Commissioner Karl Stressman announced his retirement from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, effective Dec. 31, 2017, May 26. His tenure at the PRCA has spanned nearly 10 years, during which time the organization went through the turmoil of the Elite Rodeo Athletes’ lawsuit and the renegotiation of the contract with Las Vegas Events (LVE) to keep the Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas. He and I have had the chance to talk on countless occasions throughout our careers–at times when he’s been both a hero and a villain, depending who you talk to, in the eyes of contestants, stock contractors, fans, contract personnel, and sponsors. That role has affected the man and the association in perhaps more ways then we can yet understand. The lessons learned over the last 10 years, for better or for worse, will surely shape the association’s direction as the Board of Directors begins its search for a new commissioner.
CS: What’s in your future?
KS: I don’t think I’m going to be very good at sitting on the porch. But retirement fits right now. I have to think about what the next chapter looks like. I have enough energy left to do something else. Does that mean I’m not going to spend all next winter roping in Arizona? No, that could happen.
CS: Do you have a favorite moment of the last nine-plus years?
KS: I think there have been several moments. You always have a tendency to go to the financial stories. Negotiating the Wrangler National Finals with the PRCA when I was at Wrangler—that was in 1999 or 2000—before I came to the PRCA. They just brought me a picture of that signing the other day to put on Facebook. I looked a lot younger, I can tell you that. Then to move into the commissioner’s job and sign a long-term deal for the PRCA, in terms of that size of an agreement with LVE, that’s the biggest single event that made me the happiest when we finally got it agreed to. That was grueling. It wore you out because it seemed like it was a different deal every day until it finally got done. We put together something that was seriously in the best interest of the PRCA. I’m not leaving without some battle scars, and things like this impact who you are. The Kissimmee deal is a great deal for the future. Those deals protected the PRCA and are good for the sport, so they stand out.
CS: What are you looking to accomplish in the next six months?
KS: I’m a lame duck, but I’m certainly not going home at noon every day. I don’t want to just walk away and say it was a good run, thanks. I have a real passion for the sport of ProRodeo. I’m going to stay involved in it anyway. I do think when the Board of Directors decides what the future looks like, I’ll be as helpful as I can. Being a lame duck gives you a certain point of reference of the next six months. When the National Finals is over in 2017, I’m not sure I won’t stand at the Thomas & Mack and say, “Wow what am I going to do now?”
But like I said, I’m still working. I’m going to formulate a tour—we’re in the process of putting together what the contestant reps and rodeo administration think is a better formatted tour for the future. (Stay tuned for more on that.)
The other thing is that this whole streaming thing and PRCA TV. The initiatives on the plate right now will be a huge part of the future of the PRCA. We are formatting to have our own PRCA TV (an online service). It will launch in September. That’s the next big revenue producer for the members of this association. That is pay-per-view 24-hour PRCA TV. Not a Western marketing channel. This is the best way for people to recognize contestant members of our association. We have the ability to produce the inside story of the PRCA. CBS has been a good partner, and we just resigned with them for the next few years. But it doesn’t draw the fan to who our contestants are, who’s in the top 10, what bucking stock is going to the WNFR, who is the bull fighter of the year, that sort of thing. This will. The PRCA owns the rights to all of that—no matter what rodeo it is. We are lenient with the rights for the rodeos right now. It will be the next big financial windfall for this deal. It will help add to some financial reserves.
CS: Can you explain what you mean by financial reserves?
KS: You have to make money and have money set aside to weather the storms that come your direction. Living paycheck to paycheck is a dangerous place to be. You can’t run an organization that lean—it’s dangerous. Nine years ago when I got here, we needed to build a reserve funding. That was part of what we here in the building said we had to do. We had to produce profitability at a rate that we’re comfortable with. We need money in the bank to do business. At some point you spend the rest of the money back on the members. This new streaming platform will create a revenue stream that can be spent right back in the membership. If we’ve given all the money away, it becomes a disaster. PRCA has been in that position in the past 80 years a few times. And certainly this administration feels like that’s not a place to be.
The goal has always been to get money back to the members. Some people don’t believe that, but if you look at the audit, it will tell you we’re giving almost 90 percent of the money that comes through this organization is going back to the members. It’s not all going back to the contestants, but the majority goes back into the membership somehow. If we make more money, the members get more money. Consider $26,000 a night for a go-round win at the WNFR and the million in cash and prizes for the RNCFR and the $110,000 that went into every circuit finals with the signing in Kissimmee makes the circuit finals a rodeo you can come out with a substantial amount of money. Now all of a sudden a guy can go to Kissimmee and do good there. Now the circuit guys are putting some pressure on the top guys because of the payouts at the RNCFR and the circuit finals.
CS: What’s been the low point of your career?
KS: The Wrangler National Finals negotiations with Las Vegas. There was more energy utilized during those times, and we’ve done business with those people a long time, and they are considered friends. Hardcore negotiations can strain friendships. The longer I’ve stayed in this job, the more enemies I created. I’d like to think the more fans I created, too. But fans don’t speak out as much. Ask Joe Beaver!
The low point is that when you operate within the rules and guidelines of your association, it costs you friendships and acquaintances. The low point is this job cost me friendships. I did say no when I had to. I didn’t always say yes. I’m not going to do anything that I don’t think is right. You can’t be selective on your morals, and you either have moral standards or you don’t. That’s caused me to lose friends. Being in a position to make decisions that weren’t popular, and have people talk poorly about you, you would hope at some point people would do the due diligence to understand the entire situation. In our industry that seems to be the last thing to happen. My hope would be in the future, whomever sits at this desk has a better opportunity and they cut him a little slack and try to understand more about the future that person sees.
CS: What qualities do you think the new commissioner should have?
KS: They damn sure can’t get their feelings hurt very easily. They have to be strong willed. They have to be understanding to all of the different groups. They have to have some vision for the future. They have to be in a position where they don’t particularly choose one group to represent. I don’t think we did that—I don’t think I represented a group as much as I tried to represent the entire association, especially when you’re trying to figure a situation between stock contractors vs. personnel vs. committees. You have to make sure everyone walks away with a win. We have issues with everyone trying to pull the wagon in the same direction.
CS: What will the search for a new commissioner look like?
KS: I’m not positive. I have not had deep discussions with the board. I’m not going to speak for the board. They’ll walk through the process. It takes seven of nine to vote a commissioner in or out. The requirements of the commissioner are in general directed by the board. They’ll have a search firm come in and try to develop, through the board of directors, the criteria the board is looking for. What that is, I don’t know.
CS: The PRCA’s press release quoted you as saying, “I made myself another promise that I would stay at the PRCA as long as I enjoyed the job. Well, it’s time to say goodbye!” Reading between the lines, does that mean you aren’t enjoying things right now?
KS: I can tell you that I’m certainly not enjoying it in regard to some periods of time during this tenure. Sometimes it was better, sometimes it was worse. There were days when I enjoyed this job almost all day. It is, in my opinion, the enjoyment part that runs in cycles. You have to be honest with yourself. It’s not as enjoyable as it was at one time. I won’t linger to the point where I’m not an effective leader. It goes back to the same thing I mentioned before—the longer you stay, the more animosity you create with certain people and certain groups. I don’t want to outlive my welcome. I’m being proactive and saying I get it. I don’t want to be out of gas when I get to the end of it. It’s not fair to me or my wife or anybody else. When you step back and analyze the situation—I have people who don’t like me, who don’t like the direction things are going. That’s when it gets to the point it’s not enjoyable. I had a few hundred texts when the PRCA announced I was leaving. When I told the staff, it took them by surprise. I had probably 200 texts and 100 emails the day the PRCA announced. People were congratulating me on retiring. I said to Allie, “Are they congratulating me because they didn’t think I would make it this long?” There were people who said, “Hmmm why are you leaving now?” The hardships are already passed, but people can read in whatever they want to. I’m just who I am. It will all be just part of the history of the PRCA very soon.
CS: Do you have anyone in mind to replace you?
KS: I haven’t taken the time to sit down and look at it. I’m not going to pick my successor. I have some opinions, but I’m not going to share them. Nobody sitting in this chair will satisfying the needs of everyone in this industry. Whatever they do for the future of this deal, I can walk away and say it’s a hell of a lot better than it was when I got here. Do I fear that it won’t be in another year? No I do not.
CS: Do you feel like you’ve made good strides in repairing relationships with ERA cowboys?
KS: Everybody learned something. I’ve had several conversations with Bobby Mote, I’ve had several conversations with Trevor. Tuf Cooper and I shook hands the other day in Santa Maria. Those of us who can separate personal issues from business have made some strides. The conversation isn’t finished. The ERA wasn’t all wrong. We defended the PRCA business and I firmly believe that was the right thing to do. It was personal during the battle. During the WNFR negotiations, the guys from Vegas were absolutely against what the PRCA was trying to propose, and when it was over, Mr. Gaughan was the first to shake my hand and say no hard feelings. Those are the kind of things that push the sport forward. The back-fighting and name-calling hold this sport back. I have great admiration for those guys and I’m thrilled to have them back at the PRCA level. I have no hard feelings against any of them. The more we work together, the more accomplishments we’re going to have for the PRCA.