The New Deal?

The Elite Rodeo Association is looking to bring a higher level of competition to a national audience, providing bigger purses for contestants and more TV programming for fans.
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The Elite Rodeo Association is looking to bring a higher level of competition to a national audience, providing bigger purses for contestants and more TV programming for fans.

In every elementary school in every small town from Pendleton, Ore., to Stephenville, Texas, to Perry, Ga., there’s that one kid who wears his mutton bustin’ or dummy roping buckle on his waist, ears tucked into his cowboy hat with his rope on the playground. And when the teacher asks each student to write or draw what he or she wants to be when he grows up, that kid can be counted on to say one thing: a cowboy.

Elite Rodeo Association

For Trevor Brazile, the founding of the Elite Rodeo Association is about giving that kid a real chance to make a living following that dream, making it just as elusive but still ever possible as becoming a professional football, baseball or basketball player.

Brazile is one of 55 of the world’s winningest cowboys and cowgirls who have joined together to form the Elite Rodeo Association, a new group looking to host 15 rodeos, promising a showcase of top-tier talent across the country with a championship event to be held in Texas in 2016. 

“My main motivation is to help my son and not feel like I’m doing him a disservice in teaching him to rope and helping him have this career,” Brazile said. “At the end of the day, the system has worked for me but it hasn’t for a lot of guys.”

Long-time rodeo sponsorship guru Tony Garritano is at the helm as president and CEO of the ERA, which plans to allow in about 125 members in 2016.

Founders cite a desire to better serve rodeo fans by giving them the best in the world to watch with a regular season and world championship, a need to change the grueling rodeo lifestyle for top competitors and an opportunity for bringing in more dollars to the sport, increasing the viability of rodeo as a career option all as reasons for the creation of the ERA.

“We felt there needed to be a concentrated focus on the best guys in the world,” Garritano said. “There needed to be a way to showcase the best talent in the world and there isn’t one currently ... by maximizing that, I believe we can help rodeo overall. If you showcase the best guys in the world, and they broaden the platform of the sport and increase sponsorship, over time more people will want to participate in the sport. If 1,000 new people get involved, and only 10 will make it to the best level, the other 990 will go to other tours and associations throughout the rodeo industry and help it grow. In the end, the fans are going to win. That’s a lot of what we’re trying to accomplish. They want to see the best in the world compete through a regular season that ends in a world championship. Right now, that doesn’t exist. In the end, it’s really about the fans.”

Often, top athletes, based on their schedules, will have to perform in the slack at a rodeo, leaving fans who bought tickets missing out on the stars they’d like to see, Brazile said. 

“We want to over deliver the best in the world to the fans.” Brazile said. 

“If I go to an NBA game, I want to watch guys like Kevin Durant,” added three-time world champion Clay Tryan. “The best guys get to go heads up in front of the fans.”

Each rodeo will have 10-15 competitors in each event, Garritano said. Bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding will be included, while steer roping is still being discussed. An age minimum for competitors is also under discussion, Garritano said. 

Shareholders are still deciding which national network will carry the ERA programming, Garritano said. 

The 55 shareholders will help determine those who get to compete for the ERA money in 2016, Garritano explained vaguely. “The top 55 are already there, and then it will be an invite based on a lot of things. It can be an invite based off of what these 55 guys see, and so on and so forth.”

More details on the ERA selection process will be released in coming months, Garritano said. 

Brazile, Tryan, Jade Corkill, Patrick Smith, Charmayne James, Tuf Cooper, Fred Whitfield and Bobby Mote showed up at the Texas State Legislature Feb. 16 in support of ERA Rodeo.

They were in Austin at the Capitol Building because Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. introduced HB 1440, to make the Elite Rodeo Association World Championship eligible for funding through the Texas Major Events trust fund. Other events that utilize this fund are the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four tournament, the Democratic or Republican National Convention and other similarly massive events. The goal is for Dallas to host the Elite Rodeo Association World Championships, with the rest of the 15 tour stops to be released later this summer or in early fall.

“The bill affords the city the opportunity to take the sales tax money raised by the event and be able to split it with the state of Texas and return a portion of the money back to the event,” Bell explained. “Some of it can go back into the cost associated with putting on the event, some of it to prizes.”

The agreement between the state and the event can mean big dollars going back to the event, Bell added, and will be a five-year commitment staying level across that window. Some agreements between smaller events and the state can be on a declining scale of funding, but giving ERA major event status, the money will stay consistent. 

“My motivation is two-fold,” Bell said. “This is to promote Texas and promote the cities in Texas. And personally, I want to see ‘Rodeo’ said in the same vein as those other events, like the Super Bowl and the World Series, because I believe it’s on par with those events.”

ERA founders have built their business model around that of other major sports organizations like the National Football League and Major League Baseball, Garritano said. While other rodeo organizations draw their operating budgets from membership dues and sanctioning fees, the ERA plans to focus on various revenue streams through corporate sponsorships, television revenues, licensing fees and merchandising. 

“It’s all being put in place now to ensure that it’s not about the success of the backs of the contestants,” Garritano said. “There have been a lot of corporations excited about this direction and have wanted to see something like this happen. From the endemic side, and as well as folks from outside the rodeo business, they get it. It’s something they participate in every day in other sports. It’s packaged, branded, televised. They’re excited because of the demographic of the fan base. It’s a vibrant fan base. We think we can enhance it doing it this way. The other ones aren’t doing it wrong, they’re just doing it different.”

Garritano said that currently associations are membership-based and must cater to their entire membership, while the ERA is able to focus just on the needs of the top 1 percent of cowboys and cowgirls.

So how were the 55 original ERA shareholders determined? Garritano explained in a phone interview that “it was really based off of guys that have name recognition—guys who have been around, guys in particular events who we think should be in it from a name recognition standpoint. Guys who we feel like have enough talent to win it.”

There are eight shareholder representatives per event, roughly. Some events have more, some have less, Garritano said. Barrel racers, for example, have “four or five” representatives. 

Speaking of barrel racers, 11-time WPRA World Champion Charmayne James has been involved with the ERA and is thinking of coming out of retirement to compete in the new association. 

“She’s considering coming out of retirement with 15 tour stops,” Garritano, also James’ husband, said. “She’s always training and working with them, and she’s got some finished horses and some young ones coming along.”

James retired from rodeo after winning her 11th world title because she felt she’d accomplished all she wanted and because she wanted to raise her family at home, not in the back seat of a pickup, Garritano said. The ERA will allow her to raise her family while still competing for big (yet still undisclosed) paydays.

“Not only are we trying to create something for the fans to enjoy, because certainly the fans want to see this, the best of the best every time. But also, in addition to the money that hopefully will help the cowboys and cowgirls, lifestyle has a lot to do with it. Everyone discounts that. People just assume that they love to go up and down the road, but that’s just not the case. It’s very disruptive, especially if you’ve got a family. They do it because they have to do it and there’s no other alternative. If there were an alternative to living in airports and the trucks on the road 200 days a year or having your horses hauled for one rodeo a month or so and just flying in the day before, I bet they’d pick the latter. Not only are we trying to change the product for the fans and for sponsors and income for the contestants, it’s also a lifestyle change.”

Helping shape this lifestyle change will be the ERA’s board of directors, who have been voted in to a two-year term by the shareholders. The members’ names were not yet public as of this magazine’s press deadline, but Garritano said there are three roughstock representatives, three timed event representatives and one administrative representative. 

Four-time bareback riding world champion Bobby Mote has been an outspoken supporter of the association, as well as a shareholder. He said just as many roughstock competitors as timed event competitors support the ERA. Bareback riders and saddle bronc riders don’t have any other viable options for winning more money to support their families, Mote said. 

“I’ve won more than anyone else has in my event, and if I stopped rodeoing today, tomorrow I’d be looking for work,” Mote said. “Our motivation isn’t to make this a better place for me. I might not have a chance to ride in the ERA, I’m 38 years old. But I’m going to step aside and let whoever is the best be involved. We want rodeo to be a viable career path. Right now, I have a hard time telling kids to pursue a career in rodeo.”

Cooper and Tryan echoed Motes’ insistence that this will most benefit the next generation, rather than those beginning the ERA. 

“There are so many young kids that rodeo and rope,” Cooper said. “The junior rodeos and ropings, they keep growing and growing. The ranks are so big, this has to happen and it’s going to show them there’s something to look forward to where they can make a real living doing this.” 

“Most of us organizing this are at the top, but some of us are on the back nine of our careers. It’s more about the kids coming up. We have kids and we’re trying to create future superstars and allow the future generations to be more successful,” Tryan said. 

The ERA will release more details in the coming months as they put together the nuts and bolts of the organization, Garritano said, with a full tour schedule slated for release at the end of summer or the beginning of fall 2015.