Some of the top contestants in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association are threatening to form their own association, the latest potential change in a sport already undergoing significant upheaval.
Cowboys such as Trevor Brazile, Fred Whitfield and Bobby Mote -- who have 23 world championships between them -- asserted their intentions to take their stardom with them by signing their names to a declaration on Facebook. The page is titled "Support Rodeo Contestants."
The development comes on the heels of the PRCA's rejection of a bid to keep the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where it's been held 29 consecutive years in the Thomas & Mack Center. PRCA officials are still negotiating with Las Vegas Events. But Osceola County officials in central Florida outside of Orlando are attempting to lure the finals by committing to $10 million more in prize money for the contestants, a 24,000-seat rodeo arena and millions of dollars in marketing, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
A final decision could come within the next week.
In the middle of those negotiations, the PRCA board also rejected rodeo contestants’ plea for increased representation on the board. There currently are four contestant representatives on the nine-member board; cowboys wanted six representatives on an 11-member board, with an affirmative vote requiring at least seven votes.
The rogue cowboys said on Facebook their effort to form a new association stemmed from the board’s rejection. They didn't mention the pending Las Vegas/Florida decision or any other discussions with the PRCA board, other than an assurance from the PRCA board that any National Finals Rodeo host-site decision wouldn't take effect until the 2015 season.
“We put everything we had into working over the Christmas break to try and create some meaningful change within the PRCA structure that would have given the top contestants a direct voice on the PRCA board,” a statement posted by the cowboys on Wednesday read. “We want to be more involved with the direction of our sport.”
K.C. Jones, a former University of Wyoming steer wrestler and now a National Finals Rodeo-caliber contestant, was among those who signed the statement on Facebook.
"It's an exciting time for professional rodeo," he told the Review-Journal, and said cowboys are already talking with rodeo committees and venues about events outside of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based PRCA.
PRCA spokesman Jim Bainbridge said the board rejected the proposal for more contestant representation because it needed more time to make a decision.
“The timing was unfortunate. I understand they are frustrated about some things, but the NFR site hasn’t been determined yet … we’re just in such a limbo at the moment,” Bainbridge said.
Overall, there were 5,071 PRCA contestant card holders in 2013.
Meanwhile, large, lucrative rodeos in places such as Houston and Calgary, which once put on PRCA-sanctioned events, now stand alone. As a result, money earned at the rodeos doesn't count in the PRCA standings, which qualify the top 20 moneywinners in each event for the annual year-end National Finals Rodeo.
Bainbridge said there have been discussions about forcing contestants to only compete in PRCA-sanctioned events in order to be eligible for the finals. But there hasn't been a proposal brought before the board to that effect.
Neither side has offered much in the way of details so far, much to the frustration of Wyoming rodeo organizers.
“Both sides aren’t telling the whole story. I don’t think the whole of the argument between them has all been brought out,” said Central Wyoming Fairgrounds Manager Tom Jones, who oversees the PRCA-sanctioned rodeo each July during the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo in Casper.
There are approximately 750 PRCA-sanctioned events each year, paying out nearly $40 million in total across the United States and Canada. Since rodeo contestants are ranked based on their season earnings, every little bit earned along the circuit can help those national finals hopefuls on the cusp. The situation helps smaller rodeos with four- or five-figure cash-added prizes pick up rodeo contestants traveling between big events.
Thermopolis Cowboy Rendezvous Committee President Mark Ellis said his PRCA-sanctioned event only has $2,500 added. However, attendance has gone up each of the past four years because the rodeo's timing appeals to some big-name cowboys looking to pick up extra cash en route to the Cody Stampede.
“Something like this coming along really put a stick in the spokes because, to get good rodeo for your spectators, you need to have a certain amount of those top-50 cowboys coming to your rodeos,” Ellis said. “But you need the added money for those top cowboys to come.”
Ellis is worried a new association comprised of the best in the sport will only lead top cowboys to compete only in big-money events.
Evanston Cowboy Days Rodeo President Matt Petrie said his event might lose some of the top talent from out of state, but he doubts the local guys who draw audiences are going anywhere anytime soon.
“The Wright brothers (Jake and Cody) are high in the bareback standings,” Petrie said. “They are nearby from Utah, and a lot of people come specifically to see them, but they do a lot of non-PRCA events too.”
Some of the non-sanctioned events are the biggest in the business. The Calgary Stampede, Arlington’s American Rodeo in Texas and RodeoHouston, which recently struck out on its own, each offer seven-figure purses.
Dan Cheney, CEO of Cheyenne Frontier Days, is confident Wyoming’s premiere PRCA event offers enough cash – upward of $1 million - to draw top talent regardless of association.
“If you’re going to be a premium experience, you bring in the world’s best … rodeo talent, rodeo athletes, as well as rodeo stock,” Cheney said. “We’ve done that for a very long time. It’s key to our success and it will be the key to our success in the future, whether they are a part of the PRCA or not.”
History repeating itself?
Although a Wednesday follow-up post from the splinter group of cowboys assured followers they were taking the effort seriously and enlisting “smart professionals with a strong background in both rodeo and professional sports,” not everybody is convinced the breakup will happen.
Several organizers who spoke with the Star-Tribune said they remembered rumblings of defection in past decades, but their vague memories of the details and dates show PRCA members and leadership have been able to patch up things in the past.
Still, if this group does create a new association, it could create seismic adjustments within the sport.
“(The announcement) caught a lot of people in the industry by surprise, and we have more questions than answers,” Cheney said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds. If it truly does unfold, it could be a major change in what we understand to be pro rodeo.”
Pro rodeo needs to look no further than its own origin to find precedence for this kind of rebel spirit.
According to the PRCA website, the current organization formed out of a 1936 strike against a Boston Garden rodeo promoter who refused to add contestants' entry fees to the total purse.
The strike led to the formation of the PRCA's predecessor, the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, so named because, “While they were slow to organize, when push finally came to shove, they weren’t afraid to stick their necks out to get what they wanted,” according to the site.
Petrie hopes PRCA officials heed the association's history and work with contestants toward a solution.
“It’s sort of the old cowboy versus the corporate world kind of thing,” Petrie said. “The cowboys and cowgirls are the ones that make rodeo happen, and I think you’ve got to respect what they have to say.”
Until the dust settles, every rodeo organizer who spoke with the Star-Tribune said they planned to carry on with business as usual.
“(The Las Vegas bid rejection) put everybody into a tailspin and nobody really knows which direction to take … it’s all up in the air,” Sheridan WYO Rodeo Secretary Vicki Kane said. “No one’s come to a roundtable discussion yet, so we’re just going to carry on like every other year for the last 82 years.”