Lincoln Prepares to Host National High School Finals Rodeo

July 16, 2021, 7 a.m. ·

photo of grand stand arena
There are four arenas hosting the event. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Starting Sunday, July 18, the National High School Finals Rodeo will be in Lincoln at the Lancaster Event Center. Over 1,600 cowboys and cowgirls from 44 states, provinces and countries, including Canada and Mexico, will be a part of the competition.

Employees from the NRS, a retailer that sells all things Western, and longtime sponsor of the high school rodeo finals, set up a metal wire wall to display with over 700 cowboy hats. Brian McNamee works in marketing for the company and said with over 5,000 square feet of booth space, they’re excited to sell their gear during the trade show part of the rodeo. They brought a 50x50 foot semi trailer loaded with ropes, boots, jeans and more to sell.

"I know that there are businesses in here that will do around a quarter of a million dollars in 10 days, so it's well worth it," he said

McNamee said his team looks forward to meeting new Nebraska customers and enjoying the city.

employees set up a metal wire wall
National Roper's Supply (NRS) is a store that sells all things western, based in Decatur, Texas. Employees will be staying at the event center for 13 nights. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

James Higginbotham is the rodeo association’s executive director and said there will be about 12,000 visitors each day, with over 2,000 horses, 1,300 cattle and over 1,000 campsites for the competitors. With an event this large, there have been a few logistical issues, but Higginbotham isn’t worried.

"I found that the Nebraska people to be very willing to do whatever it takes to get an event done," he said.

Nebraskans are determined to make the event a success, sparing no expense. The rodeo will bring in over $16 million dollars in economic impact. According to event center managers, that's about four Husker football weekends,

The new metal grandstand at the Lancaster Event Center holds up to 5,000 people, with a view of multiple rodeo arenas, and acres of campsites. The 1,600 high school cowboys and cowgirls would usually compete in Wyoming, so this is Lincoln’s first time hosting the event after a year-long bid process back in 2016, which led to some facility improvements, including the grandstand.

Amy Dickerson manages the event center and said they spent over $7 million from Lancaster County lodging taxes, and private partners to meet rodeo requirements, including a covered grandstand and additional 1,000 campsites.

"It was kind of a chicken and the egg. We didn't have the money in hand, but we also didn't have the rodeo crowd contract in hand," she said. "And so we went to our county board and said 'Listen, would you give us an agreement that says if the rodeo will sign their contract that we will commit the lodging tax revenues necessary to make the improvements so that we have the facility needed for them."

James Higginbotham, executive director for the National High School Rodeo poses for a photo
James Higginbotham, is the executive director for the National High School Rodeo Finals. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

They agreed and Lincoln won the bid to host for 2020 and 2021, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city wasn’t able to host last year. Dickerson said the pandemic also added other issues, from finding new employees and working with higher prices to finding short supply items like wood.

"On top of coming out of a pandemic, and having to re-hire people and train them and and then dealing with all these supply issues.. It's quite a challenge, honestly," she said.

But the biggest issue was the storms from last weekend. Dickerson said a mini tornado hit the grounds right as they were finishing setting up the horse stalls outside. The 100-mile-per-hour winds did significant damage.

"There are huge tents, 82 feet wide by 262 feet long, holding 144 stalls, each four of those, and we lost three of them," she said. "So we have been scrambling, as well as some other stalls and smaller setups were damaged. And we've been scrambling over the last couple days to get that all cleaned up."

Business Development Manager Hoyt Kraeger with the event center said volunteers have since been able to put up the stalls, but need more help.

"We're going 100 miles an hour with our hair on fire. I mean, there's just lots of stuff going on. Lots of the final pieces getting put together," he said. "But it's just part of hosting these large events that you've got to gather, regroup and and keep moving forward because the events still going to take place. We're still going to host a great national finals."

photo of butcher shop entrance that says "Mercato"
The Mercato butcher shop opened in August 2020, a few blocks down the Lancaster Event Center (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Local businesses nearby like Certified Piedmontese Beef are thankful to gain some new customers next week. The Nebraska beef company opened their butcher shop and restaurant last year in the thick of the pandemic. Marketing manager Ben Mohl said they feel lucky to be a few blocks down from the event center.

"Having such a huge event center, with these huge shows, only is going to organically help our business," he said. "The fact that we own a cattle company, we raise and produce beef, ranchers and rodeo life, and these are our people, I mean, from all across the state in the country, come in here and be able to serve beef to these folks. I mean, it feels very symbiotic."

Mohl said they’ll be smoking pulled chuck roast and baking bread throughout next week, plus they have over 300 pounds of meat ready to sell.

"We really hope our community is aware of this event," Jeff Maul said. He's the executive director of Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He said the bureau expects visitors from the rodeo to fully engage with the community, dine out, visit bars, shop at local stores and more. It’s a much-needed economic boost for the city since the COVID-19 shutdown.

"I think they're going to see a lot of belt buckles and cowboy hats and cowgirl hats in the next few days," he said.

But the lasting value of the event, Maul said, is reminding visitors what a great destination Lincoln is.