The Elite Rodeo Association filed an antitrust class-action lawsuit Nov. 9 in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, with named plaintiffs Trevor Brazile (22-time PRCA World Champion), Bobby Mote (four-time PRCA World Champion) and Ryan Motes (ERA board member and three-time WNFR qualifying heeler.
The lawsuit looks to stop--on a temporary and permanent basis--"blatant federal antitrust violations" by the PRCA, referring to the bylaws passed by the PRCA's Board of Directors this September. The bylaws bar from PRCA membership any competing rodeo events' owner, officer, board member or employee, and define "competing rodeo events" as 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.
"The class action lawsuit we have been forced to file seeks a court order to stop the PRCA from enforcing these unfair and illegal bylaws, which will hurt not just the top athletes like Trevor, Bobby and Ryan, but countless others across the country who want to try and help the sport, but will be penalized by the PRCA's efforts," ERA President and CEO Tony Garritano said Monday. "The free market gets to decide what competition takes place, not the PRCA, which has assumed, or attempted, ownership of all rodeo, and has manipulated the sport in their favor through illegal and monopolistic tactics."
The ERA cowboys and cowgirls have enlisted the help of sports attorney Jim Quinn, a partner in the law firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges LLP, as well as antitrust lawyer Eric Hochstadt and sports attorney John Gerba.
In response, PRCA spokesman Jim Bainbridge sent a statement Monday night declaring the PRCA is aware of the lawsuit that has been recently filed, and is prepared to and will vigorously defend its position in the matter.
Monday's complaint, which is 39 pages long, traces the saga of the ERA/PRCA divide back throughout the PRCA's history. It reviews the history of these types of lawsuits with the PRCA, citing Stone v PRCA in 1985, when a court ruled that the PRCA could not ban its members from competing in other organizations. When that prohibition ended, according to the complaint, rodeo athletes filed another lawsuit against a new rule that barred members from competing at the NFR if they had participated in non-PRCA rodeos that year. That case, in 1991, was Medlin v. PRCA, and in that instance the court ruled in favor of Medlin, finding that the rule violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The 1991 court held that "it is reasonably likely that the Rule violates section 1 of the Sherman Act...in that it appears to be a horizontal conspiracy that cannot withstand scrutiny under a rule of reason analysis. It appears anticompetitive in both purpose and effect."
The Medlin ruling enacted a 10-year injunction beginning in 1991, which was in place when the PBR bull riders broke away from the PRCA, the complaint explains. That injunction, however, expired in 2001.
The PGA and the NFL have experienced similar litigation, Quinn said.
"A nearly identical cross-ownership ban was preliminarily enjoined and ultimately struck down in NASL v NFL in the early 1980s as being illegal under the antitrust laws," Quinn said. "That case has stood the test of time for nearly 40 years."
With the 2016 season already underway, Quinn said the ERA is seeking temporary relief from the courts, which would allow the cowboys to compete in 2016, as well as permanent relief. He said they'll be moving quickly because of the upcoming deadlines for the 2016 season.
"Trevor, Bobby and Ryan are stars in the sport, and they wanted to be the face of this effort on behalf of all of rodeo," said Holly DeLaune, ERA spokesperson.
The ERA lays out in the complaint how they've been affected so far by the PRCA's bylaws. The ERA says they've offered rodeo committees and vendors better economic terms than those offered by the PRCA, but they've been turned down "due to PRCA's improper and anticompetitive behavior."
ERA leaders said they tried to avoid these legal measures starting in January 2014.
"There were 12 rodeo contestants elected by their peers at the 2013 National Finals, and the agreement was that we were going to go and work things out with the PRCA so that the rodeo contestants that rodeo full time for a living would have the opportunity to have some say in the association," Mote said. "We left a lot of things open for them to give them the ability to work with us. We went to Waco, Texas, to meet with them, under the impression that the commissioner, the Board of Directors and the administration staff would be present in order to be able to make decisions. Neither the commissioner nor the Board of Directors were present. We spent three days there meeting, a day and a half on a conference call with the PRCA administration working to try to come to a resolution so that rodeo contestants who rodeo for a living could have some say in the structure of the Board of Directors and day-to-day measures that affect our livelihood. We realized that that wasn't an option. Since then, our president and CEO Tony Garritano made an effort to reach out to the commissioner, Karl Stressman, they met informally. And that was another time we attempted to reach out and work with them. Since then, we haven't been able to come to any resolution. Everything that's come from them has been way too restrictive."
For now, it's unclear on the timeline from the courts as to the next steps. What is clear, though, is that the PRCA isn't backing down.
Our December issue has a full review of the issues behind this and the forces at play. To subscribe, click here.