With rodeo more popular than ever, collegiate rodeo programs consistently find new ways to attract the best young rodeo talent to help foster fun, exciting, and vibrant rodeo communities and give students the best chance to hone their skills while retaining focus on academic pursuits.
With these goals in mind, Sam Houston State University (SHSU), located in Huntsville, Texas, recently opened the doors to its all-new, state-of-the-art rodeo arena to the public for the first time. The Sonny Sikes Arena honors a long tradition of rodeo sports while giving students and visitors access to best-in-class facilities to master their craft. The arena marks a significant investment in the future of SHSU’s 70-year-old rodeo program, spawning some of the top athletes in rodeo sports throughout its long history.
The arena honors Sonny Sikes, a rodeo athlete and SHSU student who earned four collegiate world champion titles and spent many years helping to lead the SHSU rodeo program to greatness. He served the school as an agriculture professor and was SHSU’s rodeo coach for over 40 years. Sikes and his wife, Joanne, also worked with the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) for 18 years.
Arena attendees can expect to find a spacious competition area, including a covered grandstand with more than 2,000 seats for spectators, along with a modern bucking chute and cattle pens. People are publicly praising the arena for its immaculate design, well-kept facilities, and vibrant atmosphere that puts the exciting world of collegiate rodeo front and center.
The school announced the new facility publicly in October and hosted the first public rodeo event on November 11 and 12. The kick-off proved to be quite the rodeo extravaganza. Those who couldn’t attend in person could catch a glimpse of the festivities on The Cowboy Channel, as it aired the celebration to a national audience.
The masterful event showcased professionalism on par with some of the best rodeo events in the country. Fans enthusiastically cheered on famed rodeo announcer Boyd Polhamus, whose talents generated unbridled enthusiasm among the boisterous crowd. Boyd’s pedigree includes leading the charge at major events, including the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) and RodeoHouston. Attendees also witnessed the magic of trick rider Jessica Blair Fowlkes, whose dazzling performances involve standing upright while guiding two horses around fiery obstacles and over hurdles set ablaze.
Spectators also saw a top-of-the-line pyrotechnic and laser experience, which many rodeo fans will only ever experience at the nation’s biggest rodeos. And, of course, there was also all the action of their favorite collegiate rodeo events, which included all the classics such as bull riding, team roping, and barrel racing competitions. All in all, it was an excellent event for SHSU’s rodeo team on their newly minted home turf as the Bearkats’ men’s team took home the champion title, and the women’s team earned the reserve champion distinction.
The rodeo arena is part of a multi-million-dollar effort to develop the Gibbs Ranch area of the campus. Businessman W.S. Gibbs once owned the land, but the university was gifted the land via a deed in 1993. Additional development efforts on the land include the recent opening of the Gibbs Ranch Equestrian Facility & Agriculture Labs, designed as a beacon for research and knowledge for all involved with the SHSU School of Agriculture Sciences. SHSU is already known as one of the best agriculture schools in the country, and the facility is sure to cement its status as an elite agriculture college given its modern equipment and emphasis on science-backed techniques. Alums and community support continue to fund the initiative and its all-new advanced laboratory facilities, cooperative work areas, and fully-equipped greenhouses that help support the school’s breadth of research and development programs.
The new rodeo arena represents a move from the SHSU rodeo team’s decade-long home in Conroe, where the school’s ropers and riders previously hosted events due to a lack of suitable facilities in the Huntsville area. As rodeo continues to skyrocket in popularity, collegiate rodeo programs must strive to find new ways to attract the brightest and most promising young athletes to their schools. The arena and additional facilities stand to not only attract the most dedicated young rodeo athletes to the school but also to encourage the student body and the community to engage more directly with rodeo sports. Ultimately, having a home base for rodeo in Huntsville will cultivate even stronger bonds between the school, the local community, and rodeo enthusiasts throughout the region.
While the arena primarily serves as a modern rodeo facility, it will also be an asset to the broader Huntsville community as a place where locals can attend events such as concerts, festivals, and other large public gatherings.
The arena reflects the school’s ongoing commitment to the excellence of its academic programs and its student body. Without question, the school’s investment in these facilities provides the resources and training needed to lead the next generation of PRCA and WPRCA athletes. The SHSU Rodeo Team, led by coach Edward “Bubba” Miller, has a legacy of excellence in NIRA-sanctioned events. The rodeo program fosters a sense of community and academic excellence, rewarding the riders for their efforts inside the arena and in the classroom.
Many SHSU rodeo team graduates have succeeded in their professional careers, a testament to the hard work and drive each team member puts into their discipline. However, with the new facility, the powerhouse team has even more resources to lead the pack in every rodeo sport. Colleges looking to invest heavily in rodeo should pay attention, as it will be difficult for the nation’s best ropers and riders to turn down a chance to attend SHSU and train under such a remarkable dedicated space.
These facilities are only the latest investment in the ongoing growth of the school’s dedicated rodeo program. In 2022, the school announced it would form a SHSU Rodeo Hall of Champions, located in the future Agricultural Sciences Complex at Gibbs Ranch, and would also fund the Rodeo Hall of Champions Scholarship Endowment. The endowment seeks to provide funding for scholarships to recruit the most talented students to the rodeo team and continue a long-standing winning tradition.
SHSU’s Sonny Sikes Arena is located at 1143 SH 75 N. Huntsville, TX 77320. Rodeo fans can find out more about upcoming events at www.shsu.edu/gibbs-ranch/rodeo.