Ben Sprague
Earl Warren Showgrounds CEO Ben Sprague. Credit: Joshua Molina / Noozhawk file photo

Earl Warren Showgrounds is riding in a new direction.

The state agency, with a large property at 3400 Calle Real in Santa Barbara, has revised its mission statement, a move that opens the door to youth sports organizations holding events at the showgrounds.

“I do believe we are going to be able to support a broader range of our population,” said Earl Warren Showgrounds president and CEO Ben Sprague. “We want to serve the current and changing needs of the Santa Barbara community.”

Among the organizations that have been in preliminary talks to hold regular activities at the showgrounds are Friday Night Lights youth football team, soccer, lacrosse, and pickleball.

“If there’s a way forward to support that wildly needed use in our community and maintain our current uses that is absolutely something that we are going to pursue,” Sprague said.

The organization’s previous mission statement mentioned itself as a first-class equine facility first: The 19th District Agricultural Association “manages Earl Warren Showgrounds as a financially self-supporting entity that maintains a first-class equine facility, promotes and supports agricultural resources, provides facilities for community events, meetings, and emergency response, and furthers the goals and objectives of the Association and the State of California.”

The new mission statement says this: “The Earl Warren Showgrounds is a multi-use community event and emergency resiliency center serving the existing and changing needs of Santa Barbara’s culture, history, and community.”

The board approved the change with a vote of 6-3 on March 23.

Supporters of recreation and members of the equestrian community sent the board hundreds of letters advocating for their causes.

Members of the equestrian community have long believed that Sprague and some members of the board have been trying to minimize the role of the equestrian community by luring other, more lucrative organizations and activities to the showgrounds.

Sprague said the equestrian community uses the facility about a dozen times a year, but “41 weekends a year the site is neglected.”

Sprague told Noozhawk that there is no effort to take away any of the equestrian activities at the Showgrounds. The Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo will also stay, he said.
He said the goal of changing the mission statement is to make Earl Warren Showgrounds more inclusive of the community, not exclusive. He said there would be no reduction of equestrian services.

“The thing I am excited about is being able to perpetuate the richness and cultural experience of Earl Warren, while opening the doors to the community at large,” Sprague said. “We are a place to play. I do believe we are going to be able to support a broader range of our population.”

Board President Tory Milazzo, said he is excited about the future.

“Our board will have an ongoing strategic planning process to chart the course for Earl Warren Showgrounds,” Milazzo said. ” We are excited to build on longstanding partnerships in the community and engage with new user groups from the south coast of Santa Barbara.”

“I feel it is very important that Earl Warren Showgrounds continues to support equestrian activities and be maintained as an equestrian facility,” said Natalie and Brett Hodges, in a letter to Earl Warren Showgrounds. “This is essential for our community, not only to host horse shows, but during fires and floods to keep our large animals safe.”

Another letter writer, Debra Keys-Thomas, said horses and equestrian activities should remain at Earl Warren Showgrounds.

“As an equestrian growing up in Santa Barbara, the showgrounds played a positive role in my life,” Keys-Thomas said. “Do not lose this iconic treasure of Santa Barbara.”

Ted Pallad, commissioner of the popular flag football organization Friday Night Lights, said he hopes FNL can find a home at Earl Warren Showgrounds.

“Now more than ever, youth sports are critical to the overall health and well-being of our local children, fostering social and emotional development,” Pallad said. “This change in their mission statement allows the 34 acres at Earl Warren to serve the immediate needs of our community, including emergency management and its equestrian uses, while providing a new opportunity for children to participate in youth sports.”

Pallad also defended the equestrian community.

 “There is a misconception that horses are being pushed-out of Earl Warren and that’s simply not the case,” Pallad said. “The showgrounds are vacant and underutilized for way too many weeks a year and will now provide the opportunity for our kids (and horses) to play.” 

Santa Barbara City Councilman Eric Friedman supports the change.

“As the Santa Barbara City Councilmember representing the district in which Earl Warren Showgrounds is located, I recognize the new opportunities and benefits your support of this action will bring to our city,” Friedman wrote in a letter. “Currently the showgrounds are underutilized most of the year.”

Financial Troubles at Earl Warren Showgrounds

The showgrounds facility sits on 35 acres within the 19th Agricultural District at 3400 Calle Real, at the intersection of Las Positas Road.

It’s home to an annual fair, equestrian performances, the Fiesta Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, Haunt at the Showgrounds, and events inside the Exhibit Building and Warren Hall and on the parking lot.

The facility also rents overnight parking for RVs, and it sometimes serves as a command center for major wildfires and other emergencies.

The facility has struggled, however, in recent years.

The state-owned facility took out a line of credit to cover payroll in 2019. Officials that year also received a year-long extension on two State of California loans — totaling about $300,000 — which were due this year. Without the line of credit, the complex would have run out of money that year.

The COVID-19 shutdowns gave Sprague and the organization an opportunity to hit the reset button and look at the financial viability of the organization.

The showgrounds also recently enhanced its kitchen services and raised the price to rent its commercial kitchens.

The showgrounds received aid from the state and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which helped it stabilize its finances.

The Santa Barbara Fair & Expo also returned in 2021 and in 2022, and profits were the best in the fair’s history, Sprague said.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at