‘It’s a Big Damn Deal’: 100 Years of Reno Rodeo

When the “Wildest, Richest, Rodeo in the West” kicks off this month it will mark a major milestone in Reno history. The Reno Rodeo is celebrating 100 years of bronc riding, bucking bulls, roping, and racing in the Biggest Little City. Reno may have made its name on gambling and divorce, but its western heritage runs deep. This year, Reno Rodeo officials are honoring that history and hoping to keep the annual event alive for another 100 years.  

Before the casinos, Reno was a scrappy railroad town where miners and buckaroos mingled. The city held its first rodeo – the Nevada Round-Up – over Fourth of July weekend in 1919. “The first three years were very successful,” says Mike Torvinen, current Reno Rodeo President. “Then in 1922 they got very exuberant and lost a bunch of money and weren’t able to hold the event again until the 1930s.”

When the rodeo did come back to Reno in 1932 it rebranded as Pony Express Days – a 3-day event that drew more than 10,000 fans. A rodeo has been held since then under various names. In the 1940s it was billed as the Reno War Relief Rodeo. It was briefly called the Nevada High Roller Round-up in the early 1980s. But the name that has stuck is the Reno Rodeo.

Saddle Bronc at the Reno Rodeo. Photo by James Crawshaw.

Despite its choppy origins, the Reno Rodeo has grown into a major event and a staple in the community. Today the Reno Rodeo is a 10-day PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) sanctioned event with a non-profit made up of hundreds of volunteers. The event is a boon for the city, drawing more than 140,000 attendees and contributing more than $50 million dollars to the Reno and Sparks area economy.

The Reno Rodeo may not be the oldest or largest rodeo in the country, but it holds its own on the circuit. “We’re top 10 for sure and a must stop on the tour for rodeo cowboys,” says Torvinen. Nevada has always bucked the trends and the Reno Rodeo is no different. “We give our champion cowboys and cowgirls a pair of spurs as opposed to a buckle,” says Torvinen. “They’re coveted. It’s one of those bucket list things. Guys want to have a pair of Reno Rodeo spurs.”

This year the Reno Rodeo is pulling out all the stops to celebrate 100 years. The months preceding the rodeo have been filled with special events designed to drum up excitement, including lectures, concerts, art projects, and more. It’s working. “People can’t wait to come to the rodeo,” says Torvinen. “Our sponsorships have grown. Our ticket sales are through the roof. We’ve sold twice as many commemorative buckles this year. We have tremendous support from the community.”

Barrel Racer Tammy Fischer at the Reno Rodeo. Photo by James Crawshaw.

While the Reno Rodeo is celebrating its history and success, officials are worried about the future. The rodeo has outgrown its home at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center. “The facilities are run down,” says Torvinen. “It’s really limiting us on all levels from ticket sales to sponsorship sales to the things we can do in the arena to events we could sponsor.” The 39-acre agricultural complex just east of the University of Nevada, Reno has hosted the Reno Rodeo for decades but is beginning to show its age.

Many of the buildings are in desperate need of a facelift or repair, but the financial estimates are daunting. This past winter the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA), who manages the facility, voted to demolish two buildings on the site citing prohibitive repair costs. Some estimates put the deferred maintenance costs at more than $16 million dollars. But where would that money come from?

The Livestock Events Center has complicated ownership. The state-owned property is leased to Washoe County and managed by the RSCVA. So far none of those agencies have been willing to pony up the funds to revitalize the facility. The Reno Rodeo is not the only user of the Livestock Events Center, but they are the biggest and most demanding. Rodeo officials say the responsibility for maintenance shouldn’t fall on them. Nonetheless, they have come up with an ambitious plan.      

“Even though we’ve only got the grounds for three weeks out of the year, if we want to have a home, we better get a facility that serves year-round so it can be self-sustaining,” says Clint Thiesse, a Reno Rodeo Past President and Chairman of the Legacy Committee. The Reno Rodeo formed a Legacy Committee back in 2007 to ensure the future of the rodeo. An essential component of that is an entirely new livestock facility.

rendering of proposed new reno rodeo arena
Rendering of the proposed new facility at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Event Center. Courtesy Reno Rodeo.

The Legacy Committee’s plan envisions a new 52,000 square foot exhibition hall to replace the current 20,000 square foot exhibit area. It also calls for a new 72,000 square foot indoor arena, a parking garage with up to 1,600 horse stalls on the ground level and 2,400 parking spaces on three levels above, and a 100,000 square foot vendor plaza and carnival area. The pièce de résistance would be a state of the art 15,000 seating capacity outdoor arena that would nearly double the capacity of the existing arena.

The new facility would allow the Reno Rodeo to keep growing, but officials aren’t just thinking about themselves. They say the new facility would benefit the city as a whole. “Everything we have on our plan is really an essential piece to get larger equestrian events here,” says Thiesse. “That’s what the grounds are supposed to be for – an ag-based event center and we’re trying to maintain that.”

Las Vegas regularly attracts huge national and international horse shows and events, bringing in millions of dollars to the city. Reno Rodeo officials think Reno could attract some of those organizations too if they had better facilities to offer. “We would compete very well with a lot of those events that go down there and a lot of events that don’t want to go to Las Vegas that would want to come here,” says Torvinen.

Rendering of the proposed new outdoor arena at the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center. Courtesy Reno Rodeo.

As with most things, money is the biggest challenge to the Legacy Committee’s plan. Torvinen and Thiesse both went to the Nevada Legislature repeatedly this session to try to solicit support. They even had a bill – SB 466 – that would appropriate $1.5 million dollars for planning and design for the Livestock Events Center project. “A million and a half dollars, although a sizeable amount of money, is budget dust compared to when you look at the entire state project,” says Torvinen.   

SB466 was introduced and referred to the Committee on Finance but the Legislative session ended without any further action taken. Torvinen says they will continue to push the state to help finance the project. “We truly believe in our heart that people will come. If we build it, people will come,” he says. “We have a good facility that’s been used well but used a lot, that needs to be revitalized and rehabbed. We’d really like you, state who owns the land, to help us move forward in this.”

[Ed. A separate bill, SB501, which appropriates $1 million from the State General Fund for the Reno Rodeo to conduct advance planning and design, did pass in the Legislature. Torvinen calls it “a huge vote of confidence from the Legislature and the Governor.”]

Torvinen says they are also open to other options, including the possibility of moving the Reno Rodeo to an entirely new location. “We could pick up what we’ve designed here and put it virtually anywhere if somebody brokers that deal and makes that happen,” he says. At one point, they even had a potential plan for Wildcreek Golf Course, before the Washoe County School District got the land to build a new high school. Ultimately the preference is to stay put. “We finally got to the point where we said let’s quit that, let’s figure it out here,” says Torvinen.

Carrying the flag at the Reno Rodeo. Photo by James Crawshaw.

Thiesse says he isn’t giving up on the legacy project either. “As Reno has grown and we’re getting more urbanized, our fan base has also grown surprisingly,” he says. “The citizens of Reno really like Reno Rodeo. There’s a lot of people that have been putting a lot of time and effort into this. We’re all working toward the same goal.”

For now, the next 100 years will have to wait. Torvinen and Thiesse have to turn their attention to this year’s rodeo, which begins next week. It’s been a flurry of activity behind the scenes preparing for the influx of horses, cowboys, cattle, and spectators. “We have 50+ committees that are responsible for various aspects of the rodeo all year long and during those 10 days,” says Torvinen. “It’s a great privilege to be the president and see the dedication and hard work that goes into making it happen. It’s a big damn deal!”

For more information on the Reno Rodeo visit www.renorodeo.com.