Thursday, October 01, 2015
Rodeo ‘rebellion’ could impact Stampede
A cowboy rebellion has thrust the top rodeo competitors into a civil war with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and led to the equivalent of nuclear retaliation from the governing body of the sport.
And while Cody Stampede organizers worry their historic July 4 rodeo could face wide-ranging implications, they are determined not to become collateral damage.
“The longer it goes on the worse it is for rodeo,” said Mike Darby, president of the Stampede Board. “I hope rodeo is strong enough to withstand this.”
A group of cowboys has announced it will spend next season focusing on an Elite Rodeo Athletes League of Champions, leading to a November 2016 championship in Dallas and intends to put tickets up for sale this November.
They also announced a television contract with FOX Sports to show the entire ERA schedule (which has not been announced), but accounting for 42 hours of programming.
Trevor Brazile, the winningest rodeo cowboy of all time with 21 world championships, said the network “gives us the opportunity to showcase the sport of rodeo on a national stage.”
Soon after, the PRCA board of directors approved new bylaws that take effect today, Oct. 1, for the 2016 season.
The broadside includes the following language: “Any person applying for membership who is an officer, board member, employee, or has an ownership or financial interest in any form in a Conflicting Rodeo Association shall not be issued a membership permit or renewal of membership with the PRCA.”
And, the definition of a conflicting rodeo stated, “events not sanctioned by the PRCA in which contestants compete in two or more...” amongst the usual rodeo events from bareback riding to bull riding.
Board of directors chairman Keith Martin said the new rules “will better serve the quality and popularity of our sport.”
The new bylaws would bar stars of the sport who are supporting the ERA from competing in PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, of which there are about 600, including the Cody Stampede.
Dating to 1920 and called the richest one-header rodeo of the summer, the Stampede offers about $400,000 in prize money and attracts sellout crowds to Stampede Park, to see fields all events featuring the best in the world – many of the same riders expected to be part of the ERA.
“There is some concern. We’re hoping it works itself out,” Darby said.
If backed into a corner by the warring factions, Darby said the Cody board will do what it takes to preserve the high-quality Stampede show.
“We’ll do the best we can to provide top-notch entertainment for our audience,” he said.
Noting the Calgary Stampede and the winter Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, two of the largest rodeos, operate without PRCA approval, Darby said, “They’re not hurting.”
The Stampede could take a similar drastic step to proceed without PRCA sanction.
“It will be an option,” Darby said. “We certainly hope we don’t have to use that.”
Maury Tate, who has been operator of Cody Nite Rodeo for the last 11 seasons and works hand-in-glove with the Stampede, said the startling PRCA action definitely can affect the Stampede.
“The way that reads,” Tate said of the new rules, “they cannot have the Cody Stampede. I think the PRCA needs to worry about their job to put on good rodeos.”
As early as January 2014, a group of world champions and highly ranked cowboys sent signals they might split from the PRCA.
The idea was floated on Facebook and steer wrestler K.C. Jones said, “It’s time for a change.”
Publicly, the matter receded for months, but it recently burst into the limelight again.
Patrick Smith, a world-champion team roper who is Brazile’s partner, said from Texas the creation of the ERA is “nothing more than adding more opportunities for the cowboy. We’re looking at taking this sport from an entertainment venue to a sporting venue.”
Unlike major team sport athletes in the U.S., cowboys are essentially independent contractors. They receive no travel compensation and have no company insurance. Players on the professional golf and tennis tours also support themselves from tournament winnings but generally have much larger purses.
While the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas in December has about $10 million at stake, many rodeo purses are small.
Smith said he was about to drive his horse and trailer to Florida for a rodeo and if he wins his event he will collect $5,000.
“But how much does it take to bring my rig?” said Smith, who is 35. “This is not a matter of greed. I don’t want to spend my life working at a car lot when I retire.”
Just as the PRCA officials said when approving the restrictive bylaws, Smith said, “This is all about the future of rodeo.”
The present of rodeo may resemble the past of rodeo.
In 1936, cowboys went on strike before the Boston Garden Rodeo, claiming they were underpaid. They formed the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, the forerunner of the PRCA.
Professional sport in the U.S. is littered with failed leagues from the Federal League in Major League Baseball to the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association and the World Football League and United States Football League.
It took the decade of the 1960s for labor peace and a merger to prevail between the National Football League and the American Football League.
Along the way there were team casualties, cities that lost franchises and financial blood-letting between owners.
Smith acknowledged there may be similar bruising in the rodeo world before things are settled.
“Sure, absolutely,” Smith said. “But the cowboys eventually have to stand up. This is what needs to happen with the sport. I think there’s a way to change the sport, but the only way is to take drastic steps.”
At the NFR last December, PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman said, “The financial picture of the PRCA is stronger than it’s ever been. To say that 2015 is a year we can’t wait to see is an understatement.”
It is not clear if Stressman still feels that way about 2015 because he is not talking. Requests for interviews with Stressman were turned aside.
Officials said questions submitted in writing were welcome, but there was no timetable for answers. The Enterprise submitted a list of questions around 4 p.m. Monday but received no responses.
Instead, PRCA officials said Stressman would issue a statement but none was released.
A key battleground apparently will be the Wrangler Champions Challenge, which has completed two full seasons and one shorter one highlighting the same elite cowboys who wish to break away.
That circuit came to Cody for the first time Aug. 16 and the Stampede Board hoped for a renewal. Any agreement to make a return appearance is on hold because of this PRCA-cowboys friction, Darby said. He said the first casualty of this war may be the Champions Challenge.
When the bylaws passed, Stressman used the Champions Challenge and its CBS Sports tie-in as an example of how cowboys are gleaning more money.
“There are always naysayers,” is what Smith says when he hears the Elite Rodeo Athletic league won’t work.
Ignoring the fact that the cowboy rebellion triggered the PRCA bylaw action, Smith said, “The PRCA has fired the first shot.”
Still, despite strong rhetoric, Smith said he would rather elite cowboys and PRCA officials negotiate.
“Let’s work together,” he said.
There is time before 2016.