The Lancaster Event Center (LEC) in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been selected to host a second rotation of the National High School Finals Rodeo (NHSFR) in 2026 and 2027. The National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) board of national directors voted unanimously to return to Lincoln on Saturday morning at their Mid-Winter Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The event has rotated the past eleven years between the Wyoming communities of Gillette and Rock Springs and in 2017 Lincoln was selected to be a third location to host in July 2020 and July 2021 with a possibility to earn a permanent rotation of the event every two of six years. Lincoln’s selection to host again in 2026 and 2027 is pending successful final contract negotiation over the next 45 days.
In the same vote, the 50-person NHSRA board representing 43 USA states, 5 Canadian provinces, Australia and Mexico also chose a new proposed facility planning to start construction later this year in the Kansas City, KS area. The American Royal organization is scheduled to host the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in 2026/2027 and the National High School Finals Rodeo in 2028/2029 contingent on meeting construction progress deadlines by 2022.
The long-time High Schools Rodeo incumbent Gillette, WY Cam-Plex facility won the bid for the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in 2028/29. Other bidders included incumbents from Huron, SD who hosted their first Junior High Finals in 2019 and Rock Springs, WY which is hosting the High School Finals for the sixth time in 2020, neither of which were included in the 2026-2029 rotations.
“Nebraska’s central location and the Lancaster Event Center’s master plan to add indoor arena space were the key factors in the decision to bring the finals again to Lincoln in 2026/2027,” said Tricia Schaffer, NHSRA national director for state of Nebraska who is based out of North Platte. “Each year our association votes more strongly to choose facilities that offer our 1,700 contestants the best once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete, without the factor of weather, throughout the 13 performances.”
The NHSFR is the world’s largest rodeo from a contestant standpoint with 1,700 high school rodeo athletes competing in 13 rodeo specialties and two shooting competitions. Each of the fifty states, provinces and countries send its top four qualifiers in each specialty. Contestants travel in mid-July each year to the NHSFR with their extended families and the rodeo is estimated to bring nearly 50,000 visitors to Lincoln with many staying multiple days.
“Winning the bid not only once but now twice for the NHSFR is thrilling! It shows the confidence this huge youth organization has in Lancaster Event Center and our city/county to be ready by July 2020,” said Kendra Ronnau, Lancaster County Agricultural Society vice president. “I feel the LEC is breathing new life into a county that has been heavily burdened with property taxes–having so many outside visitors come in will generate lots of outside sales tax dollars and local business income. It’s going to be time to go buy those boots and cowboy hat—we’ve got the largest all-youth rodeo coming to town!”
The 13 NHSFR rodeo specialties are Bull Riding, Bareback Riding, Saddle Bronc Riding, Tie-down Roping, Breakaway Roping, Steer Wrestling, Goat Tying, Pole Bending, Barrel Racing, Boys Cutting, Girls Cutting, Reined Cow Horse and a Queen Contest. The two shooting competitions are Trap Shoot and Light Rifle.
The High School Rodeo World Champions in each specialty will be crowned after 13 rodeo performances which will be open to the public over seven days at the Lancaster Event Center and shooting facilities nearby.
Over 10,000 Lancaster County residents are projected to take the opportunity to watch some of the next stars of rodeo right in Lincoln. In the recent 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo run by Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) in Las Vegas 104 of 120 total contestants were NHSFR alumni. The most recent NHSRA alumni were from 2016 including brothers Ryder Wright, 2017 NFR World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider, and Rusty Wright, multiple time NFR qualifier in saddle bronc riding, as well as Jess Lockwood is back at the top of the PBR World Standings after winning the 2017 world title in bull riding.
“The City of Lincoln is excited that the National High School Finals Rodeo will return to Lincoln in 2026 and 2027. Lincoln has a growing reputation as a great city to visit, one that combines big-city dining, shopping and attractions with small-town friendliness and convenience,” said Mayor Chris Beutler upon hearing the news. “We look forward to giving another warm welcome to the 50,000 rodeo visitors and to offering area residents the opportunity to see top-notch high school rodeo competition.”
Past economic impact studies show the NHSFR brings millions of dollars of economic impact to the immediate host community and surrounding area. The rest of the state of Nebraska will also benefit as families drive to and from Lincoln.
“Extrapolating from the recent NHSRA economic study for the Des Moines Junior High School Finals Rodeo, this impact should be $16 million per year for the Lincoln area alone,” said Dr. Eric Thompson, UNL professor of economics and director of the Bureau of Business Research. This added impact to Lancaster County from the NHSFR coming to Lincoln would be on top of the annual $40 million and growing economic impact recently measured in an economic impact study by Dr. Thompson for all 322 events at the Lancaster Event Center.
Overall Lincoln and Lancaster County stand to benefit a total of $64 million over the four years of the NHSFR with added impact statewide. Local businesses and government entities will feel the impact of this event ranging from sales at hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery and variety of retail stores, RV services, and attractions to the collection of state and local sales, lodging and other taxes.
Representing Lincoln and the Lancaster Event Center in the final presentations in Salt Lake City with approximately 250 NHSRA staff, board directors and state association adult and student athlete officers and representatives from across the USA, Canada and Mexico last week were Amy Dickerson (Managing Director, Lancaster Event Center), Derek Bombeck, (Sales Development Manager, Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau), Chas Skillett (Operations Manager & Arena Director, Lancaster Event Center), and Hoyt Kraeger (Special Events & Business Development, Lancaster Event Center). The team spent several days in Salt Lake
City interacting with the 50 voting NHSRA directors to answer their questions on next year’s first rodeo in Lincoln and the 2026/27 bid.
The NHSRA attendees really appreciated the unique expertise that Skillett and Kraeger brought to the Lincoln bid team vs. other teams present as both are NHSFR alums. Skillett competed at the NHSFR in 2001 held at Springfield, IL in bull riding while Kraeger competed in saddle bronc riding in 2011 at the NHSFR held in Gillette, WY. In addition, this second NHSRA vote to select Lincoln follows over 14 visits by Lancaster Event Center staff to National High School and Junior High Rodeos since 2016 in Gillette & Rock Springs, WY and Huron, SD as well as Mid-Winter Meetings in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.
The Lincoln site has been visited multiple times by the NHSRA Executive Director, James Higginbotham, of Denver, Colorado, and recently in October 2018 the entire Executive Committee visited LEC and Lincoln along with added NHSRA office staff. This visit was hosted by representatives from the Lancaster Event Center, Lancaster County Agricultural Society board members, Lancaster County Commissioners Todd Wiltgen and Roma Amundson, Mayor Chris Beutler, Jeff Maul from the Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau, Tiffany Heng-Moss, Dean of the University of Nebraska College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the University of Nebraska Rodeo Association. A surprise tour of UNL’s Memorial Stadium with a tunnel walk was enjoyed by the NHSRA Executive Board.
Critical to securing the NHSFR for Lincoln were $3 million in planned improvements at the Lancaster Event Center officially approved by the Lancaster County Board in November 2016 to be committed out of the Lancaster County Visitors Improvement Fund upon signing of a contract with the NHSRA. The fund is comprised of lodging taxes collected from visitors that are managed by the Lancaster County Visitors Promotion Committee to help add and improve attractions that will increase visitors to the county with oversight and approvals from the Lancaster County Board.
“This award demonstrates the value of the plan to enhance the facilities at the Lancaster Event Center to ensure its place as a top regional destination for agricultural-related trade shows, spectator events and competitions. Securing another reservation for the National High School Rodeo Finals will pay dividends to Lincoln and Lancaster County for years to come,” said Jennifer Brinkman, Lancaster County Board of Commissioners Chair.
“Lancaster Event Center has become a significant contributor to the entertainment, educational, and economic areas of Lincoln, Lancaster County, and the surrounding region. In fact, it has become recognized nationally as a venue that provides exceptional services,” added Roma Amundson, Vice-Chair of the County Board and one of two County Board representatives on the Lancaster County Fairgrounds JPA. “That is why, with not even having conducted the first National High School Rodeo event scheduled in Lincoln in 2020-2021, it was selected again for the 2026/2027 rodeo. This selection speak very well for the fantastic team assembled at the Lancaster Event Center.”
Improvements to be completed at Lancaster Event Center by 2020 include upgrading an existing outdoor arena to house the two main 150×250’ performance arenas with a new covered 3,400-person grandstand, as well as additions and upgrades to campsites. Campsite improvements include additional sites with water and electrical service and completion of a loop driveway on the undeveloped portion of the Lancaster Event Center grounds.
“We are very excited for this commitment to a long term relationship with the National High School Finals Rodeo, a compliment to the hard work and effort of the Lancaster Event Center in building a destination for rodeo competition in the Midwest,” said Jeff Maul, Executive Director of the Lincoln Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “An additional two years in hosting this event furthers the impact that will be felt by our community and compliments the efforts made by the Lancaster County Board in dedicating lodging tax funds to assist with the $3 million dollar expansion which is currently underway.”
Another key partner in the bid proposal was the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) which is helping organize local college tours and offering other facilities for queen contest. “We are excited to partner with the Lancaster Event Center on this bid which provides the College an amazing opportunity to showcase our University and the wide range of degree options in CASNR and across UNL to these highly accomplished 1,700 high school contestants and their families. We can’t wait for 2020,” said UNL CASNR Dean Tiffany Heng-Moss.
The Lancaster Event Center will team up with the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau to identify hundreds of local volunteers and dozens of local businesses to act as advertising sponsors and on-site vendors. “Folks who would like to be involved should go to our web site at LancasterEventCenter.org where we have a Get involved with NHSFR form for community members to let us know how they’d like to help,” commented Amy Dickerson, LEC Managing Director.