Downtown Dallas lassos new rodeo championship at American Airlines Center

 

Decatur’s Trevor Brazile — a 21-time world champion seen after a successful run at The American rodeo qualifiers in March at AT&T Stadium — says the Boerne-based Elite Rodeo Association could make rodeo sports more mainstream. Photo by Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News


By JEFF MOSIER jmosier@dallasnews.com

Staff Writer

Published: 25 August 2015 12:04 AM

Updated: 25 August 2015 12:08 AM

Dallas doesn’t have much traditional Western heritage these days unless visitors count the downtown cattle drive sculpture or TV reruns set on J.R. Ewing’s fictional ranch.

But soon the city will boast a major rodeo championship for the first time in 55 years. The newly created Elite Rodeo Association will announce Wednesday that it will hold its first championship at American Airlines Center from Nov. 9 to 13, 2016.

Dallas has booked the championship for the next five years. With a $3 million annual payout, organizers expect this to be the nation’s second-richest rodeo.

“Texas is right for rodeo; it’s right in the middle of rodeo country,” said Tony Garritano, president and CEO of the new association. ERA is based in the Hill Country town of Boerne.

Texas is already home to large rodeos in Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio as well as the Mesquite Rodeo.

ERA has signed a multiyear contract to show the 15-event regular season on Fox Sports 2 and the championship on Fox Sports 1. The association has announced its intention to eventually expand to as many as 26 events.

The inaugural championship is expected to include concerts, a fan festival and possibly other events. No details have been released.

If successful, this creates the nation’s second major rodeo championship. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s National Finals Rodeo is held over 10 days in Las Vegas. 

Garritano said there’s room for both to thrive.

“It’s all about creating additional opportunities rather than competition,” he said. 

Jim Bainbridge, a PRCA spokesman, said he didn’t know specifics about the new association’s plans and had no comment.

Roping ’em in

Rodeo star Trevor Brazile, a 21-time world champion who grew up in Denton County, said this is a groundbreaking league that has a chance to make the sports more mainstream.

“The rodeo was a lot like the [Kentucky] Derby,” he said. “Everybody loved to watch it, but no one knew those horses’ stories until 30 minutes before the race.”

ERA’s season will get more than 43 hours of national coverage on Fox Sports networks and allow an audience to “see the ups and downs of cowboys,” Brazile said.

Dallas landed the championship after it lobbied for legislation allowing the event to qualify for the Major Events Trust Fund. The fund diverts local and state tax dollars to attract events that bring large numbers of visitors.

The just-completed MegaFest — projected to generate more than $34 million in spending in the Dallas area — is eligible to receive as much as $1.7 million from the fund.

When this new championship was presented to state legislators, boosters said it could have an economic impact of $102 million. Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, estimated the figure at a more conservative $50 million but said it could be higher.

Jones said staff members stepped into the rodeo industry when they attempted to lure the National Finals Rodeo away from Las Vegas. He said that was a narrow miss.

But Jones and his staff continued talking to their new rodeo contacts about this startup league and became one of three cities competing for the championship. Garritano would only say that the runners-up were two West Coast cities.

All-star lineup

Until now, this new association has generally kept a low profile. But it did receive initial attention thanks to its backing by many famed cowboys and cowgirls.

Garritano said ERA was created as a way to match up top performers in rodeo competition. He expects 12 of the world’s best to compete at each event, leading up to a championship.

At the PRCA, competitions are wide open among its members. Garritano previously described that as the equivalent of the NFL expanding to 100 teams.

“More rodeos, more people, which will — in the end — sacrifice talent,” he said about the current rodeo system.

ERA is owned by 53 top rodeo competitors and focuses on the top performers. Garritano said there will be an opportunity for newcomers to earn shares in the company when they reach the highest levels.

There also is a Professional Bull Riders league and the stand-alone The American rodeo, which is billed as the richest single-day event in the sport with its $2 million prize money. Fans can see both at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Although ERA and PRCA have different business models, both are rodeo leagues with the same collection of events. And each ends its season with a championship, which could be the most direct competition.

“There’s never two world championships,” Garritano said. “The fans ultimately dictate who the best is.”

Follow Jeff Mosier on Twitter at @jeffmosier