In the last decade, professional rodeo has skyrocketed into the mainstream. Cowboys have become superstar athletes, and fans turn out in record numbers to cheer on their favorite riders. So why has PRCA, rodeo’s driving force, had to fight to stay alive?
Today's Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association developed from humble beginnings, when, in 1936, a group of disgruntled cowboys walked out of a Boston, Massachusetts, rodeo, protesting the event producer’s refusal to add entry fees to the prize money up for grabs.
The contestants organized as the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, in a nod to their self-admitted slowness to react to their own concerns, and rodeo history was made. That modest group, borne of the need to give its sport a new direction, became the Rodeo Cowboys rodeo Association in 1945, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975.
With PRCA at the forefront, rodeo has grown into a major, mainstream, multimillion-dollar sport, drawing fans from both ranches and the suburbs.
But now the organization is at a crossroads. A hunger for television exposure led it close to financial disaster. The resignation of a commissioner, and the criminal conviction of his replacement, has left the group with a leadership void. Disputes with members, former employees and rival associations have PRCA facing multiple lawsuits. Criticism by animal-rights groups, which has always been part of the rodeo landscape, even in the “Turtle era,” persists. And, disagreements over how best to promote rodeo’s stars, while still creating opportunities for mainstream competitors, have led to dwindling membership numbers.
How did PRCA go from an organization on a meteoric rise to one struggling to avoid an epic crash? It’s a long, twisting story, but much of it can be traced to 1998.
Lewis Cryer, PRCA’s first commissioner, had just retired, leaving the association in strong financial health. PRCA’s board of directors wanted to expand the sport’s mass appeal, and believed television was the answer. After all, television had turned NASCAR into a booming mainstream sport. Most on PRCA’s board believed rodeo could enjoy similar success.
It was a noble attempt.
The board hired college sports administrator Steve Hatchell as commissioner. Hatchell understood the television game. As the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, he helped negotiate television contracts and a bowl-game formula that made the conference one of college football’s strongest.
And thus, PRCA’s problems began.
The Price of Ambition
Hatchell’s plan was to develop true rodeo stars, sports celebrities that fans could follow on telecasts. In 2000, he implemented the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour. The tour had winter and summer runs with 12 stops, each concluding with a finale. Every event included television coverage.
In 2001, the Copenhagen Cup Finale, presented by the Texas Stampede, as it was called then, was hailed as the model event of the future. It played to a packed house at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, with the best cowboys, best stock and plenty of glitz. At stake was the future of professional rodeo.
Everyone seemed awestruck.
At the time, Shawn Davis, a three-time world saddlebronc champion and the general manager of the tour finales and the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, said, “This is as good as it gets. This is the most exciting rodeo I’ve ever seen."
To keep PRCA’s young bull riders from jumping ship to a rival organization, Professional Bull Riders, in 2003, Hatchell developed Xtreme Bulls. Its 10-stop tour, with a total purse of $750,000, also was televised.
Rodeo was flying high. TV exposure increased by nearly 400 percent, with almost 300 hours in 2003. In 2004, PRCA continued its multi-year television agreements with CBS, ESPN, ESPN2 and Outdoor Life (now Versus). It included 10 straight days of same-day NFR coverage.
It was a great time for rodeo. However, no one seemed to be monitoring the books. By the end of 2004, the honeymoon was over. The organization found itself $3.56 million in the hole—and sinking faster by the day.
Hatchell abandoned the association during the 2004 NFR, announcing his resignation as he returned to a position in college football. PRCA again faced the challenge of finding a new commissioner.
Cowboy at the Helm
In came Troy Ellerman, who had served as chairman of PRCA’s board during the final years of Hatchell’s tenure. Ellerman was the only candidate interviewed for the association’s top spot. He lacked the sports administration background of previous commissioners, but had grown up in rodeo. He performed with his family’s trick-riding act from a young age and rode bulls for a time.
He was also a lawyer who knew PRCA’s workings from many angles: contestant, competitor and board member. Almost immediately, Ellerman angered members by closing the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame for three months, citing the hall’s financial difficulties.
He trimmed PRCA’s staff, firing some 40 people in his first six months. The Wrangler ProRodeo Tour telecasts, which had lost $1.5 million in 2004, were reduced, saving $3 million in production costs.
During the 2005 NFR, Ellerman announced another change. The licensing and marketing rights to the ProRodeo Tour finales and the Xtreme Bulls tour had been sold to ProRodeo Tour, LLC, and Winnercomm Sports, respectively.
PRT, which signed a five-year contract, was responsible for funding the prize money for the tour finales and all television production costs. And, the association was no longer liable for tour losses. Winnercomm agreed to a similar arrangement for the Xtreme Bulls tour.
To help PRT, significant changes were made to the structure of the 2007 Wrangler ProRodeo Tour. Ellerman announced a 21- event tour, culminating with a playoff system and championships at four sites: Caldwell, Idaho; Puyallup, Washington; Omaha, Nebraska; and Dallas. Only the four championship events would receive national television exposure.
As a result of the licensing-rights sales, PRCA breathed with new financial life. The association finished 2006 with a nearly $4 million surplus, following a 2005 season that had put it $4.6 million in the black. PRCA had made an $8.2 million turnaround in just two years.
But early this year, dark clouds again circled PRCA’s Colorado Springs, Colorado, headquarters. On February 19, Ellerman resigned as commissioner.
Before becoming commissioner, Ellerman worked as an attorney for BALCO founder Victor Conte, and later for company vice president James Valente. BALCO was a California lab that produced illegal performance-enhancement steroids for elite athletes. After leaking grand-jury testimony related to the case, Ellerman pled guilty to four felony charges of obstruction of justice and disobeying court orders. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Search for a Leader
After Ellerman’s departure, Keith Martin, general manager of the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, took on the role of PRCA’s interim CEO. Also the chairman of PRCA’s board, Martin made it clear he didn’t want the commissioner’s job, but was willing to guide the organization through the difficult days ahead.
“We’re trying to get the foundation of the organization straight for a new commissioner,” Martin said. “For instance, we’ve brought back Kay Bleakly [PRCA’s former co-director of rodeo administration]. She’ll be a tremendous help because she has so much technical and operational knowledge of the association. When the new commissioner steps in, it won’t be so difficult.”
PRCA members have a hard time agreeing on the qualities they want to see in the group’s next commissioner.
Colorado stock contractor Harry Vold thinks the organization needs someone with a rodeo background.
“And someone who’s honest,’’ he added.
Six-time world champion all-around cowboy Larry Mahan believes the organization needs someone with a strong business background.
“We also have to do a more serious background check,” he said. “When I found out Ellerman had worked for BALCO, I felt that there was something just not right. That’s the kind of thing we have to look at more closely.”
Eight-time world champion bull rider Don Gay, however, doesn’t see the need for a PRCA commissioner.
“We need an office manager with a rodeo background,” he said. “And he needs to answer to the board of directors. Not the other way around.’’
The Calf-Roping Debate
PRCA also faces constant criticism by animal-rights groups that are pushing for the association to do away with calf roping (or tie-down roping, as PRCA calls it) and steer roping.
Steer roping is an optional event, but tie-down roping is mandatory at all PRCA-sanctioned rodeos. When a roper “jerks down” a calf, he’s fined $100, but the penalty hasn’t eliminated the issue.
“PRCA needs to come down with a hard-and-fast rule,” said Neal Gay, the Mesquite (Texas) Championship Rodeo producer. “When a guy jerks down a calf, they need to give him a 10-second violation, just as if he’d broken the barrier.”
Gay also says using larger calves (weighing around 260 pounds) would help eliminate injuries. Many rodeos prefer to use smaller calves because they lead to faster times and added crowd enthusiasm, and because competitors don’t like roping heavy-duty calves.
“At smaller rodeos, the cowboys pretty much run the show,” said Vold, who produces Cheyenne (Wyoming) Frontier Days. “They tell you what size calves have to be, and if they’re too large, the cowboys won’t show up.”
Membership declines in rough-stock events, especially bareback riding, have plagued PRCA. The association’s total membership has fallen some 3,000 members since 1997, and smaller rodeos struggle to get even a handful of bareback riders in each performance.
Stock contractors and competitors sharply disagree on a solution. California stock contractor Cotton Rosser blames today’s harder bareback rigging.
“When I was riding bareback horses,” he said, “you held on to the rigging. Now the rigging hangs on to you.”
Tom Reeves, the 2001 world saddlebronc champion and Ranger (Texas) College rodeo coach, says the problem is the faulty training bareback riders receive at an early age.
“Proper training is what’s really needed,” he said. “I’m trying to bring in young rough-stock riders to teach them proper methods.”
To boost rough-stock membership, PRCA’s Mountain States Circuit now offers state high-school rodeo champions in Colorado and Wyoming free PRCA permits. Rodeo committees within the region underwrite each $300 permit. The idea is popular among PRCA members, many of whom want the association to implement the program nationwide.
Compounding its recent struggles, PRCA faces an unprecedented amount of high-profile competition. For years, it’s had to contend with bull riders defecting to bull-riding-only groups, such as PBR. A new competitor, the Pro Rodeo League, plans to launch next year.
PRL’s founder, Truman Wright, says his group will offer benefits PRCA can’t, including salaries for competitors, reimbursement of their travel expenses and a better insurance plan. In PRL competition, eight teams will compete in seven rodeo events. The teams, he says, will be stocked by a draft of well-known PRCA cowboys.
Haves and Have-Nots
Many rodeo committees say that rodeo is moving toward a two-tier system, splitting PRCA into the haves and have-nots, and putting some longtime rodeos out of business.
In 2007, PRCA limited cowboys to entering only 70 rodeos a season. As a result, most top competitors stick to major events, bypassing smaller rodeos altogether. And, with $3 per gallon gasoline, those smaller rodeos are under increased pressure from cowboys who complain that purses need to be raised.
Eight-time world champion Joe Beaver was a rookie in 1985.
“Some rodeos have made little improvement over the purses they offered when I first started,” he said. “You can’t make a living on that kind of money.”
Martin, who was involved in producing PRCA’s first $1 million, regularseason rodeo, in San Antonio, agrees that purses have to be raised.
“It’s not about 10 or 12 rodeos,” he says. “It takes all of our rodeos, coast-tocoast, large and small, to make it work. We don’t want anyone thinking that it’s just the big rodeos that are important. It takes everybody.”
He says the organization should continue to raise the financial bar for rodeos with larger resources, enabling full-time contestants to make a living in the sport, adding that smaller rodeos, which make up the majority of PRCA’s events, must continue to play a role. Most part-time competitors, who comprise the largest percentage of PRCA’s membership, compete at those smaller rodeos.
“They’re the backbone of our organization,” Martin said.
Smaller rodeo committees, such as that of the Mesquite Championship Rodeo, say they’re comfortable with the position they’re in.
“We’ll never be in the top tier of rodeo,” says the weekly event’s general manager, Mark Miller. “We’re satisfied with being a farm team for the major tour. We still put on a good show with the guys we get.”
The Turtle Mindset
Despite the problems facing PRCA, promoters say rodeo attendance has never been better.
But for PRCA to overcome its challenges— leadership, finances, a declining membership, rodeo cowboys’ economics, scrutiny by animal-rights groups—perhaps the sport’s key figures will need to rekindle the spirit of the association’s founders, those original discontented “turtles” who took bold action to revolutionize their sport.
Texas-based writer Ed Knocke has covered rodeo for the Dallas Morning News for three decades.