a good market for American Airlines.”
If corporate America has discovered the economic clout of gay rodeo, it should come as no surprise. Though the demographics of gay peole here are decidedly mixed, one thing unites people. If you want to compete in gay rodeo, you’re going to spend some money.
“I would say on average most of the competitors probably spend upwards of $1,500 to $2,000,” said Sonny Koerner. “The number of events you do has a lot to do with it.”
Koerner, 36, visits 18 rodeos a year and won the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association’s Mr. ASGRA title in 2000. He participates in 8 of 13 events — from bull riding to steer riding. But so far he’s has escaped serious injury.
“Well, knock on wood,” he said. “I’ve had a few minor things here and there. And always a healthy respect for the animal.”
What does Koerner think of the big companies who are now buying their way into the non-profit gay rodeo circuit?
“I think it’s long overdue,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that the gay community has pretty decent expendable income, and they’re an active community into all sorts of things. What goes around comes around, and I think sponsors we’ve had in the past realize that.”
Besides travel and hotel and food, there are entry fees and training costs, equipment and insurance. Rodeo fans can also spend lots of money too — on everything from hats and shirts to wall hangings and furniture.
For entrants, the appeal is simple.
“For the sport of it,” said Beck. “I was born on a horse. I’ll probably die on one.”
The International Gay Rodeo Association is now the second largest producer of rodeo events in the world — some 28 states, in Canada and, soon, in Germany. By the way, the drag queen contingent is highly valued in rodeo. They’re known as “royalty.”
And they’re in charge of fundraising.