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Professional sports, including football, baseball, basketball have all been trying to figure out how to play during the pandemic, some with more success than others. College sports have also been trying to figure out how to compete or whether to compete. That includes college rodeo. As Becca Costello of NET Nebraska reports, about 3,500 student athletes who are used to chutes, ropes and the backs of bucking broncos are facing uncertainty, too.
BECCA COSTELLO, BYLINE: For athletes like college freshman Gauge McBride, rodeo tends to be a lifelong passion.
GAUGE MCBRIDE: In my opinion, it's probably the greatest sport on earth.
COSTELLO: McBride grew up in central Nebraska, competing in rodeos all over the state. His events are bull riding, bronc riding and bareback riding - basically, trying to stay on the back of an animal doing its very best to throw you to the ground. He says every rodeo feels like an adventure.
MCBRIDE: Just the adrenaline rush from the horses and everything going on, fans in the stands and...
COSTELLO: But he hasn't experienced that full rodeo atmosphere in a while. His last year of high school rodeo was mostly cancelled in the spring. And the events over the summer have been pretty different.
MCBRIDE: They got this huge grandstands and all that. And, like, just with nobody in it, it doesn't feel the same. It's real quiet. They still play music and stuff. But, I mean, it's just you and the other riders there.
COSTELLO: McBride is hoping for a few more fans when he competes in college this fall. He ended up heading south to Panola College in Carthage, Texas.
A quiet arena isn't just eerie. It's a financial challenge, too. Garrett Nokes coaches rodeo for Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte, Neb. He's really grateful to the colleges willing to risk hosting a rodeo this fall.
GARRETT NOKES: A rodeo with no spectators is awful hard to put on. I mean, it's less appealing to sponsors to sponsor a rodeo that doesn't have spectators. So you lose sponsor money. And then on the other end of it, you lose that money that the spectators would pay to come.
COSTELLO: Rodeo isn't cheap. And this year's revenue, if there is any, will fund next year's scholarships. Four of the 11 regions in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association canceled their fall events altogether, hoping to make up those rodeos in the second half of the season in the spring. Director of public relations Sarah Neely says the other seven regions in the country are forging ahead.
SARAH NEELY: Some are operating without fans completely. Some are 50% capacity. Some are parents and contestants only.
COSTELLO: The NIRA has just three total staff members coordinating all those safety precautions.
NEELY: To think that we are able to sanction any rodeos and have memberships coming through the door, it's just been miraculous. And hopefully spring will come through, too, and we'll be able to limp along. And, you know, in the next few years, we'll rebuild.
COSTELLO: For some programs, it's already too late.
LAURISSA WILSON: We had four rodeos in the spring. And all of them got canceled.
COSTELLO: Laurissa Wilson, who's training her horse at a local arena, has a rodeo scholarship at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb. She competed in barrel racing in the program's first ever season last year, which got cut short by the virus. The pandemic hit the college budget pretty hard. Earlier this summer, they decided to cut the rodeo program entirely.
WILSON: I was shocked. I felt like I didn't know what to do. My mind was all over the place. Like, do I hurry up and transfer?
COSTELLO: Wilson is staying at Northeast this semester because she already paid for tuition. But rodeo is too important to her to give up on it. Soon, she'll transfer to Eastern Wyoming College so she can keep competing. She says she'll miss her old team.
WILSON: They were family. It's kind of hard. But, I mean, once I go to a different school, it'll be a new family.
COSTELLO: For NPR News, I'm Becca Costello in Lincoln, Neb.
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