American Royal Rodeo downsizes from Sprint Center to Hale Arena

After a one-year tryout at the Sprint Center in 2011, the American Royal Rodeo is headed back to the West Bottoms this fall.

But not to aging Kemper Arena, its home for four decades. Instead this year’s event will be in far smaller Hale Arena.

In fact, in many ways it will be a much different rodeo from the one we’ve grown used to.

Instead of the 18,000 seats at Kemper Arena, it will play before fewer than 3,000 at Hale.

Gone too will be the concerts by big-name musical performers such as last year’s main headliner, Reba McEntire, who drew more than 10,000 of the 17,870 people who attended the four rodeo performances at the Sprint Center.

Instead, local and regional bands, yet to be named, will play before and after the bronco busting and calf roping this year.

To some, this might seem like both a major retrenchment by the organization and further bad news for Kemper’s sinking fortunes. Yet American Royal officials deny the first contention even as they and others concede the latter about Kemper’s slide.

“We really think a rodeo fits best in the West Bottoms,” American Royal President Bob Petersen said, but that wasn’t the only reason for the switch. “It was really just a confluence of factors.”

Although American Royal officials claimed the Sprint Center event last year was “the best rodeo Kansas City has ever seen,” scheduling and logistical issues came into play this year.

One of the biggest impediments was a conflict over dates at the Sprint Center that forced the American Royal to look for other options.

“I think they were kind of up against the wall,” said Oscar McGaskey, director of the city convention and entertainment facilities.

For many years, the rodeo has been held in late October, but that wouldn’t have been possible in 2012, Sprint Center general manager Brenda Tinnen said.

“The Red Hot Chili Peppers have had that date (Oct. 27) on hold for quite a while,” she said. Madonna arrives a few days later.

Another consideration is the rodeo calendar. For as far back as officials of the horse and livestock organization can remember, the American Royal was one of the last big rodeos of the season before the national finals in Las Vegas. Then in 2007, the finals were pushed back a month, making the American Royal less attractive to the sport’s biggest stars. The move to the Sprint Center was one attempt to boost the rodeo’s prominence once again.

But that, too, produced mixed results. While McIntyre drew a big but less-than-a-sellout crowd Saturday night, the Saturday matinee and Thursday and Friday evening concerts by Pat Green and Lynyrd Skynyrd were sparsely attended.

“We didn’t meet expectations,” Petersen said at the time.

Rodeo performers weren’t entirely pleased, either, with parking their trailers downtown and having to shuttle back and forth between the Sprint Center and qualifying events in the West Bottoms.

“So all things being equal, we decided to bring it back home,” Royal Chairman Brant Laue said.

The rodeo is now planned for Sept. 27-29, which will once again make Kansas City the last major stop on the rodeo circuit before the finals. Another hope is the date change will create more public interest by compressing events. The American Royal parade downtown is also set for that weekend, while the Royal’s World Series of Barbecue is set for the weekend after that.

One reason for the switch to the Sprint Center was that major musical acts aren’t interested in playing Kemper Arena anymore. That’s resulted in a precipitous decline in overall use of a facility that runs a million-dollar deficit each year.

The Royal’s decision to quit staging top-flight concerts only adds to the nearly 300 days a year the arena stays dark, but Laue said concerts are not the organization’s priority.

“In the end, our preference is on putting on good rodeos,” he said.

The American Royal still uses city-owned Kemper for some of its horse shows, but only because of the need for more floor space than Hale Arena has.

What the organization would prefer, instead, is to knock down Kemper and replace it with a 5,000-seat equestrian center that would suit its needs.

But that $70 million project remains unfunded other than a promise by bankers R. Crosby Kemper Jr. and Mariner Kemper to raise $10 million toward the cost. The family remains committed to doing that, Mariner Kemper said last week, but before moving ahead it is awaiting the completion of a new economic impact statement expected next month, as well as more discussions with the city.

So far, City Hall has neither committed to the project nor decided on the fate of Kemper. In the short term, city officials are considering whether to renew AEG’s management contract at the end of the year, or possibly take over that responsibility.

“We’re exploring our options,” McGaskey said.