State of Affairs: The ERA/PRCA Saga Continues

How the ERA/PRCA situation affects team roping across the country.
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How the ERA/PRCA situation affects team roping across the country.

Editor's note: This article appeared in our December 2015 issue, which was produced before the PRCA/ERA Anti-Trust Lawsuit became public knowledge. 

When team ropers Clay Tryan, Jade Corkill, Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith stood up this March at the Texas State Capitol with lawmakers and fellow rodeo athletes to declare the formation of the Elite Rodeo Association, a member-owned organization of some of the top athletes of this era, they were hopeful that doing so would leave rodeo better than they found it. Their intent was to create a business that would benefit them, their children, and their children’s children for years to come, elevating rodeo to the level of profitability and acclaim that the Professional Bull Riders saw when they split from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in the early 1990s. Then, this September, they announced their intentions to step away from tour-formatted rodeos like the PRCA’s Wrangler Champions Challenges but still continue to compete at PRCA rodeos in an attempt to make the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo while competing at the ERA Rodeos.

ERA-MAIN-group

But then early this October, the PRCA’s Board of Directors voted eight-to-one (with team roper Bret Tonozzi dissenting) in favor of new bylaws (see sidebar) that would keep Elite Rodeo Association officers, board members, employees or owners, as well as members of other “competing associations” from being issued PRCA memberships or renewals in 2016. Upon receiving that news, many top cowboys and cowgirls took pause to see where their loyalties lie and to reevaluate their plans for their own rodeo careers going forward. Some, particularly those who’ve spent the last two years developing the ERA, vowed their allegiance to the 15-event ERA season that will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1, while others stuck to the 75-rodeo season of the PRCA.

While at first glance this split only affects 10 competitors per event (per side in the team roping), the ripples are already stretching across the industry in surprising ways, from circuit and amateur cowboys to committees to contractors.

Who’s In?

When the ERA released their lineups this October, headers Jake Barnes, Derrick Begay, Trevor Brazile, Kaleb Driggers, Charly Crawford, Chad Masters, Turtle Powell, Nick Sartain, Clay Tryan and Speed Williams made the cut, which was determined by the ERA board. Clay O’Brien Cooper, Jade Corkill, Travis Graves, Martin Lucero, Ryan Motes, Junior Nogueira, Cory Petska, Rich Skelton, Patrick Smith and Kollin VonAhn made the short list on the heel side. Early members of the ERA in each event voted on the members who would be added using their own criteria, Lucero said.

Additionally, two qualifiers on each end (and in every other event) will get to join these 10 teams at the association’s November 9-13, 2016, World Championship in Dallas’ American Airlines Center. The ERA will select those two competitors based upon money and points won at any rodeo with 36 entries or more with verifiable results (presumably PRCA, IPRA, open, etc.). Qualifiers will be tracked through erarodeo.com and must register there before attempting to qualify, according to an ERA release on Oct. 28. For 2017, the top seven from the 2016 ERA standings will enter the ERA and join with three qualifiers based on the qualifying rodeos. (At press time, the ERA hadn’t yet released the qualifying information for 2017.)

Brazile, Lucero and Motes sit on the ERA’s board, along with saddle bronc rider Bradley Harter, bareback riders Bobby Mote and Wes Stevenson and CEO and president Tony Garritano. 

“I’m fully confident that the ERA is going to fly,” said Motes. “Every single person is fully committed. I’m committed to the ERA rodeos, I can say that for sure. Obviously, I would love to be able to go to some PRCA rodeos, too. It would be a goal to still qualify for the Finals next year. (The bylaws) are directly affecting one-percent of the membership, but there’s been a lot of confusion and pushback from folks I’ve talked to about why the PRCA still won’t let their fans see Trevor and Tuf and guys like that.”

Brazile echoed his commitment to the ERA, harkening back to what he’s said all along: “We are in this for the future of rodeo.”

While each of the ERA founders will tell you they never meant to break away from the PRCA, they will say they all needed additional opportunities to feed their families. The ERA cowboys moved to add higher-paying, limited rodeos with a larger TV following and a concerted marketing effort to grow the fan base, ultimately resulting in a more stable paycheck. The ERA plans to focus its marketing to the 25- to 35-million people in rural America who aren’t yet tapped as rodeo fans.

“Everyone just assumes that the Western lifestyle consumer or rural America is tuned into rodeo and understands rodeo,” Garritano said. “There’s a very small percentage of that group who really understands rodeo and how it works. First, you’ve got to get your core audience without a doubt. You can’t go today and expect the guy in Brooklyn tomorrow. We haven’t done as efficient job from an industry perspective with our own fans. Then in the process you can pick up different markets and different consumers from that. The core audience is going to be the Western lifestyle enthusiast. Until we can hit a significant number of those folks who are interested in the sport and its contestants, you can’t look far outside of that.”

The ERA thinks its marketing efforts will increase sponsorship from inside and outside the Western industry. In turn, the ERA looks to provide additional financial gain to cowboys. 

“I won just shy of $50,000 this year,” Lucero said, who finished the year 24th in the PRCA’s world standings. “It takes every bit of $60,000 to just get up and down the road. That’s just a hard living. You’ve got to make the Finals if you even want to break even and pay for the horse you had to buy to get there or the truck you needed.”

With the hard living rodeo provides, Lucero said he has a hard time telling kids to work hard to be cowboys when they grow up.

For guys like Powell, who have needed part-time jobs outside of rodeo to support their families, the ERA makes good sense.

“It works out really good on my end,” Powell said. “If they don’t let me get a card, it makes it that much easier for me anyway. I’m growing up and getting a job, so that makes my decision easier. I think they shot the bylaws at us to split us up. But some of us are older guys who’ve rodeoed a long time. We’re sick and tired of them bullying us around. I don’t think we’re going to give.”

While the ERA was founded as a member-owned organization, Brazile said there is the opportunity for members to not accept an ownership share. If they choose to not become owners, theoretically, they are then able to rope at both ERA and PRCA events. At press time, it remains unclear whether or not any competitors have chosen this route.

Who’s Out?

If the PRCA’s new bylaws stand, 12 of the top 20 team ropers in the world, as well as eight other top team ropers and 60 contestants from other events, won’t be allowed to compete at any ProRodeo sanctioned by the PRCA, from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Pendleton, Ore., to Lake Luzerne, New York. They will get to rope at the yet-to-be-announced 15 ERA rodeos. 

Meanwhile, that opens the door for some more great cowboys and cowgirls, who have won plenty in their own right, to have an easier path to the high-payouts at the WNFR.

“I heard they considered me, but I didn’t get voted in (to the ERA),” said Paul Eaves, who enters this year’s NFR (his fourth consecutive) at number nine on the heel side. “It’s going to make it easier for sure next year. I don’t really know what to think of it. I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I’m not in there. I think it’s a good idea, I’d like to be a part of it someday, but if they can’t go to ProRodeos this year, I guess it’s a good thing I’m not in.”

On the head side, Aaron Tsinigine is fifth in the world standings and isn’t too disappointed that he’s not heading to the ERA rodeos next year.

“More money for me,” Tsinigine said. “It’s more money for me to not compete against Clay Tryan, Trevor and Derrick.”

Travis Woodard, who will heel at his first WNFR this month, is happy with who was chosen to represent the heel side for the ERA and agrees with Tsinigine on the “more money for me” front.

“I don’t feel so entitled that I deserve to be there,” Woodard said. “If these [PRCA] bylaws holds water and those guys are not there, it’s going to be good for me to not have to heel against Travis Graves, Clay Cooper and Jade Corkill. It’s going to be an amazing treat. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t know that anybody does.”

Sticking To Their Guns

In an interview this October, PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman stood firm on the Board of Directors’ move to prohibit those with a financial stake or board membership in a competing organization from purchasing a PRCA membership.

“If the industry thinks the PRCA has been sitting on their hands waiting for opportunity, they’re wrong,” Stressman said. “This has been in board conversations for many, many years. It goes back seven-plus years ago, talking about the industry and the responsibility of the PRCA to the industry... We are always in a position to promote the integrity of the PRCA and also to protect the entire sport.”

The new bylaws were vetted by a number of people and were not a “knee-jerk” reaction to anything in the industry, Stressman said. He said he sought outside counsel on the matter, but declined to comment on who was consulted.

“Let’s just say due diligence was done by the PRCA,” Stressman said.

Stressman met with committee members from 45 rodeos at the Justin Boots Finale in Omaha, Neb., in late September, and said he received 99-percent support.

Stock contractors can provide stock for ERA rodeos, Stressman said. As well, ERA members who do not take an ownership stake or board position in the organization are still allowed to purchase their PRCA cards.

PRCA sponsors have reacted favorably to the bylaw changes, Stressman said.

“We had an NFR seeding meeting last week,” Stressman said, referring to his conversations with the city of Las Vegas and other major sponsors. “We discussed it, but not a lot. It’s pretty self explanatory. I saw some discussion. But there were no major concerns over implementing the bylaws.”

Bringing in added sponsor money has always been a great challenge for the PRCA, and keeping those dollars inside the association is a key initiative, the commissioner said.

“One of the big initiatives we should have every day is to try to draw more dollars into our sport, and keep them inside the PRCA so the members benefit from the dollars out there so they can achieve a better lifestyle,” Stressman said. “We’re based on a member association trying to make decisions best for all of the members.”

While Stressman insists the bylaw change was not a reaction to the formation of the ERA, ERA president and CEO Tony Garritano doesn’t buy it.

“If we want to all sit around and pretend that this had nothing to do with the ERA, and this is something they needed to do, I guess we can play that game,” Garritano said. “I think the important thing is that the guys are very committed to the vision of the ERA, and that has not wavered since any bylaw changes. I can tell you without getting into specifics with regards to the business that they are committed to a man in the ERA. This vision and idea, they feel, given the assets, and given the plan, they feel like this is the best route to showcase rodeo at its highest level. That does not mean that they’re abandoning rodeo or any other rodeos.”
The ERA promises 42.5 hours of television coverage in 2016, a fact Stressman sees as a benefit to rodeo in general.

“People want to see rodeo,” Stressman said. “They certainly will get more opportunity to tune in and watch rodeo. Statistically, the PRCA numbers have grown by attendance in double digits. It’s pretty obvious people want to see rodeo on television and in person. Seemingly, it’s something the fans want to see. If it’s good for the sport, it’s good for the sport.”

To enforce these bylaws, the PRCA added a declaration at the end of its 2016 membership form that requires applicants to sign (and have notarized) a statement saying they are not in conflict with the new bylaws.

Outside the Lines

While much of the debate around the ERA/PRCA split has centered around the top one-percent of the cowboys, what’s just beginning to come into focus is how the new bylaws will affect circuit cowboys. Supporting the commissioner’s assertion that the PRCA had been considering a bylaw like this for a while, directors of other, smaller associations are feeling the effects as well.

The PRCA told the board of the Colorado Professional Rodeo Association they would not be able to purchase their PRCA cards in 2016 under the new bylaws, a fact that’s left CPRA Heading Director Branden Edwards and Heeling Director Hank Bownds incredulous.

“I’m not a paid CPRA board member,” Bownds said. “I’m just the heeling director, a volunteer position. Our rodeos absolutely don’t draw away or hurt the PRCA in any way. They’re trying to get after the Trevor Braziles of the world. I’m all for the ERA. I’m all for the PRCA. But the way they’ve handled this is hurting the small people too. Our association [the CPRA] is a feeder program for the PRCA.” 

Bownds said he’s called the Commissioner as well as others in the PRCA office and has yet to get a hold of anyone at the headquarters in Colorado Springs.

“I’ve got 0-percent in return from them,” Bownds said. “I don’t understand why they would be penalizing us. We can’t have both memberships if we’re on the CPRA board? I would probably choose the amateurs at this point in my life. I’m a weekend warrior. I’m married and have my first kid. I can go to three or four amateurs, or go to one or two big ProRodeos a weekend. To me I can get more bang for my buck to go to the amateurs.”

Bownds hasn’t heard back from the PRCA office, but Edwards has, and said a representative in Rodeo Administration reconfirmed that CPRA Board Members cannot buy PRCA cards for 2016.

“Personally, I’m very very frustrated with this,” Edwards said. “The PRCA, for years and years, has done an amazing job of promoting the sport of rodeo and organizing rodeo. But as anyone can see from the outside looking in with rodeos like Colorado Springs and Houston, the PRCA isn’t the all-encompassing body of rodeo. But this decision seems like they’re trying to be the all-encompassing body of rodeo.”

Spin To Win Rodeo reached out to the PRCA for comment on this issue, but PRCA spokesman Jim Bainbridge said the association had no further comment on it at this time.

While some circuit cowboys are apparently affected by the bylaws, at least for 2016, the Cinch Shootouts, one-day, invitational, non-PRCA rodeos with varying formats held within the 72-hour window from PRCA rodeo performances, will be given a pass. 

“If a rodeo had an existing contract (prior to the new Bylaws going into effect Oct. 1) with a non-sanctioned event, the PRCA will not disrupt those contracts,” Bainbridge said. “However, going forward, any committee that wants to have a non-sanctioned event will have to have that event approved by the PRCA. This is per PRCA Chief Operating Officer Aaron Enget.”

Enget and the office of Rodeo Administration will have the final say on what events are and are not permitted.

The Cheyenne Frontier Days has hosted a Cinch Shootout for the last two years, and president Tom Hirsig says the PRCA green-lighted their event for a third year.

“We’ve been in touch with the PRCA, and since we’ve already contracted to do the shootout, they’re going to let us do it,” Hirsig said. “We’re trying to get through 2016. And then we’ll engage in talks going forward. But our mindset is that the clause in the bylaws says something like as long as the event is promoting rodeo and growing the fan base, we can still have it. So that’s what we’re going forward with.”

Hirsig is referring to the last line of the B15.1.1.2 Rodeo Committees, which states: The PRCA shall have the right to approve specific events that are in conflict with this Bylaw should the PRCA deem any such event to be in the interest of its members and the promotion of professional rodeo sports in general.

Best of Both Worlds

While the ERA has yet to release their official schedule as of press time, the Sheridan WYO Rodeo committee did confirm that it plans to hold an ERA Rodeo during the city’s Don King Days over Labor Day Weekend. The event won’t interfere with the committees’ successful PRCA rodeo July 11-17, 2016, because the ERA rodeo is not within 72 hours of the PRCA rodeo.

“As we’ve done for many years, the main focus of our committee is to bring a top notch PRCA rodeo to Sheridan, Wyo.,” said committee member Zane Garstad. “We intend to continue to do that in 2016 and for another 85 years. Our committee supports the ERA concept, as it provides the opportunity to provide rodeo fans with an additional top-notch event. Our major goal is to bring economic development to the Sheridan community.”

The addition of the ERA rodeo will not compromise the PRCA rodeo in any way, Garstad said. He was quick to note that the Sheridan committee is not against any rodeo organization, but simply for the sport of rodeo.

“Because of the simplified and shortened season, fans can begin to follow their favorite cowboys and cowgirls much like they follow the bull riders in the PBR or the drivers in NASCAR,” Garstad said. “The development of the broader fan base with a much smaller player base will heighten the popularity of the individuals, which should generate more well-deserved wealth for the participants.”

What’s Next?

Questions still linger as to whether or not the PRCA can fully enforce these bylaws. There are still many other questions left to be answered regarding the ERA and its new season. At press time, the ERA schedule was yet to be finalized. According to Garritano, the association is working out the final travel details so that cowboys don’t have to zig-zag across the country from event to event. 

What’s also unclear is the sponsorship money behind the ERA, and what each event will pay. Will it be worth it for the cowboys to step away from the PRCA for 2016? Or are they sticking their necks out for a cause they believe in, but won’t truly benefit from?
The ERA set out to improve rodeo with changes to the sport as a whole and additional opportunities for cowboys today and in the future. There’s no question today that the sport is on the brink of major changes—some planned, some a surprise.

NEW PRCA BYLAWS FOR 2016
I. Competing Rodeo Events Bylaws B15.1.1.1-.2
B15.1.1.1Definition of Competing Rodeo Events. Competing Rodeo Events are events not sanctioned by the PRCA in which contestants compete in two or more of the following events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, and team roping.
B15.1.1.2Rodeo Committees. In light of the PRCA’s long-standing and ongoing efforts to create popular and successful PRCA-sanctioned professional rodeo competitions and promote rodeo sports in general, including but not limited to creating the National Finals Rodeo event and qualifying points system, soliciting corporate sponsors and television contracts, establishing rodeo rules and regulations, and developing youth and new contestant growth programs—and in order to protect the quality of all PRCA-sanctioned events—any rodeo committee and/or contracting party involved in producing a PRCA-sanctioned event agrees not to schedule, produce, promote or participate in a Competing Rodeo Event seventy-two hours before, during or seventy-two hours after a PRCA-sanctioned event. The PRCA shall have the right to approve specific events that are in conflict with this Bylaw should the PRCA deem any such event to be in the interest of its members and the promotion of professional rodeo sports in general.
II. Conflicting Rodeo Association Interests Bylaws B.1.2.1.1-.2
B1.2.1.1Definition of Conflicting Rodeo Association. Conflicting Rodeo Associations are companies, partnerships, associations or other entities whose direct or indirect purpose is to produce, promote, and/or sanction professional rodeo contests in which contestants compete in two or more of the following events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, and team roping.
B1.2.1.2Prohibition on Conflicting Rodeo Association Interests. In order to ensure that PRCA members—whose popularity and success are the result of participation in PRCA-sanctioned rodeos and related PRCA promotional efforts and activities (and the associated costly investments the PRCA has made in promoting PRCA events and rodeo sports in general)—are not pursuing interests in Conflicting Rodeo Associations while receiving the benefits of PRCA membership and are putting forth their best efforts on behalf of the PRCA, any person applying for PRCA membership who is an officer, board member, employee or has an ownership or financial interest of any form in a Conflicting Rodeo Association shall not be issued a membership, permit or renewal of membership with the PRCA.