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The Margin: The Ringling Bros. circus returns next year — minus the elephants, lions and tigers

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After shutting down in 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is planning its return, but with an elephant-sized caveat: The so-called “Greatest Show on Earth,” long celebrated for its animal performers, will now be sans any four-legged creatures.

Feld Entertainment, the family-entertainment giant and longtime Ringling owner, announced Wednesday that it will relaunch the circus with a tour that starts in September 2023 and visit at least 50 cities in North America. Tickets will go on sale in April 2023.

In the circus’ new iteration, the idea is to focus on the human side of the performance and forego the elephants, tigers and the like. The show, which has a 146-year history, will also not necessarily hew to its usual three-ring format, according to Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment, but will nevertheless include plenty of what he described as visual storytelling.

Feld told MarketWatch the plan to bring back Ringling has been in the works for a few years, but now seemed like the right time to announce the return.

“With all of the craziness and all the news that’s out there, this is a big rainbow across the sky,” he said.

As popular as Ringling’s animal acts had been with some of its customers, they had also become a lightning rod for controversy. Animal-rights activists had long protested the circus’ use of such acts.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was one of the most vocal anti-Ringling groups. On Wednesday, Rachel Mathews, a PETA Foundation director, praised the circus for making the change.

“Ringing is returning with a bang, transforming the saddest show on Earth into a dazzling display of human ingenuity after 146 years of animal abuse,” she said in a statement.

For much of its history, Ringling had been a fixture on the American entertainment scene, with shows held under the traveling big-top tent and later in arenas. But when the show ended its run in 2017, the animal-rights controversy may have been only one of the possible deciding factors.

Some in the circus world wondered aloud if the old-school spectacle still had relevance in today’s crowded entertainment marketplace, pointing to declining attendance for circuses in general.

Still, Ringling had its fans. Feld wouldn’t share revenue figures with MarketWatch, but a Forbes report from a few years ago noted that Feld Entertainment took in $1.3 billion in revenue in 2015 and that the circus accounted for 15% of the company’s sales. A 2009 New York Times story said a Ringling show could draw 10 million attendees over the course of a two-year run.

Feld said he wasn’t concerned about whether circus regulars would miss the animals and, as a result, hesitate to buy tickets to the revived show. He noted that his company is well-versed in the family market — Feld Entertainment produces everything from “Sesame Street Live!” to monster-truck shows — and thus has a handle on what audiences want.

“We don’t work in a vacuum,” he told MarketWatch.

See also: “I was a circus clown. Here are 10 things it taught me about life.”

The new show may also represent a cost savings of sorts for the company. While Feld wouldn’t provide any numbers, he did note that the circus will no longer move from city to city by rail, which proved to be cumbersome and costly. Feld said the focus would now be putting “everything into the show” as opposed to “these overhead things.”

Ryan Stana, chief executive officer of RWS Entertainment Group, a prominent producer of family entertainment, said there could be a place for a revived Ringling in the marketplace.

“Audiences are craving experiences more than ever. The timing is more than right for Ringling,” he told MarketWatch.

At the same time, Stana said, without the animals, the circus will need to think carefully about what will attract audiences. Innovation “will be key to their success,” he said.

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