For years, those who care about Professional Rodeo have lamented its fit-and-start progress. Everyone agreed there should be more money in the sport: from contestants and contractors to administrators and alumni, the general sense that somehow the product was better than the returns permeated the sport.
As the leading association in the industry, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has unveiled several strategies to increase the exposure of the sport, including the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour, more championship events and increased television exposure. While the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour has established itself as a solid concept, the television rights for the association's premier events are currently in the hands of ProRodeo Tour LLC and Winnercomm.
The success of the Professional Bull Riders proves that there is money in western entertainment and gives others in the rodeo industry hope. New leagues such as Championship Bull Riding and new formats like the World's Toughest Cowboy are attempting to make their mark.
In that environment, rumors of startup associations and new concepts for the sport are a constant murmur.
The most significant new group, however, is probably the Pro Rodeo League, led by Truman Wright of Houston.
Wright grew up on a ranch in the Big Thicket region of southeast Texas and has always loved the sport of rodeo. He has had considerable success in land development and also worked in the oil and gas business.
Over the past 12 years, he has been researching the idea of a new rodeo league that would attempt to remake the sport of rodeo in the model of the National Football League.
"Where the idea originated from was looking at Western heritage and how it was waning and wanting to do something about it," Wright said. "Fourteen or 15 years ago, we saw the decline in attendance to events like the rodeo kickoff street breakfast in Colorado Springs, lack of interest in places like Houston and San Antonio in the downtown parades, just a general movement in society away from the support of those events that we view were Western heritage. To me, Western heritage is about God, family and country. What we did was flesh out an idea to raise interest in rodeo."
Team rodeo is not a new concept; the PRCA and independent entities have tried it in the past. The difference, however, might be Wright's connections and the financial backing he and his partners and investors have poured into this idea.
"To develop this league will take in excess of $75 million," Wright said. "It doesn't take long, when you start adding the numbers up, to see that. The sport of rodeo has been sold too cheaply in the past. There hasn't been a brotherhood created between the contestants, stock contractors, fans and committees. That's what we're about. We want to join the entire sport on God, family and country. That's what all of these people stand for. Our goal is to be that rallying point."
He's advised by people with experience and a history of success in the sports industry. One of his closest allies is Steve Erhardt. Erhardt was instrumental in the USFL, bringing professional baseball to Denver, Colo., the XFL and the Liberty Bowl.
"We have various marketing groups that we've worked with," Wright said. "There are others we'll be reaching out to because of the breadth of what we're doing. No one has truly looked at marketing rodeo. There are a few people out there who the industry knows about, but it has tended to ignore them. We're not going to ignore them.
They understand what we're attempting to do and they understand the sport of rodeo. That has been a huge challenge.
"Rodeo and the sport of rodeo is more deeply entrenched in this country than any other sport," he continued. "It was here before basketball, baseball and our form of football. From what I can gather, up until the late 1970s rodeo had the largest number of attendees than any other sport. That still may be the case. The one thing that wasn't there was ownership on the part of the fans. And without that, you really can't build the fan base that's necessary to expand the sport. They need to feel like they own that sport and are a part of it. That's what you see in football, baseball and basketball. You see it in soccer overseas and rugby matches. When the fans have ownership, you have commitment. Without commitment, you truly don't have fans. That's the reason why we came up with the idea."
Wright has done a remarkable job of keeping his plans quiet within the industry, but as soon as April, he plans to hold a draft and begin playing games this year. Over the past two years, he has put out feelers with contestants to develop his draft base and has enough of the top-15 types in the fold to hold a draft.
The overall concept is for cities to have their own professional rodeo teams-much like football-in a season that will last 20 weeks not including playoffs and an ultimate super rodeo championship game. Wright envisions two conferences with four divisions. The headquarters of the league would be in Houston.
There will be six to 12 teams with teams definitely planned for the cities of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver and Las Vegas. Cities under consideration are Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and any city that has a history of fans supporting rodeo. The league will feature the traditional rodeo events: bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding. Interestingly, headers and heelers will be drafted separately.
"We could easily field more teams, but we're not going to sacrifice the quality of the sport to do that," Wright said.
Depending on how many teams emerge, there would be at least three and as many as six games every weekend of the season.
On each team, there will be between three to eight members per event-largely depending on the number of cowboys Wright is able to feature in his draft and the number of teams sold.
"We love this sport," said three-time NFR barrel racer Sherrylynn Johnson. "I love football and it's a family sport and every week you know it's going to be there. You attach yourself with a team, and that's the same way I feel about the Pro Rodeo League. Plus they're going to help cowboys and cowgirls and actually pay them."
Mike Johnson, Sherrylynn's husband and a 22-time NFR tie-down roper, sees even greater benefits.
"In the PRCA there's a battle between the stock contractors, the committees and the contestants and it seems like the contestants always come out third," he said. "The Pro Rodeo League is pointed toward the contestants first."
Some of the details for competitors are quite revolutionary. First, for cowboys or cowgirls drafted into the Pro Rodeo League, the minimum annual league salary is $45,000 with a full benefit package. Contestants may negotiate their own contracts with the team that drafts them for higher salaries and bonuses. Just like the NFL, trades are a possibility. Additionally, cowboys or cowgirls would have the opportunity to make their own sponsorship deals that the league will encourage and support.
The biggest drawback for rodeo cowboys might be the possibility of losing the freedom that rodeoing in the PRCA affords. But for a PRCA veteran like eight-time world champion Fred Whitfield, who has seen it all, the opportunity and ideas the Pro Rodeo League has proposed would outweigh the loss of freedom.
"I tried a calf horse the other day that they wanted $150,000 for," Whitfield said. "I've got $23,000 won this year. Some things just don't add up. If my team owner is going to own a $200,000 calf horse and I'm going to get on a plane to go ride him. You've got to give up something to get something.
"Rodeo's been good to me and I've made a good living, but it's time for a change. If something like this can come in at the tail end of my career and I can benefit from it, it's only going to help."
Wright's not planning on giving his contestants a free ride, however. Cowboys will be required to uphold a standard of professionalism and morality. The league will have drug testing and it will require cowboys to be in belt buckles and cowboy hats whenever in public.
"That's a signature of what a true cowboy or cowgirl is," Wright said. "The biggest requirement is our contestants will be required to do a lot of promotion and public appearances to promote the sport of rodeo and to support those values that the league represents."
Further, Wright plans for the owners of timed-event horses to negotiate their own deals with their team owners. For example, a cowboy could sell his horse to the team or lease his horse to the team (but still be the only one to ride it). Or, the team could buy its own horses for its contestants, so the owner willing to spend the most money could be the most competitive.
"From a contestant standpoint, a lot of guys only have one horse," Mike Johnson said. "For a team owner to be able to buy a guy a better horse than what he has, that's obviously a benefit. That's an aspect the timed-event guys picked up on."
On the roughstock end of the arena, he hopes to see just as much importance placed on those animal athletes.
"We feel like the league is gong to give a boost to the stock contractors who raise bucking horses the same way the PBR has for the individuals who raise bulls," Wright said. "Because of the interest that the league will generate in those sports and the stars in those events, it will increase renewed interest and drive the demand across the board for those animals.
What's more, Wright envisions the entire production to be professional. For instance, timed-event cowboys wouldn't be required to clean their own stalls or even haul their own horses.
"Imagine if I walked up to some kid who was a junior in college, playing ball, and I told him that we wanted to draft him into a league where he had to muck his own stall, warm his horse up and saddle it," Wright said. "Not only that, but he had to drive his own horse to the event, carry his own bags to the room and back and for all that he had to pay his way in. What do you think he'd say? That is exactly the difference in professionalism that we want to bring forth in the league compared to what other professional sports do."
Steer wrestling hazers would be drafted. Everyone from the judges to the chute help to the pickup men would be paid well. There would be coaches, trainers, vet techs and scouts on staff with the teams.
"All of the structure that it takes to put on a quality rodeo is going to be addressed by the league," Wright said. "We feel like there are a lot of individuals who don't understand the importance of the bullfighters, pickup men, even the guys who flank the stock or pull the gate. All of those are going to be addressed by the league and bring their jobs to a professional level of recognition."
The arena size will be standard at all the venues. From the dimensions of the actual competition area to score lines. This will give fans the chance to compare their favorites' performances to those on other teams.
Originally, Wright planned on inaugurating the teams in mid-sized venues that would seat 8,000-12,000 fans, but his market research has shown that there might be enough support for larger venues.
At the end of the season, and depending on how many teams end up in the league, there will be a playoff and championship game to determine the world champion team. Alongside that, the world champion cowboy in each event will be crowned separately based on his performance throughout the year regardless of his team's success.
What about the PRCA? With this money and these incentives and contracts, will cowboys be allowed to compete for the traditional world championships?
"The first couple of years, they're not going to hold your feet to the fire and force you to give up sponsorships and they're not going to keep you from rodeoing like we are now," Sherrylynn said. "This is going to give us the ability to get our feet wet and see what it's like. If it goes like what I think it will, the PRCA will become second to it. He's giving some time to move from one to the other.
"On one hand, you can spend thousands of dollars driving to 75 rodeos a year, on horses and pens, to shavings and wear and tear on your body. On the other hand, go to from eight to 17 events a year, be a part of a team and know you can pay the rent next week. I can't see any drawbacks in that."
Wright adds the PRCA will always be a valuable entity in the rodeo industry regardless of the success of the Pro Rodeo League. The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is a unique event he doesn't want to see go away and the over 700 rodeos annually approved by the PRCA are a necessary developmental stage for cowboys who would eventually be in his league.
But is all this too late? Has the American public strayed too far from its Western heritage? Can a city-far removed from the rural lifestyle that spawned rodeo-support a professional rodeo team?
"One thing I'll say to the nay sayers is this," Wright said. "If one team can pay David Beckham $32.5 million over five years, to play in a sport that doesn't have the exposure or history in this country that rodeo does, then for someone to say a rodeo league can't succeed is naïve.
"It's my vision, but it's based on a faith and a belief in the contestants," Wright said. "A vision of God, family and country and what that stood for. A lot of people laugh at me when I talk about John Wayne and Gene Autry and the heroes of the silver screen, but today's cowboys are as big heroes as those guys were. We have all of those events of history that were a reflection of the greatest time of growth and success in this country, and we need to return to those values. Rodeo is one of the ways to do that."
At press time, Wright and the league still had many details they were unable to divulge-they're working on television deals, and the logistics of producing an event of this scale-but the murmur has gotten quite loud and it's unlikely the professional rodeo landscape will look the same by the end of this year.
"I've paid a high price thus far to be where we're at. In all honesty, I don't feel like I'm taking any risk," Wright said. "I'm just like the guys and gals out there on the road, I believe in the sport, God, family and country, therefore how can I lose?"