Where have all the cowboys gone? As we prepare for the 2016 NFR, a lot of people are looking at the list of this year’s qualifiers and wondering what happened to their favorites. It has been a wild and wooly ride for professional cowboys this year. The Elite Rodeo Athletes was formed and promised those world champion cowboys an opportunity to go to less rodeos and win more money; spend more time at home with their families, but still have the chance at a world title. Set up similar to a PBR format, the top cowboys competed at a set number of rodeos. For fans, this meant that you were able to see your favorite cowboys at every rodeo vs just a handful of the top cowboys at your local PRCA event. There were also qualifier events that allowed those not on the ERA tour to earn their spot at the World Championship Rodeo in Dallas.
Early disputes between the ERA and the PRCA kept those top athletes from competing in both events, but by mid-year, those disputes were settled and cowboys were given the opportunity to enter up wherever they pleased. Unfortunately, for those top cowboys who chose ERA early on, they would not be able to gain enough ground to qualify for the NFR in 2016…however, those who opted for the PRCA or were not ranked high enough to be on the ERA tour, were able to compete in the ERA qualifier rodeos and earn their spot at the first ever ERA World Championships.
As for the fans, many of us were torn. Many didn’t understand why the ERA was formed. Some were angry, while others were supportive. Many didn’t want to even give it a chance. People hoped it would fail. People called the cowboys who chose the ERA “greedy.” The rodeo world was ripped apart. Me…I was indifferent. Like many, I love the hustle and bustle of Vegas during the NFR. I vowed to go regardless of who was competing where and in what association. But, I also have an understanding of what life is like on the road for a rodeo cowboy. 80+ rodeos a year with no promise of a paycheck. It’s a big gamble, but the dream of having that gold buckle with your name on it always makes it worth it (so I’m told).
But, you can’t compare apples to oranges and the PRCA and ERA are two very different associations. Here is an insider’s take on the differences and what you can expect next year…
Is it GREEDY to want better for yourself and your family?
Ask yourself this question and imagine yourself in a top rodeo cowboy’s boots as you do so. 80+ rodeos per year from one side of the nation to the other. Never knowing exactly what town or state you are going to be in or when you will be there. Days, weeks and even months spent away from your family. Unforeseeable circumstances that rob you of your chance at a paycheck. All of these reasons and more drove the top rodeo athletes to seek out a BETTER way to rodeo. Many complained that you can’t change the sport that we all love so much, but can you blame them for trying? It’s called progress.
That ERA World Championships Vibe
I’m not going to lie, it was weird being at the ERA World Championships for me. Perhaps it was because it was my first time attending as media, but deep down I think it was just because we all didn’t know what to expect. Would the fans turn out? Would it feel like the NFR?
Friday night was not the turn out that I had expected. There were quite a few empty seats and that broke my heart. Here were the TOP rodeo athletes in the world all competing against each other, and they were not getting that fan support that they had expected and hoped for. My worries were that the fan turnout would be that way for the entire finals. If you did not attend that first night, you missed out. The rodeo started with a touching tribute to our veterans and the National Anthem was played on a violin as all the fans and contestants sang along. It was a feeling like no other and I still get the chills just thinking about it.
Saturday and Sunday were an entirely different story. It was a packed house and the competition itself was stellar. While I still don’t think that the ERA World Championships had the NFR vibe yet, I think that it is well on it’s way. I’ll say this time and time again; it is not better or worse…just different.
ERA vs PRCA: The Differences
At the end of the day, this didn’t feel like your average rodeo. I’m embarrassed to say that I had not attended an ERA rodeo before the World Championships, so I was completely unaware of the format. There are probably a lot of you reading this who are in the same boat. There are several differences between the two associations.
First of all, if you are a ticket holder, you are invited to come early to the rodeos and meet the top cowboys on the arena floor. That’s right…you, as a fan, have the opportunity to meet the cowboys before the perf, get autographs, shake their hands, ask them questions, and get a photo. I don’t know about you guys, but I think that’s pretty neat.
The next difference that I noticed was that the rodeo kicked off with the bullriding and the bareback riding was at the end of the rodeo. I personally felt like this amped up the fans and got them excited for the remaining events.
The ERA also has a “challenge” system. If a contestant disagrees with the call of a judge, they can throw the “challenge flag” and the call with be reviewed. If the contestant lost the challenge, they donated $500 to the charity of their choice. If they won the challenge, the call would be reversed.
I also noticed during the bronc riding that when a cowboy failed to “mark out” their bronc and covered for 8 seconds, rather than the ride being disqualified, they would lose 10 points off their score.
My take on all of this was that the ERA worked very hard to not only put on a good show for the fans, but also make the rodeo itself more fair for the cowboys.
It’s pretty tough to find $30 tickets to the NFR…and let’s face it, the NFR is the ONLY place where you are going to see the best of the best in a head to head competition. Until now. The ERA promised to bring you that competition that we all love to see, and they delivered! Fred Whitfield, Speed and Rich, Wade Sundell, Tuff Cooper, Jake Barnes, Clay O’Brian Cooper, Luke B., Charmayne James, Wesley Silcox, Fallon Taylor…just to name a few! I have been watching the NFR now for 32 years, and this competition is every bit as good!
Dallas vs Vegas
Here it is…my only negative. I am 100% for the cowboys. They have worked hard to be where they are. They are people that we look up to and admire. They are the lowest paid professional athletes in the world of sports. I fully support them breaking off and trying to create a better rodeo and I think that they are off to a great start.
Unfortunately, for me and many others, that “Vegas feel” is something that we crave every December. There is an excitement there that you cannot find anywhere else. I know some would say, “well you can go to Vegas anytime.” Yeah, you can, but it’s not the same. The cowboys, the shopping, and the ambiance of the NFR cannot be duplicated.
As much as I hate to say it, Dallas is not Vegas. It is going to take many, many years for the ERA to duplicate the feel that a rodeo fan gets in Vegas during the NFR, if it can even be done. There are a million things to do in Vegas. It’s just not that way in Dallas. There is a good reason why Las Vegas is the mecca for conventions and events…it is the city that never sleeps and provides 24 hours of entertainment.
Also, Dallas traffic is a nightmare.
What can you expect to see in 2017?
Now that the PRCA and ERA disputes have been settled, you can expect to see some of your favorite rodeo cowboys competing again in the PRCA as well as the ERA. Some of the guys who have been rodeoing for a long time may opt to just stick with the ERA. The good news for the cowboys is that they now have a choice!
I do predict that the ERA will continue to grow and gain in popularity. As I said from the very beginning, you cannot compare apples to oranges. Neither one is better or worse than the other…they are just different. Two different types of competition featuring our favorite rodeo athletes. You don’t have to choose one or the other, just enjoy them both for what they are! The more support you offer as fans, the longer the sport that we love stays alive!
Photo Credit: ERA World Championship photos
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