Team Roper heeler Ryan Motes from Weatherford, Texas, attempts to rope a steer during the 8th go-round of the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. Motes and Aaron Tsinigine from Tuba City, Ariz., were unable to rope a steer in the round. Josh Holmberg/Las Vegas Review-Journal
By Ed Graney
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Ryan Motes has a friend with a 6-year-old son who is already dreaming of becoming a roper on the rodeo circuit. The boy wants to win world championships like his heroes of today.
He wants to be a cowboy and a star and wear shiny buckles.
Motes would love nothing more than such ambition to be realized for the little boy and many like him, a major reason he and other top rodeo cowboys and cowgirls are taking their talents to a new tour and in the process potentially lessening the product that the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association can annually offer at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Which begs the question: Do thousands of rodeo fans religiously make a pilgrimage to the Thomas & Mack Center each December for the horses or those riding them?
Are they here more for the spectacle or the cowboys?
The landscape will offer a clearer view of things in 2016, when 80 of the sport's top competitors begin the Elite Rodeo Athletes tour, the new home to such names as Motes and Clay Tryan and Kaycee Feild and Bobby Mote and Trevor Brazile, the latter of whom seems to own more all-around world titles than Floyd Mayweather Jr. does cars.
"I don't have much more time doing this, so if there is one thing I want to make sure of, it's that I can leave the sport in better shape than I found it," said Motes, one of the world's top team ropers who is competing in his fourth NFR. "This entire decision is about making rodeo better for future generations. Rodeo has been good to me. I want it to be great for those who come next.
"There are a lot of second and third generations in our sport, and it's important for those young boys and girls who are right now thinking of making a career of this that they have the best chance possible at showcasing their talents."
It's not a clean and tidy split by any means. Officials from both sides aren't toasting bottles of Budweiser. It's a mess soiled with litigation, given the ERA has filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against the PRCA after the latter adopted new bylaws that pretty much say this: Anyone pursuing interests in other associations are not allowed to apply for membership.
Translation: If you aren't with the PRCA, you're out of it.
It seems, barring a victory in court, those in the ERA could be just that once the NFR concludes Saturday and yet are not entirely bothered by it. They released a 2016 schedule this week (nice timing, huh?) that includes 15 performances in eight cities and culminating with a five-day world championship from Nov. 9 to 13 at American Airlines Center in Dallas.
All of the tour's rodeos will be televised on Fox Sports 2, and athletes will compete for $4.6 million in prize money during the season. A stated mission of the ERA: to improve rodeo for everyone — fans, athletes, associations, stock contractors, sponsors and venues.
"You're going to know that when you show up to the rodeo, you're going to see the best in the world going head-to-head on good stock," Motes said. "You will be able to sit at home and watch on television all the important rodeos leading up to the world championship in Dallas, like you watch the NFL playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl."
Get the picture?
Rodeo isn't an easy sport to succeed at when your pockets aren't lined at some level. Cowboys such as Motes have tired of the travel and having to compete in more than 70 events a year for the mere chance at qualifying for the NFR and an opportunity at cashing the season's biggest paychecks.
Motes knows a few cowboys who missed the NFR this year by $250 and yet are in the hole $25,000 because of how much it cost to travel between cities chasing the dream.
This doesn't happen in other sports. You can be dirt poor in baseball or basketball or football and still rise to the apex of your profession. Not so much in rodeo.
I also understand the PRCA side of things. It's a business. The more rodeos you stage, the more money you make. But while labor unions in sports have throughout history been created out of unfair working conditions and inadequate wages, this move by rodeo's best to the ERA is more about improving the bottom lines of exposure and compensation without having to make life on the road their total existence.
I'm just not sure any of it matters to those who travel to Las Vegas to watch each year. This isn't NASCAR, where one's devotion to a particular driver is unparalleled when compared to fans from other sports following their favorite athletes.
This isn't about loving Junior as much as you might hate Jimmie.
The NFR is here to stay, at least through 2024 after a contract extension signed between Las Vegas Events and the Thomas & Mack Center this year. Whether those athletes who have proven themselves the best are still roping and riding and wrestling here in the future is an uncertain mess right now soiled by litigation.
Whether people care doesn't seem to be.
"We don't come to see Trevor Brazile," said Ben Allen from Billings, Mont., who is attending his 12th NFR with his wife, Jane. "We are here for the event, for the rodeo. We don't care who's on the horse. It doesn't bother us one bit if (ERA cowboys and cowgirls) aren't allowed in the NFR. Not one bit.
"The NFR will still be the NFR in Las Vegas."
The best of the best are on their way out, destined for greener pastures for their wallets and a more national level of prestige in TV coverage.
It is absolutely their right.