The Elite Rodeo Association's first year hasn't been the easiest, you know, ride. The ERA tour schedule has shrunk, membership numbers have been whittled away and it looks as if the situation may be more challenging next year.
Yet Bobby Mote, one of the founders and owners of the ERA, is sanguine about the future. "We learned a lot this year," the famed champion bareback rider says. "We're cutting back our schedule to ensure we offer fans the best possible experience when they come see our shows, but it's the right choice. If the ERA is associated with anything other than the best, that hurts the brand, so we're making sure we only offer our fans the best.”
As we wrote in our March cover story, members of the ERA — the result of efforts by a group of about 80 professional rodeo cowboys who came up with the idea for a new cowboy-owned, cowboy-run rodeo organization — have insisted from the beginning that they are not in competition with the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. (Unlike that group, which is open to professional rodeo cowboys of all levels, the ERA is designed to cater to the top athletes in the sport.)
However, when the ERA was created and it was announced in 2015 that the professional cowboys would offer an eight-city tour and a world championship involving some of the champion athletes in the sport, PRCA officials took the announcement as a threat. The older rodeo board voted to create two bylaws that effectively banned anyone who is heavily involved in the Elite Rodeo Association from belonging to the PRCA. Lawsuits sailed back and forth between the two groups before a judge ultimately sided with PRCA officials, finding the PRCA was indeed allowed to ban the member-owners of ERA from competing in PRCA-sanctioned events.
This was a huge deal since it blocked the ERA members, some of the most elite athletes of the sport, from riding in PRCA rodeos, which make up most of the rodeos in the country.
That didn't stop the ERA, though. The group has proceeded with its tour this year and even secured a television broadcast deal on Fox Sports 2, as we've reported. But the year hasn't been without its bumps. The ERA recently announced that it had decided to cancel its last three stops on the tour before the world championship, slated to be held in November in Dallas. The association also lopped two days off the 2016 ERA World Championship shows in that city.
The ERA has been figuring out how best to run itself over the course of the tour this year, Mote explains. “This is a start-up. This hasn't been done before, what we're attempting to do,” Mote says. “There are some things we assumed, and some we got right and some we got wrong, so we're adjusting based on what we've learned.”
As the tour has progressed, Mote and the other members of ERA have found that timing is key with these tours. To get a large enough audience to fill up one of the larger venues, it's best to schedule the show during the first part of the year when the weather is still cold and people are more interested in being inside, Mote says. ERA officials also decided to back off the big-city stops because people in those areas may not know the professional rodeo world as well.
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"People in the more midsize markets know the difference between a regular rodeo and a group of the top rodeo cowboys, and they have turned out, but the audiences in the larger markets don't necessarily see the difference," Mote says. "Atlanta and New Orleans, that's really running before we can walk, so we decided not to do that."
Meanwhile, the ERA is still seeing some pushback from PRCA, he says. The court injunction that banned those heavily involved in ERA from competing in PRCA rodeos has apparently been effective. In June the ERA issued a release announcing that the group had lost about 15 percent of its members over the course of the year.
More of the athletes on the ERA roster will probably have to choose between the PRCA and the ERA next year. As of this year, cowgirls have been governed by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association and thus have been able to compete at both ERA and PRCA rodeos, but next year will be different, Mote says. Last week, Fallon Taylor, a barrel racer with the ERA, announced on social media, according to Rodeo Roundup, that next year any member of the WPRA who owns a portion of the ERA will not be able to get a membership card to compete. (We've asked the WPRA for comment. We'll update as soon as we hear back.)
Still, for now the members of ERA are focused on the world championship and on taking what they learned this year and applying it to the 2017 tour, Mote says. The 2016 ERA tour has been a different experience, he admits. “I'm used to doing it a lot, competing a lot and winning more money, but this year is about building this,” Mote says. “We've learned a lot. It hasn't been easy, but if this was easy, somebody would have done it a long time ago.”