“The next generation of rodeo is coming on strong, and the sport of rodeo with its Western tradition will continue to grow and prosper.”
That’s the prediction of one as close to rodeo as anybody could be. Yet, that optimism has its cloud.
“It’s a tough, tough deal,” admitted Mike Mathis, announcer at more than 160 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) performances annually.
“There’s more money involved for top cowboys, but it costs a lot more to go, too,” emphasized Mathis, who might be described as a “Walking Encyclopedia of Rodeo,” as he can readily quote vast facts and statistics about the sport.
“However, there are more and more junior, high school and college rodeos, which are proving grounds for our contestants,” contended Mathis, while in Abilene for multiple-repeat duties announcing the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo.
“Still, our youth today have so many activities that they can be involved in: baseball, football, soccer, you name it, and rodeo must compete against these for young peoples’ time and interest, so to speak,” claimed Mathis, a lifelong cowboy, rightfully often recognized as “Mr. Rodeo.”
Growing up at Lufkin, Texas, closely tied to livestock and rodeo through his family-owned farm supply store, Mathis still headquarters there today. But, he’s on the road 10½ months a year, announcing rodeos throughout the country.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy, loved rodeo and rode bareback horses and bulls on a scholarship to Stephen Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, but I really wasn’t that good of a rodeo cowboy,” Mathis qualified.
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and then receiving a master’s degree in finance from Southern Methodist University, Mathis first had a career in banking, and became involved in putting on the rodeo in his hometown.
“I had an opportunity to announce that rodeo, which I’m still closely involved in today. I’m really lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, and really lucky that my rodeo announcing career has developed from own hometown rodeo,” Mathis recognized.
“In the past decade, announcing rodeos has taken precedence over the insurance and financial business that I had, too,” explained Mathis, a Gold Card PRCA member, joining in 1983.
Verification of this demanded ability comes in repeat announcing duties at the largest and most prestigious rodeos throughout the country; alternate announcer at the National Finals Rodeo, announcing the steer roping finals three times, several circuit finals announcer contracts, and five nominations for the PRCA Announcer of the Year recognition.
Seemingly perhaps a bit double-emphatic, tongue-in-cheek is Mathis’ appropriately-identifying e-mail address, “prcamike:” Mike, a rodeo professional on the microphone.
To be so knowledgeable about all aspects of rodeo isn’t all instinctive. “I have to spend three to five hours before every performance getting ready, with details about the contestants and the livestock,” tallied Mathis.
Unlike his first few years announcing from a booth above the arena action, Mathis today announces 85 percent of the rodeos on horseback right in the arena.
“I have two horses, both registered Paints. Frog is my main horse; he’s so automatic and dependable that sometimes I don’t ride Hidalgo, my other horse, as much as I should,” the announcer said.
Only a small note pad is referenced for details in Mathis’ colorful play-by-play of the arena action, recognizing successes, predictions and outlooks of the rodeo arena performers. “After so many years, I have my own shorthand system that only I can understand,” he disclosed.
Success of a rodeo clown and funnyman depends on repertoire with the announcer, and Mathis has finesse.
“Regardless of who I work with, my job is to be the straight man to help relay the punch of their stories. Lecile (Harris, rodeo clown at Abilene) and I have worked together 25 years, been to lots of rodeos, are good friends, and really hit it off well,” Mathis verified.
Responding to occasional vocal concerns that there sometimes seems to be a shortage of bucking horse contestants at certain rodeos, Mathis evaluated, “There are so many factors. It’s that time of the year now, when especially bareback riders are facing injury and money issues. They are beat up, banged up and broke.
“However, also playing into the picture here at Abilene is that there are professional rodeos going on at the same time in Phillipsburg, Hill City and Dodge City. The cowboys want to compete in all of them, so rodeo committees have to work together, and about let the riders compete in the performance that will fit into their schedule. Thus, at some performances, we have more contestants, than in others,” Mathis assessed.
However, the announcer countered, “There are again getting to be more saddle bronc riders and lots of bull riders. So, I really don’t see diminishing numbers in the rough stock events in the future,” Mathis predicted.
Claiming hunting and golf as hobbies, Mathis will occasionally get to do them while on the road, and even likes to team rope when he’s home. But, he clarified: “With the number of rodeos I have, I concentrate on announcing rodeos.”
Despite triple bypass heart surgery last year, Mathis, 65, looks to no slow down as he and his wife, Shan, parents of grown sons Kirk and Todd, travel in their home away from home, a large travel trailer including comfortable quarters for the couple and his two horses. They’d been in Mississippi days earlier, were headed to Colorado, and would be back in Kansas in a week
“Rodeo is my life,” Mathis said. “I’m lucky enough to continue to travel and get paid for doing what I like with the great people and outstanding livestock in this great sport of rodeo, which has such an optimistic future.”