After two years, the Calgary Stampede Canvas Auction is back.
Cancelled because of the pandemic in 2020, and then put off again in 2021, the auction has been traditionally seen as a barometer of economic activity in the city.
As for advertisers looking to put their logos in front of tens of thousands of spectators, the auction was a welcome return to form.
“I do feel there’s a certain amount of energy in this room tonight,” said Steve McDonough, chairman and president of the Calgary Stampede.
In total, the auction raised $2,105,000, with an average of $77,963 per bid.
Yet prior to the start, there was some bet hedging about whether or not the auction would be a return to the bid levels seen in previous years. At the end of the night, individual bids surpassed the highs not seen since 2013, but also set a record low for the past decade of auctions.
“Well, it’s completely different auction,” said McDonough.
“First off, this this is the first time we’ve had this sort of environment, but as well we have 27 wagons this year compared to what we’ve had in previous years.”
Previous years have featured upwards of 30 wagons at auction.
Auction short of centennial highs in 2012
Tuesday’s bidders set record highs, with a pair of $180,000 and plus bids that were well above the height of the 2019 auction. Kurt Bensmiller took in $185,000, and Vern Nolin $180,000.
“It’s nice,” said Nolin.
“$180,000 Sounds like a lot of money, but we carry a lot of costs—the price of everything is going up, and feed and stuff is super high this year,” he said.
He said that wouldn’t leave much left for some of the other wagon teams given the lower end of bidding this year. Danny Ringuette took in the lowest valued bid at $35,000, short $2,750 from 2016’s low during the recession and the lowest bid in more than a decade.
The canvas auction reached record high bids for the centennial Stampede year in 2012. Kelly Sutherland topped out that year with a $300,000 bid. Bids remained high until 2015, when it was not uncommon to see winners put down in excess of $150,000 for a canvas.
The significant drop in international oil prices saw dropping bid values in 2016 and 2017. The 2017 auction did not surpass $100,000 at the highest level.
In 2019, the last year the auction was held, rebounding market confidence buoyed prices back up to $150,000, and 14 out of 31 wagons getting $100,000 or more.
A different sort of auction for 2022
McDonough said that comparing this year to previous years was like comparing “apples and oranges.”
“What is important is that we support these drivers, and support the sport,” he said.
There was tempered expectations that this year would serve as the kind of bellwether indicator for Calgary’s economy like the auction has served in previous years. With fewer wagons at auction, the Stampede said they wouldn’t be breaking any records this year.
And that is precisely what occurred. The final total of $2,105,000 was below 2016’s low, but was a direct result of the lower number of chucks at auction. The average bid for this year was approximately $11,000 more than the $67,016 in that year.
Driver Codey McCurrach, who also works in the oil and gas sector, predicted the overall smaller number of bids this year. Despite the historical tie between Western Texas Intermediate oil prices and canvas bids, he said he was hesitant to say that correlation would continue in 2022.
“I think corporations are hesitant to show that they have profited through the last couple of years or even just as recent with the unreal oil prices we’re having right now,” he said.
He pointed to the past couple of years of layoffs and slimming of corporate spending as a reason why companies may not want to be seen spending large amounts on tarps. He also said that there is some lingering uncertainty about the economy, even though recent trends has been positive in the province.
Return of big money a possibility for 2023
But, said McCurrach, bidders would be back in 2023.
“They want to dabble a little bit, and if they had a good experience, maybe 2023 they’re going to spend that $100,000.”
Kent Stormoen, owner of Versatile Energy Services, put in the night’s highest bid of $185,000. He said that despite several years of tough conditions in the oil patch, he felt it was important to continue supporting the Calgary Stampede and the Bensmiller family.
Stormoen said that he felt some of the drivers should have received more for their tarps from the evening, but was impressed by the level of support shown overall.
“There’s some really good drivers that that sold after [Kurt Bensmiller] that I think deserved a little more recognition than they did,” he said.
“This has been my fourth year sponsoring now—we’ve had so much recognition through it, and it’s very important to be part of it.”
Drivers excited to race again this year
Drivers, sponsors, and the Stampede all agree that having chuckwagon races this year is a welcome return of the sport to Calgary.
“It’s my living, wagon racing, and my family’s living, and we’re excited to move forward,” said Nolin.
“People look at it like ‘these guys are having a weekend vacation,’ and it’s not. I feed my family, and I pay my bills—I pay my house payment and stuff with these horses,” he said.
McCurrach said he was excited to return to racing after a two year absence due to the pandemic.
“But through that I’ve bought new horses, and I bought more horses, and I’m really excited for the year,” he said.
The Stampede is optimistic that they’ll be able to put on a full event in July, even if Covid-19 continues to be an issue come summertime.
“We learned a lot of things from the 2021 Stampede about what it takes to put on a live event safely for our community … we’re not throwing that out because it appears the pandemic is winding down,” said McDonough.
“We are in a full blown pandemic still, until told otherwise, so we will be modifying our behaviour as we did last year,” he said.
McDonough said the Stampede has been missing as part of the wider Calgary community, and that visitors missed live music—and chuckwagon racing.
“I’m happy to say they’re both coming back this year.”