The Women's Professional Rodeo Association won a $6.875 million jury award against the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in December, at the start of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, finding the nation's pre-eminent rodeo association guilty of "misappropriation of business value and breach of fiduciary duty."
The jury felt that the PRCA used confidential WPRA information to create its own barrel racing association.
"We had given them all our member information, which was confidential, for the entry system and they took that information and mass mailed all of our members," according to WPRA President Jymmy Kay Davis. "Then, when they started the Professional Women's Barrel Racing (PWBR) they honored not only our cards, but our permits and our gold cards. They didn't do that for the AQHA or the NBHA or any other barrel racing organization. If you had $1,000 won in the WPRA, you had $1,000 won in the PWBR. They completely stole our association. We had the best barrel racing association in the world, we'll compete with anybody, but that's not what happened. They purposely tried to put us out of business."
The jury found that it wasn't that the PRCA created a barrel racing association that was illegal, it was the way they created it that led to the verdict. In addition to the usage of member records, rodeo committee members testified that they felt bullied into hosting PWBR barrel race events, according to Davis.
"After all that was said about all of us, we feel vindicated," Davis said. "It's nice that people see that we had to do the right thing and that six people that didn't know any of us unanimously decided that we were right. It has not been an easy journey, but it has made us stronger women."
How it Started
After PRCA Commissioner Steven Hatchell stepped down from his leadership role in December of 2004, the PRCA's financial woes became widely rumored (and later confirmed at the December 2005 state of the PRCA address given by his successor Troy Ellerman that detailed the organization's subsequent financial turnaround).
Hatchell's plan to grow the sport by creating the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour system, the winter, summer and championship Finales, Xtreme Bulls and televising them all wound up putting the organization $3.5 million in the red.
"The PRCA had a cash flow problem," said former PRCA Director of Rodeo Administration Jim Nichols. "But I don't think they were ever in a financial crisis."
Early in 2005, board member Troy Ellerman stepped in as interim commissioner. Later, the interim tag was removed and he was charged by the board to turn the organization's financial situation around.
To right the ship, he reduced the staff at the Colorado Springs offices by 40 people, reduced the number of telecasts, sold the licensing and media rights of the Wrangler ProRodeo Tours and Finales to ProRodeo Tour LLC and sold the licensing and media rights of the Dodge Xtreme Bulls Tour to Winnercomm Sports.
Not only that, Ellerman terminated a long-standing sanctioning agreement with the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association in August of 2005 because-according to a PRCA press release-"Under the terms of the existing agreement, the PRCA was not receiving any financial compensation from CPRA events." Later, in January of 2006, the two associations reached a three-year agreement for CPRA rodeos to be co-sanctioned again.
The PRCA also signed a deal with Las Vegas Events to keep the Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas through 2014.
PRCA Gold Card members, previously given that status for free, were now being charged membership fees.
The efforts worked and by the end of 2005, Ellerman announced at his annual state of the PRCA address that the organization was back in the black.
In the midst of these money-saving changes, the WPRA issue arose.
WPRA In the Spotlight
Like the CPRA situation, insiders told SWR that the PRCA felt the WPRA wasn't carrying its weight financially. In 2005, the PRCA began charging WPRA members an additional $2 each time they entered a rodeo through the PRCA's Central Entry System, or PROCOM.
Since 1948, the WPRA has sanctioned barrel racing and worked closely with the PRCA-however it always negotiated its own deals with rodeo committees to host the barrel racing.
"They were PRCA rodeos, but the PRCA told us we could not approve barrel races with any other associations because it wasn't fair to the cowboys," said Davis. "That's why we only approved with the PRCA, but we went to those committees directly for the barrel race."
Over the years, the WPRA had also shared confidential member records with the PRCA for the purposes of entry and record keeping.
As part of the plan for financial turnaround, the PRCA first proposed increasing WPRA members dues.
"Basically, PRCA kept trying to raise the fees on the barrel racers and they couldn't show us why," Davis said. "They kept saying, 'You owe us money' and we kept saying, 'If we owe you money, we need to pay you, but show us what you make off of us and show us what we cost you and let's get to the bottom of this.'"
Throughout the summer of 2006, the PRCA and WPRA were in communication regarding the dues increase, but negotiations stalled.
"It was purely financial," said Nichols, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs. "The PRCA got to looking at it and said, O.K., the WPRA pays us $300,000- $350,000. They've got two thousand members. If we could charge them $500 each to join our association, that's a million dollars to the coffers of the PRCA in annual membership."
Further, having barrel racers become members of the PRCA rather than the WPRA would help the PRCA's insurance risk exposure. The organization offers medical insurance for every member for an accident that might occur at a PRCA-sanctioned event, but obviously there aren't as many claims in barrel racing as there are in the other rodeo events.
"There's probably $400,000 toward insurance which won't increase the premiums because there aren't many claims in the barrel racing. The PRCA thought they could put $400,000 toward the insurance deal and that would help them there. On top of that, there's another $600,000 to the membership of the PRCA. So all of a sudden it became $1 million in extra income a year to the PRCA.
I honestly believe that that is the main reason they kept pushing that thing through."
Other factors may have played a role in why the PRCA created the rival PWBR.
"We found out that they had sold our licensing rights," Davis said in reference to the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour sale to ProRodeo Tour LLC. "They had to create their own barrel race. In their NFR contract, they had promised to provide the top contestants in the world and the only way to do that was to take our contestants. It was very obvious that the men felt they were doing us a favor by letting the women compete. Over the last few years, it's become one of the most popular events, it's a crowd pleaser and a money maker and they wanted to take it over from us."
Then on Sept. 5, 2006, the hammer fell when the PRCA issued a press release that read, in part, "The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the oldest and largest rodeo sanctioning body in the world, will add another chapter in its illustrious history this November when women barrel racers become full card-carrying members of the PRCA subsidiary Professional Women's Barrel Racing (PWBR)…. The PRCA Board of Directors began looking at the financial numbers by events and realized that WPRA members were reaping many of the same benefits as PRCA members without assuming equal financial responsibility for those benefits. An analysis was done in the early part of 2005, using 2004 numbers (as 2004 was the closest completed year when discussion began on this issue), that showed the PRCA paid out more than $964,000 to WPRA members at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the three ProRodeo Tour Finales, 12 circuit finals, the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which also included a brand new Dodge truck to the winner, and various sponsorship programs, while their members contributed a little more than $480,000. The analysis also showed that WPRA members had the opportunity to run at over $3 million at PRCA-sanctioned events in 2004. The numbers were brought to the Board of Directors' attention at both organizations in an attempt to work together to resolve this issue…
"Members of the PRCA Board of Directors and PRCA Commissioner Troy Ellerman met with WPRA President Jymmy Kay Davis three times since that decision in an attempt to resolve the issue and asked for a proposal from the WPRA to be taken to the PRCA Board for consideration. The PRCA has not received a valid proposal, so at the Aug. 16 meeting the PRCA Board was forced to take action as the 2007 rodeo season draws near.
"Therefore in 2007, only Professional Women's Barrel Racing events will count toward PRCA world standings and Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualification, as well as all other PRCA championship competitions. Only women will be allowed to have a card in the new PWBR subsidiary, which will be run by a separate seven-member board that will interact with the PRCA Board of Directors. Membership dues will mirror those of current PRCA members, which includes fees for insurance."
The first reaction of the WPRA was to file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PRCA-which it later dropped. However, both sides claimed victory. The WPRA was pleased that the PRCA was forced to create a joint policy statement that clearly addressed the antitrust portion of the lawsuit.
The PRCA, on the other hand, was happy that the judge ruled in its favor. "PRCA paid no money and gave no concessions or consideration for the WPRA's abandonment of the litigation," as written in a Jan. 8, 2007 press release.
However, the WPRA filed another suit, which they eventually won, on Feb. 14 and requested an injunction against the newly created PWBR. In May, El Paso County (Colo.) District Court Judge Donald E. Campbell denied that motion.
"Once we filed our federal suit, the PRCA issued a written policy stating that all rodeo committees were free to continue sanctioning with the WPRA," explained WPRA President Davis in a Feb. 2007 press release. "In essence, they backed off-at least in writing. Given the dark shadow that has covered professional rodeo recently, the WPRA Board of Directors thought it would be best for our members and the sport of rodeo in general if we dropped our suit.
Davis said later in a press release, "We regret what this is doing to everyone in rodeo, but our members elected this board to protect and promote their association, and that's exactly what we intend to do. We dropped the original lawsuit in an effort to do the right thing. The PRCA leadership mistook our act of professionalism for a sign of weakness. That was a mistake."
Incidentally, at this point in the process, Commissioner Ellerman resigned due to a guilty plea he entered in the BALCO steroid investigation claim (SWR April, Sept., 2007). He is currently serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence. Board member Keith Martin has since been tapped to serve as interim commissioner.
However, the lawsuit moved forward, and on Dec. 6, a jury of two women and four men unanimously decided in favor of the WPRA.
"If you're right, you have a lot better chance to win and they were right," Nichols said. "I really don't believe the WPRA did anything to instigate this."
"Obviously, we were disappointed with the ruling," said PWBR chairwoman Jimmie Munroe.
For it's part, the PWBR will continue sanctioning rodeos for 2008.
"We've started the season," Munroe said. "We had 160 entries in Denver and with the limitations were only able to get 130 in. Our membership is good for this time of the year and we have a lot of approvals in."
So What's Next?
At the Wrangler NFR, after the verdict had become public, interim Commissioner Keith Martin was asked at a press conference about what the PRCA would do in response to the ruling. He could not speculate on the situation, but compared it to halftime at a football game in which the PRCA was down by a couple of touchdowns.
The WPRA's Davis said, "The PRCA has paid $50,000 to have a 30-day extension and we have told them, like we have through this two-year ordeal, that we do not want to break them, we want only what's best for rodeo and we will not be broken. We will negotiate with them fairly and honestly anytime they want to, including now.
"What would be ideal for me is that we negotiate on good faith with the PRCA and got back our rights in the rodeo arena. And to go forward with the programs we started for the youth and our futurities. We want to enhance our grassroots programs to bring more women under the umbrella of the WPRA.
"We will do whatever it takes for the benefit of our members and our rodeo. We are not closed-minded. We want what we have always wanted, and that is to work with the PRCA for the betterment of rodeo."
The PRCA is still considering its options-including negotiation-and at press time had until the end of January to make a definitive decision. In fact, discussions between the organizations were happening.
"We're looking into options," Munroe said. "There are different motions that have been filed, everything from the judgment being lowered to a new trial. There's the option of an appeal, there's just a lot of different options and the decisions are made on the motions that are filed, that will help us in making our decisions. Everything's open as an option; the decisions have just not been made."
Nichols, who has stayed close to the situation, feels there is room for compromise.
"To me, both sides need to get together and work something out here," he said. "The PRCA can borrow that money to pay them off and the WPRA will be good for years, but when the money's gone, so too is the WPRA because [their members] don't go to the Finals anymore. It would make a lot more sense to merge the organizations, keep the WPRA board in tact, give them an office over there and do a revenue share. The PRCA doesn't want to deal with the all-girl rodeo; so let them do their deal and take the barrel race in-house. Hopefully for both sides they can come to an arrangement of some kind where the PRCA doesn't have to pay that much money because that could benefit the girls, too."
Contestants, unfortunately, are having to bide their time and wait to see what happens.
"There's nothing else I can do," reigning PWBR World Champion Barrel Racer Brittany Pozzi-Pharr said. "I wish the best of luck to both associations."