The Lancaster Event Center has landed one of the country’s largest rodeos — the National High School Finals — bringing 1,700 teenage cowboys and cowgirls to Lincoln in July of 2020, 2021, 2026 and 2027.
Each seven-day rodeo is expected to draw 50,000 visitors and competitors from more than 40 states, Canada and Australia, competing in 13 events, from bull riding to barrel racing, pole bending to goat tying.
Each rodeo is expected to generate an estimated economic impact of $16 million in Lincoln alone, according to a press release from the Event Center. And each will be bigger than anything the 16-year-old center at 84th Street and Havelock Avenue has hosted before, director Amy Dickerson said Monday.
Monday’s announcement marks the culmination of nearly a year of work by the Event Center, the Lancaster County Agricultural Society and the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, she said.
The National High School Finals Rodeo asked for proposals in January 2016, and the Event Center’s staff got busy, putting together a 47-page pitch touting Lincoln's central location and the center's amenities.
In July, Lincoln was selected as a finalist along with the Wyoming cities of Rock Springs and Gillette, which have taken turns hosting the event for the past nine years. Then, in October, National High School Rodeo Association executive director James Higginbotham visited Lincoln.
And last week, Dickerson, two of her staff and a representative from the Convention and Visitors Bureau traveled to Phoenix to make their final presentation, which included a video message from Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The association’s 45-member board of directors voted unanimously Saturday to make Lincoln its host city in 2020 and 2121, according to the Event Center’s press release. A second vote gave Lincoln the event in 2026 and 2027.
Higginbotham declined to elaborate on the selection process, saying he couldn't comment until the association and the Event Center signed a contract.
The center’s work isn’t over, Dickerson said. It’s planning about $3 million in improvements, including adding a 3,400-seat covered grandstand to an outdoor arena and building 1,000 more campsites with water and electrical hookups.
The Lancaster County Board had approved releasing lodging tax proceeds — formally known as the Lancaster County Visitors Improvement Fund — to pay for the upgrades, if the Event Center signed a contract with the rodeo group, Dickerson said.
The Finals Rodeo is smaller but similar to other national sporting events Lincoln has hosted. For comparison, the State Games of America and the National Special Olympics brought with them economic impacts of $25 million to $30 million, said Jeff Maul, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But the rodeo will bring athletes from around the country who wouldn’t otherwise visit.
“We’re excited for that,” Maul said. “It’s a chance to introduce Lincoln to a new audience.”