CALGARY — Kurt Bensmiller uses an old expression when asked what he expects Thursday night during the annual chuckwagon canvas auction for the Calgary Stampede.
"There's lots of interest out there but everyone's holding their cards pretty close to their chests," says the 17-year veteran of chuckwagon racing.
"With anything, it takes a little while before everybody really gets spending again."
The chuckwagon races are one of the marquee events at the Stampede, and the auctions are considered an economic bellwether for Canada's oilpatch.
Every year, bidders attend the auction in an effort to buy rights to advertise on the canvases that adorn the chuckwagons. This year, they'll do so at a time when crude prices have been lingering below the US$50 per barrel mark, though nearly US$10 above what they were this time last year.
Bensmiller, 33, last year secured the sponsorship of the Tsuu T'ina Nation for the third year running with a bid of $120,000. This year, however, the First Nation located just south of Calgary has indicated it won't be taking part, leaving Bensmiller looking for a new backer.
Stampede spokeswoman Kristina Barnes said Tuesday the number of bidders who have pre-registered for the auction is on pace to reach last year's total of about 180.
In response to the faltering economy last year, the Stampede for the first time stepped in to help sponsors form teams to bid for tarps on one of the 36 participating chuckwagons. Barnes said 20 tarps were purchased by teams of bidders who then took turns putting their colours on their chuckwagon over the 10 days of racing.
The 2016 auction raised just under $2.3 million, nearly $500,000 less than the total the year before and the worst showing since 2010, when it brought in $1.97 million.
Chuckwagon driver Jason Glass of High River, Alta, bought his own tarp at last year's auction for $95,000 when bids fell short of his expectations, reselling the advertising rights to sponsors later.
Glass, 46, says he hopes that doesn't happen again this year.
"I think the economy is recovering somewhat," he says.
"It's a struggle. Once the oilpatch takes a hit, it kind of trickles down through the whole economy in Western Canada."
A perk of sponsorship is access to the chuckwagon barns and entertainment facilities which allow the winning bidders to host clients, employees, family and friends for a behind-the-scenes experience.
The Calgary Stampede runs from July 7-16.
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Dan Healing, The Canadian Press