The Rock County 4-H Fair was in the black in 2016 for the first time in recent memory, and one official hopes a leaner approach to entertainment spending will keep finances stable.
The fair turned a profit of about $9,400 last year, fair board President Randy Thompson said. That’s after a five-year slump from 2011 to 2015—a period during which the fair lost money every year but one, according to financial records.
The windfall came after fair leadership cut spending on the national touring acts that appear on the grandstand stage. The fair again this year has opted to spend more frugally on entertainment.
Well-known country and pop music acts long have been a staple at the fair. But in recent years, top names out of Nashville hadn’t drawn the crowds that could offset the cost of luring in those big acts, Thompson said.
“Our analysis was simple. We were spending more on entertainment, and it wasn’t bringing in the attendance to pay for itself entirely,” Thompson said.
In the years between 2011 and 2015, the fair was bleeding money, losing an average of about $30,000 a year, according to a Gazette review of the fair’s nonprofit financial filings. That was despite a boom year in 2013, when the fair hauled in a profit of $109,000, in part under the steam of pop-country band Florida-Georgia Line.
At the time, Florida-Georgia Line was riding a surge in popularity from a runaway hit single. The band drew huge crowds.
In 2014 and 2015, the fair wasn’t nearly as lucky with its costly music acts. It lost a combined $120,000 in those two years, even though it was spending upward of $300,000 a year on grandstand entertainment.
Entertainment acts have come at more and more of a premium in recent years. Up-and-coming country music performers have requested $20,000 or more for a single appearance at the fair, and established national acts have commanded much larger paydays in the last few years, Thompson said.
Fair officials opted in 2016 to dial back spending on entertainment to about $130,000, and they have budgeted about the same amount for this year.
With fairgoers long accustomed to cream music acts, which in the past included major names such as Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, the fair’s decision to switch to less-costly entertainment lay somewhere between common sense and a gamble.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope,” Thompson said. “Historically, for years and years, people had been used to the Rock County Fair drawing these top acts. It’s really one of the major things the fair hung its hat on for years. Other fairs might have one, maybe two top country acts, but they’ll plug in demolition derbies and tractor pulls also. That’s not an option here because of the smaller size and the location of the fairgrounds in Janesville.”
But last year, the decision to shave entertainment spending paid off.
The fair turned a small profit despite wet, steamy weather during fair week and a dip in attendance to about 64,000. That’s a drop-off in fairgoers compared to previous years, when the fair had drawn upward of 90,000 people.
It was the lowest attendance since 1989, according to fair records.
“Was the attendance drop-off last year due to our main stage entertainment? Probably a little bit,” Thompson said. “But the weather was also rainy and soupy. That’s always a crapshoot. Like any outside event, we’re always going to be pretty weather dependent.”
As in 2016, the fair’s music acts are free; stage access is included with general admission to the fairgrounds. In a few prior years, people had to pay gate admission as well as another fee to see a band on the grandstand stage.
Meanwhile, fair admission has jumped to $10, up from $8 in 2016. People who pre-ordered tickets before July 15 paid $8, the same as last year’s adult admission.
Thompson said the early bird deal on tickets gave the fair a “substantial” boost in pre-ordered ticket sales this year compared to 2016.
He said the logic behind the increase was to sell enough early bird tickets to guard against weather that might disrupt fair attendance. The fair draws the vast bulk of its revenue from admission fees.
“It goes back to us being weather dependent,” he said. “If the week of the fair it’s going to be 95 degrees and humid, people might not say, ‘You know, I think I’d like to go and walk around at the fairgrounds all day.’ But if you buy your tickets and have them in hand, more than likely, you’re going to go regardless of the weather. If you choose not to go, we still made a ticket sale.”
Whether the fair’s more conservative approach to spending will keep it in the black again this year isn’t certain, but Thompson said he believes the approach has stabilized the fair’s finances.
“We are a nonprofit association, and in the end, our goal is that we put on the fair. It’s our baby, and outside the county graciously allowing us to use the fairgrounds, it’s up to us to put on the fair and sink or swim in terms of the financials,” Thompson said.
“I truly think we’ve made good progress in terms of turning things around a little bit and balancing our books.”