The Oklahoma Eagle Newswire



Okmulgee, Okla. – The 65th annual Okmulgee Roy LeBlanc Invitational Rodeo, the nation’s oldest all-black professional rodeo event, has announced plans to proceed with staging this year’s program in August as it considers different scenarios related to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Co-owner Kenneth LeBlanc said the two biggest issues unresolved are if they will be able to attract enough contestants to compete in the two-day event – that is sanctioned by the 35-year-old Bill Pickett Invitation Rodeo Associated (BPIR) – and will they open it to spectators at the Bob Arrington Arena. Oklahoma is among the early states that lifted social distancing restrictions implement to address COVID-19.

LeBlanc said he hopes by the time the rodeo’s Aug 7-8 date arrives that restrictions will have been removed to allow spectators to attend sporting events. Until a decision is made on laxing social distancing rules, LeBlanc said he is preparing different scenarios to prevent the historic event – which almost doubles the city’s 12,000 population and sells out hotels in nearby towns – from shutting down.

“I’m trying to figure out what we will be able to do, and what’s it’s going to consist of before I start contacting to get sponsors,” said LeBlanc, who runs the rodeo with his brother, Charles, a two-time winner of the International Professional Rodeo Association World Steer Wrestling Championship.

The LeBlancs are working with both the Muscogee Creek Nation, which provides the venue, and the city of Okmulgee, which one of their main sponsors, to keep the planning on course.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s BPIR canceled its 2020 tour scheduled for Atlanta, Los Angeles, Memphis, Oakland and Upper Marlboro/Washington, D.C., according to a statement from its CEO and president Valeria Howard Cunningham.

But this has not stopped the LeBlancs from proceeding with the rodeo founded in 1955 and that originally began with both black and white participants.

Kenneth LeBlanc said African American cowboys and cowgirls, including some of the country’s top performers, have told them they are coming to Okmulgee as long as the rodeo is a go. He said they are expecting as many as 250 participants to compete in their eight events. They will compete for a purse totaling $6,000.

“The cowboys, they can’t wait,” he said. “They want to come.”

LeBlanc, 67, said they will likely adopt similar strategies being used at other sporting events – including NASCAR, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, World Wrestling Entertainment, professional golf – that are holding events without spectators, for now.

But the biggest issues yet to be resolved is if spectators will be allowed to attend the two-day rodeo held at the Bob Arrington Arena. He said preliminary plans are to allow spectators and adopt social distance practices.

While the rodeo is a break-even operation, LeBlanc said they rely on sponsors, paying spectators, vendors and the participants to help pay for their operating budget. They are working with the livestock contractor to bring in animals for the events.

He said the rodeo is a popular summer destination, so they are working to make it happen. “Fifty percent of our spectators are from out-of-state,” LeBlanc said.

He has been fielding calls from spectators from Nebraska and Michigan who plan their summer vacations around the rodeo.

If spectators are not permitted, the rodeo will use technology similarly used at other rodeo events. LeBlanc said participants will use an app to pay their fees, will receive electronic schedules for their events, being able pull up to the arena, unload their horse, run their race, reload and leave.

“If they score the best time, their winnings will be automatically paid,” he said.

The rodeo is working with filmmaker Charles Perry, whose is working on a documentary “The Black Cowboy,” to live stream online all the rodeo events.

The next steps are to meet with Creek and Okmulgee officials with hopes to make a final decision later this month. But LeBlanc said organizers are considering every options.

“We’re trying to keep the tradition alive,” he said. “The tradition has turned into a legend.”