Fred Whitfield of Hockley helped found Elite Rodeo Athletes, a new organization that has separated itself from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff
By Dale Robertson Houston Chronicle
Fred Whitfield of Hockley helped found Elite Rodeo Athletes, a new organization that has separated itself from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was, in effect, pro rodeo's Bunker Hill. The first shots of the sport's revolution were fired here six years ago when the almost three-week-long competition at NRG Stadium got unsanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association for rewriting the rules on how cowboys and cowgirls get invited and paid.
The end result?
The birth of a new rodeo organization owned and operated by the rodeo athletes themselves.
"Houston's going off on their own," tie-down roper Fred Whitfield said. "They sort of showed us the way and what was possible."
Whitfield, an eight-time world champion who grew up northwest of the city and makes his home in Hockley, is one of the founding fathers of Elite Rodeo Athletes, a group of 80-plus prominent rough-stock riders, ropers and barrel racers who will compete in a nine-rodeo "season" that kicks off at the end of the month in Redmond, Ore., in defiance of the PRCA.
Houston's rodeo, which runs through March 20, remains the world's richest traditionally structured rodeo, and for a variety of logistical reasons - its length, for starters - likely won't join the ERA circuit. The same goes for The American, a single-day super rodeo that has been held in the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in Arlington since 2014. At last month's event, Wade Sundell pocketed a jaw-dropping, single-day record $1.1 million for winning the saddle-bronc riding.
That's why athletes like Whitfield, who has been a pro cowboy for a quarter of a century, the upstart Richie Champion from The Woodlands and Sundell are among the cowboys who have opted out of the PRCA. Champion set the precedent for Sundell's huge payday. Only 22 at the time, Champion came out of nowhere in the inaugural American two years ago to become the first rodeo athlete to earn $1 million in one day.
"It took me 25 years to win $3.2 million," the 48-year-old Whitfield said. "I've got a great appreciation for what (the PRCA) did for us. I won't say anything bad about them. But it's time to take our sport into the 21st century. It'll do my heart good to leave rodeo better than when I started in it."
Money is only part of the issue, although the difference can be substantial.
Sundell, for example, won $1.1 million at the American, almost as much as he won in nine years in the PRCA. The 2015 PRCA champion saddle-bronc rider, Jacobs Crawley, made $167,382 at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo and $276,247 on the year. That's good money, to be sure, but not the kind of money the ERA believes the athletes deserve and that it can deliver.
Using golf, tennis model
The other issue is the schedule.
The ERA, which landed a lucrative TV contract from Fox Sports 2, has been organized as a true tour leading to a year-end championship rodeo in Dallas' American Airlines Arena on Nov. 9-13. It follows the model of the PGA and LPGA in golf and the ATP and WTA in tennis instead of what amounts to a grueling series of 100-plus all-comers meets with two or three of them happening simultaneously, often in different states.
"I've got to work a lot harder because I'm older," Whitfield said. "And that's OK because I love roping. But I can't be getting in the truck and driving to 100 rodeos a year anymore to make a living. I'm just not into that kind of life anymore. The way the ERA has been set up, it will give me more time to spend with my daughters (one of whom is an aspiring barrel racer)."
Determined to make the final chapter of his career less bone-wearying and more family-friendly, Whitfield jumped at the chance to become one of the original stakeholders in the ERA, which formed after negotiations broke down with the PRCA about more power for the cowboys, a greater share of the revenues and a saner schedule.
PRCA president Karl Stressman grasps the difficulties confronting cowboys and barrel racers.
"This is a traveling sport," he told the New York Times at last year's National Finals. "To get (to Las Vegas), for $1 million a round, you wear a truck out, wear a trailer out."
But, he added, that's the nature of being a rodeo athlete.
"Everybody wants to work less and make more money," Stressman said. "Unfortunately for this sport, it doesn't work very well."
In addition to Crawley, reigning PRCA world champions Steven Peebles (bareback) and Hunter Cure (steer wrestling) have joined forces with Whitfield on the ERA circuit, as has rodeo's most accomplished roper and all-around cowboy ever, Trevor Brazile, who has claimed 23 world championships over his 19 years. Eleven-time world champion barrel racer Charmayne James also cast her lot with the new organization.
Filling the ERA's bull-riding roster has proven problematic because those cowboys already have their own successful group, the Professional Bull Riders Association, which served as an inspiring operational model for the ERA. The PBRA's reigning champion, J.B. Mauney, banked $1.54 million in official prize money last year. By comparison, Peebles made less than $315,000. Even Brazile earned less than $520,000 for claiming his record 13th World All-Around Championship.
Battling in court
Unlike Whitfield, who's trying to score big as he winds down, Champion's best years are almost certainly in front of him, that single monster payday in Arlington notwithstanding.
"If I'm going to be the best bareback rider, I've got to go where the best cowboys are," Champion said. "I want to compete against the best every time I get on a horse."
However, the PRCA believes it already provides that for its membership and has been fighting the ERA in court, recently winning the right to bar cowboys who have invested in the breakaway circuit from holding PRCA cards. Without the card, an athlete can't enter any of the PRCA rodeos, including the $10 million season-ending Finals rodeo in Las Vegas. The ruling forced a number of cowboys - Brazile and Champion among them - out of the recent Fort Worth Rodeo while it was in progress, causing them to forfeit the money they'd already won.
'Make the sport thrive'
But a huge majority of the ERA athletes opted to keep their money where their mouths are and give up their PRCA membership. Sink or swim, they're in with the new and out with the old.
"We will not ever know what rodeo's full potential is until we bring something to the public that gives rodeo a chance to be a real sports property," Brazile said in an interview published on the ERA website. "That's what we're out there trying to do. Our goal is to make the sport thrive and not decline."
Cowboys and barrel racers will have to qualify for the main events (PRCA results will still factor significantly into that at the outset), just as some touring golfers and tennis players must.
"We're all going in equal in this deal," Champion said. "If you do a better job than anyone else, you'll be here. And that's the way it should be. If you start slacking and not doing your job, there's a possibility you'll be kicked off the tour. The next best guy will step up. I think it's going to drive everybody to be better."
He doesn't, however, leave the PRCA without a measure of regret.
"From the day I started riding horses, I was thinking about a (PRCA) World Championship and that belt buckle they give you. I've chased that dream for four or five years now. But now I want to see where the ERA takes me."
Sports Writer / Wine Columnist, Houston Chronicle