Trend Watch: Where is team roping in new shootout-style rodeos?

More and more, traditional rodeos are adding shootout performances to their lineup—often excluding team roping and tie-down roping.
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More and more, traditional rodeos are adding shootout performances to their lineup—often excluding team roping and tie-down roping.

First it was RodeoHouston, then the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo. Now the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, Rodeo Austin and the Cheyenne Frontier Days are doing it: Each of these traditional Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos is offering a shootout-style performance outside of the PRCA sanctioning that excludes team roping, and, in most cases, tie-down roping as well.

Credit: Spin To Win Rodeo Stock Photo | Trisha Miller

Credit: Spin To Win Rodeo Stock Photo | Trisha Miller

In an effort to keep on top of the latest in rodeo and team roping, we asked sponsors, event producers and contestants to explain the many factors that are driving this trend. As you’ll see, fingers are pointed in all different directions. Is team roping being excluded because of fan preferences, stock contractor influence, production run times, sponsor interest or some combination of the above? Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer, but here’s what our contacts in the industry are telling us about the trend.

It’s important, first, to make an attempt at defining rodeo. For an event to be a sanctioned by the PRCA, it must include bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, calf roping and bull riding. If the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association is the sanctioning body, barrel racing is included as well. This would be a traditionalist’s view of rodeo. However, team roping was only added as a PRCA standard event in 2006. A casual fan, we must concede, might not notice the exclusion of one or a few of these events and still call what they’re watching a rodeo. An active fan does know the difference, though, as do the participants themselves.

Fragmenting the traditional rodeo events isn’t new. Events like the Professional Bull Riders, the Professional Roughstock Series and World’s Toughest Rodeo—even barrel racing, team roping and tie-down roping have their own associations and stand-alone events—have been going on for years, yet they’ve been doing so mainly outside of the PRCA schedule. These new shootouts are piggybacking off of the traditional PRCA rodeos and being produced by the same committee that produces the PRCA event. Usually, the shootouts are held immediately before or after the ProRodeos. In many cases, they invite the sport’s top competitors based upon their winnings at PRCA rodeos. Cheyenne, for example, is inviting the winners of the Reno Rodeo, the National Western, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, Rodeo Austin and the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, as well as the winners of the non-PRCA Calgary Stampede and RodeoHouston. In most cases, these events require contestants to pay no entry fee and add thousands of additional dollars per event.

The Evolution of the Shootout

The individual rodeo committees choosing to add this format each do so a little differently, but the general goal is to create a one performance rodeo that crowns a champion the same day, while adding exposure for the community, sponsors and contestants alike. Committees want to keep the performance fast-paced and exciting so that fans pack the stands and stay engaged.

RodeoHouston started the trend in 2011 with its Super Shootout as the 20th performance of their first non-PRCA sanctioned year, and Cinch Jeans jumped on board as a sponsor at the time. The rodeo had redesigned its format in 2007 to be a tournament-style event with brackets that would culminate on Saturday night. The rodeo had previously offered 20 performances for fans, but the new format left the rodeo ending on the 19th performance. Season ticket holders made up 66 percent of ticket buyers, and Houston needed to find something to fill that last performance. They tried hosting a collegiate rodeo, and then for three years they tried Xtreme Bulls.

 “We got complaints from our season-ticket holders who were giving those tickets to their clients,” Leroy Shafer, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of RodeoHouston, said. “Those clients weren’t seeing the same level of action as people who got tickets to the other performances. So we sat down and brainstormed. We developed the shootout format that would invite the winners of the largest North American rodeos, the ones putting up the most money out of their pockets for the contestants. Our marketing department then got involved, and they wanted to do what would make the rodeo most exciting to our audience. So we went with the extreme sports and the ones we knew were fan favorites.”

 Those events were bull riding, barrel racing, bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding, Shafer said. While Shafer wouldn’t disclose the actual numbers from RodeoHouston’s audience surveys, he said that those are consistently the most popular events in Houston’s research.

 The shootout event rivals the rodeo’s championship short round that does include all the events as far as ticket sales, Shafer said. It’s also important to note that the concert is the main sell for the tickets at Houston. Often, fans arrive late to the rodeo to see the act for the night. Of course, the most popular music acts coincide with the Saturday and Sunday performances.

“Our fans do not have a vast knowledge of rodeo,” Shafer said. “Record-setting crowds are coming to see a show, and part of that show happens to be a rodeo. The show is what most fans come to see, be it George Strait, Beyonce or Hannah Montana.”

 “For 2014, we needed a timed event to give us time for a chute change in between the roughstock events to keep the pace of the rodeo going,” Shafer continued. “We added in steer wrestling to give us time for the chute change.”

 Steer wrestling consistently ranks ahead of the team roping and the tie-down roping in Houston’s audience research, Shafer said, while the evenings’ concerts are always the most popular part of the show when polling fans.

 “The existing audience of rodeo is not wide enough to gain a TV broadcast or a major sponsorship package to support the sport,” Shafer summarized. “We are trying to reach a mainstream audience, not a niche audience. If rodeo is going to survive, it needs a new audience.”

 The city of Houston is filled with 6.3 million people and is growing rapidly, Shafer said. With the population shifting toward urban areas, roping cannot reign supreme in those markets, he said. Shafer argued that each rodeo is going to have to channel itself to individual audiences and offer some give-and-take for rodeo to grow. Shafer pointed out that team roping and tie-down roping are only cut out of one of the 20 performances RodeoHouston hosts.

In 2012, San Angelo—a traditionally roping-crazed town—adopted the RodeoHouston shootout format.

“The format is favorable to fans,” Justin Jonas, executive director of the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo, said. “We have eight to ten contestants compete, and the short round narrows it to four. In between, we interview the contestants and the fans get to know them. It gives it a personal touch.”

San Angelo modeled their shootout after seeing RodeoHouston’s success. Therefore, those events were the ones included in that shootout, and other rodeos are beginning to follow suit—including Cheyenne. 

“We had trouble [excluding roping] in San Angelo,” Jonas said. “We are very much a roping town, with thousands of roping fans, and we’ve hosted the Cinch Jeans San Angelo Roping Fiesta for years. But they (RodeoHouston) only had a few events to keep the show shorter, and they excluded the roping. We’ve found we lose fans if it goes longer than two-and-a-half hours, and we want to keep the excitement fast.”

However, the PRCA manages to keep the Wrangler NFR performances at two hours for ten nights in a row in Las Vegas while featuring all seven events with 15 contestants in each.

Funding the Shootouts

Cinch Jeans jumped on board to sponsor the first RodeoHouston shootout, and has been a sponsor of similar events like Colorado vs. The World, held before the National Western Stock Show’s PRCA rodeo, as well as the San Angelo shootout. This March, the Cheyenne Frontier Days announced its own Cinch Jeans’ Rodeo Shootout, scheduled for July 18, before the PRCA action begins at the Daddy of ’Em All. The shootout in Cheyenne will offer bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, barrel racing and bull riding.

Cinch Jeans has caught some flack from the roping world because of their sponsorship of these events that don’t include roping. However, at the professional level, one apparel company, Wrangler, has a long-standing exclusive sponsorship deal for all PRCA-sanctioned events, including the marquee event—the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Until recently, those were the only rodeo games in town. Now, with new formats and ideas about what rodeo could be popping up, Cinch explains that they’re simply looking to become involved with rodeo and get their brand in front of the fan base afforded by these new events. And this isn’t just true for Cinch, these new formats open doors for other companies interested in becoming a part of rodeo as well.

“We are all about producing innovative events and marketing cowboys in exclusive sponsorship opportunities,” said Megan Grieve, event lead for Miller International, Cinch Jeans’ parent company. “We point out examples of successful sponsorship ventures to our partners. The committees are excited for an innovative format. We never dictate which events should be included or not. We present them with a range of successful sponsorships, from high school rodeo to Colorado vs. The World to Rodeo All-Star.”

Colorado vs. The World has neither team roping nor tie-down roping, while Rodeo All-Star has both but does not offer equal money in the team roping. Cinch also sponsored the American, which did in fact include team roping and paid equal money to headers and heelers in the event. It’s important to note, too, that Cinch Jeans is also the title sponsor of the United States Team Roping Championship’s National Finals of Team Roping, as well as the National High School Finals Rodeo, and they also sponsor a whole herd of team ropers at the professional level.

“Cinch puts money into the USTRC, the Windy Ryon and more,” said Rich Skelton, eight-time world champion heeler and recently added Cinch endorsee. “They put money into team roping in a lot of ways, and these rodeos give them a chance to get their name in a place where otherwise Wrangler would have exclusivity. They also let Cinch put money toward their other endorsees, like bronc riders and barrel racers, who don’t have anything like the US Finals or the Windy Ryon to go to otherwise.

“Of course it would be nice if the (Cinch Shootouts) could include all of the events, but they’re just getting started and the formats aren’t set in stone,” Skelton continued.

An example is the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colo., which broke from the PRCA for 2014 and is now sponsored by Cinch. When the committee initially announced the event this January, it did not include team roping.

 “Events continue to evolve with the feedback of fans and community stakeholders,” Grieve said. “One example is the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, which went open for 2014 and for which Cinch has become the title sponsor. Again, full autonomy has been given to the committee relative to format, selection process, etc. Following announcement of the open format, team roping was added as an event after fan feedback to the committee.”

Stock Contractors’ Stake

It’s the unity of the sport as a whole that 2009 World Champion Heeler Kollin VonAhn called into question when discussing whether those organizing the roughstock side of the arena have a say in keeping team roping and tie-down roping in these shootouts.

“A big thing that would help this problem is if stock contractors liked team roping,” VonAhn said. “Steers are a pain in the butt. There’s not money in having roping steers, and these committees are getting run off by stock contractors not even wanting to mess with roping cattle.”

It’s not just the team roping steers, either, that some competitors are alleging stock contractors would rather not bring to the rodeos.

 “Stock contractors don’t like to have to deal with calves,” 2008 World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith said. “A calf lasts two or three months and then he’s outlasted his career in rodeo. A bull or a bronc can last 10, 15 years or more. Putting on the tie-down roping and team roping is harder for just a few people. The stock contractors don’t like having to haul the timed event animals. And that hurts, because these are popular sports.”

But Binion Cervi, whose Cervi Championship Rodeo puts on Colorado vs. The World, one of the events without team roping, as well as dozens of PRCA rodeos across the country, said stock contractors are simply fulfilling the wishes of committees about which stock they bring.

“We are happy with whatever the committee decides,” Cervi said. “If it doesn’t benefit the committee, who are the ones who put up all the risk and the volunteer hours for these rodeos, then we’re all screwed. The committees are the boss, and they make it all possible—not the PRCA, not the cowboys, and not the stock contractors.”

Cowboys’ Perspective

“When they get to talking about these rodeos adding a new fan base, I don’t buy into that,” VonAhn argued. “They might get new fans in for one performance, but the fans that will come to the 100th performance want to see team roping. Go to the George Strait Team Ropng Classic, the Bob Feist Invitational. They sell a ton of tickets to watch the top guys in the world rope and don’t have any problem filling the stands.”

Shafer argued that because team ropers have events like the George Strait and the BFI, which are obviously team-roping only events, they should not complain about a shootout rodeo that excludes team roping. He said that team ropers have been competing in jackpots for years, and the shootout rodeos are simply the roughies’ version of this.

Team ropers will disagree, though. They put up their own money to rope at events like the BFI and the Strait, while the payout of these shootouts is all added money and contestants do not pay entry fees.

“The BFI, the US Finals, those are jackpots,” Jim Ross Cooper, four-time NFR-qualifying heeler, said. “We are roping for our own money. A majority of what we win is not added money, but our own entry fees and our own money we put up to rope.”

“The greatest cowboy in our sport, Trevor Brazile, team ropes and calf ropes, so that means they’re going to have a rodeo without him,” VonAhn added.

And what does the greatest cowboy in our sport have to say about rodeos holding these shootouts?

“I don’t have any problems with rodeos that want to showcase the best in every event,” Brazile, a 19-time world champion, said. “But what I don’t like is them fragmenting our sport. It messes up the integrity and unity of it.”

“Not many people pay to go to a team roping only,” said Dan Cheney, Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo committee president when asked why his rodeo chose not to include team roping at their shootout this July. “Ticket sales do not support the purse for team roping. They do for a rodeo. I don’t think we’ll lose any fans (by not including team roping).”

Team ropers will argue, though, that among the events at any rodeo, more fans participate in team roping at an amateur level than anywhere else. Denny Gentry, owner of the World Series of Team Roping and founder of the USTRC, says that there are about 100,000 team ropers in the TRIAD number system, and at any time 30,000-35,000 are actively roping. Using those numbers, team ropers like Jim Ross Cooper say that the chances of rodeo fans liking to watch roping and understanding its finer points are higher than other events.

“At the NFR, or at any performance at Cheyenne, they don’t have a problem filling the stands with team roping or calf roping included,” Cooper said. “I think they don’t like team roping because it’s a hassle for them. By eliminating team roping, calf roping and steer roping from their shootout, that’s three events they don’t have to worry about.”

Of course, committees claim they aren’t filling the stands to the degree they’d like to during the regular performances, and, as stated above, is their motivation for the changes.

As for certain events not succeeding in certain markets, Brazile added, “Look at the NFR. Tie-down roping is a fan-favorite event there. If tie-down roping isn’t a priority for fans there, then you’ve got a problem with the rodeo itself. The product you’re putting out there for fans needs to be reconsidered. Maybe fans don’t like watching 16-second runs. But when presented in the right way, I know it’s a fan-favorite event.”

Four-time world champion bareback rider Bobby Mote elaborated on the point of quality stock at certain rodeos choosing to eliminate timed events: “If you have the best guys and you have crappy stock, it’s not going to be good watching, just like in the roughstock events. This too often gets overlooked. In Houston, you will get dairy calves mixed in with Angus calves and some will kick and fight and some will run and some will barely break the neck rope. When you don’t do a good job putting your stock together, you can’t expect good watching. Nobody wants to go to a rodeo to watch Tuf Cooper be 11.”

Mote added that team roping is the most popular event amongst amateur participants, and that fans can relate to the sport better than anything else in rodeo.

 “Team roping appeals to a lot of people,” Mote said. “You don’t see 50-year-old business executives climbing on bucking horses. Golf is not that much fun to watch, but people watch it because they can understand and appreciate the finer points to it. And team roping is a whole lot more interesting than golf. You take that element away from rodeo and you’re weakening it.

 “And in the instance of Cheyenne, I’m pretty sure they didn’t poll their audience in Wyoming and find out they don’t like roping,” Mote added.

Where the PRCA Fits In

Most cowboys still chose to attend the non-sanctioned rodeo for the $50,000 payday in Houston, and that was a mistake, according to 2011 World Champion Header Turtle Powell.

“I think we all needed to stick together,” Powell said. “Everybody is trying to get by, and that’s why we go to places like Houston with all that money. But we’re hurting ourselves in the long run. Going to Houston that first year was the biggest mistake we could have made.”

Cowboys going to RodeoHouston showed other rodeos that they could still get top cowboys and sell tickets without the PRCA, Powell argued.

The lack of cohesiveness among rodeo contestants is an issue. The Turtles had it in 1939, but they didn’t create a union—they created an association to look out for their best interests. Because that association also now procures sponsorships that pay these cowboys, it does have some exclusivity clauses for some sponsors. Yet, in the marketplace, there’s a demand from other companies to sponsor the sport. The events created from that demand obviously don’t have to adhere to any sanctioning body.

“The best thing about Colorado vs. The World and Rodeo All-Star being unsanctioned is that we can control the number of contestants,” said Leon Vick, director of rodeo operations for the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. “Added money controls the depth to which we can limit entries in the PRCA. The format we have for Rodeo All-Star and Colorado vs. The World (with their limited invitations) is greatly accepted by the fans, and it’s easy to follow. Spectators don’t have to try to figure out what someone did the week before in a performance to know what’s going on. It’s real simple, it’s me against you. And that freedom to create the spectator-friendly format is the main plus (of not being a PRCA rodeo).”

For the PRCA to allow a rodeo committee to limit the rodeo’s entries, the committee must submit a request to the PRCA’s event reps (such as Garrett Tonozzi for the team roping and Mike Johnson for the tie-down roping). Each event rep polls his constituents and decides what makes sense for their individual event at that individual rodeo. With San Juan Capistrano’s (Calif.) Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, everybody agreed to 30 entries, but there have been cases where the number of steer wrestlers was greater than the tie-down ropers or team roping pairs (or vice versa) in a particular rodeo, according to the PRCA’s Senior PR Coordinator, Jim Bainbridge.

“It’s been tough the last few years with all of the big rodeos wanting to limit it,” team roping event rep and NFR-qualifying header Tonozzi said. “For the rodeos that put up more added money, we’ll sometimes allow it, but we don’t want to get the entries too low because that hurts the membership. It’s a really fine line, and we’re trying our best to walk it and do what’s best for the members and the sport as a whole.”

Within the PRCA membership, 67.5 percent of dues-paying cowboys list either team roping or tie-down roping as one of their events, though that doesn’t mean it’s their primary event, Bainbridge said. 

As far as favorite events of the fan base, however, Bainbridge said the numbers are much less clear. He did say, though, that in every study ever done, bull riding comes out as the fan favorite. But after bull riding, the numbers vary so much from study to study that they’re not to be trusted. 

“The PRCA is a membership organization,” Bainbridge said. “You have to look out for all of your members and do right by them. Events that exclude part of your members are a problem.”

For its part, the PRCA is also trying to gain a new audience and push rodeo to a new level of television coverage, much like these shootout rodeos, while at the same time including all events. That’s part of the goal of the Champions Challenges, in combination with the switch to CBS Sports Network as the home of the Champions Challenges and the PRCA’s Justin Boots Championships in Puyallup, Wash., and Omaha, Neb. The theory is that by consistently bringing the top contestants into American homes on CBS Sports, they’ll gain a following much like athletes from mainstream sports. 

“This new tour highlights our marquee contestants against the very best stock who will be featured on a consistent basis. Our fans will have a chance to see their favorite athletes in a Wrangler NFR-style format,” Karl Stressman, commissioner of the PRCA, said of the Champions Challenges and CBS Sports this past December. “We believe CBS Sports Network is a great fit for the PRCA, because it takes us to a mainstream sports network audience. It’s exciting for one of the fastest-growing sports in the world to partner with the fastest growing sports network in the country. The commitment of CBS Sports Network to ProRodeo will be a win-win for both partners.”

When the Dust Clears

Regardless of who is taking it where, an undeniable transition in the sport of rodeo is happening. From the committees to the associations to the sponsors and the cowboys, everyone is clamoring to be a part of defining its future. On one hand, it’s great that the sport of rodeo seems to be getting more and more attention from sponsors and event producers. On the other hand, team ropers and tie-down ropers are concerned they’ll become a casualty in the shake-up. It’s safe to say that no one in the industry understands or is aware of everything that is happening on every level, from the cowboys themselves to committee members, stock contractors and sponsors. There are many conflicting interests in this sport, and they’re coming into conflict with more at stake all the time.

There’s also little doubt that there will always be people who team rope, work to improve their game and dream of some measure of fame. Seeing the sport contested at the highest levels is part of what keeps those dreams alive.

Where the dust settles is anybody’s guess. Pro team ropers have a voice in the sport of rodeo and a seat at the table. They may not have the best hand, but how the cards are played is up to them.