Today's cowboy often looks, smells successful

Josh Peek is a sponsor's dream: handsome, clean-cut, clean-shaven, polite.

And less than 30 minutes after tying for the National Finals Rodeo sixth-round calf-roping title, he looks like a Stetson ad and smells like a department store.

"Wait, tonight it's Cool Water," the calf roper and steer wrestler said, laughing at the fact that even a rugged cowboy can wear too much cologne.

This is a cowboy in today's rodeo.

Sure, the old guard is still here. Rough, tough, weathered, with a fat pack of chew and a snarl, there's no such thing as too much fun.

Then there's the new guard.

Packaging himself as a combination of talent and skill, with a twang to boot, Peek is one of many young NFR competitors who see the value in rodeo and realize the potential gold mine ahead.

"The industry has always been the rough, tough, cowboy, wild lifestyle," said Peek, who won $116,478 at the NFR and $261,692 for the year. "A lot of us aren't that way. We've definitely had our fun and everything like that.

"But clean-cut, clean-shaven, professional -- that's what it's coming to. The sponsors want it that way, the industry needs to be that way, and the fans love it."

As Peek says, there's too much money nowadays to be ignored.

Hall of Fame bull rider Donnie Gay tells a story of more than three decades ago, at the 1976 NFR. Gay had a heck of a week -- he rode nine of 10 bulls, won three go-round buckles, finished second in the aggregate standings -- but still won less than $10,000.

How's this: The top bull rider this year, Wesley Silcox, banked 117,933 last week.

Not to mention the potential for endorsements and sponsorships.

Simply, rodeo is a business, especially for the youngsters.

"We have so much invested in it," said calf roper Hunter Herrin, 23. "Money in horses, trucks, trailers -- I mean, everything's so expensive now that if you don't look at it as a business, then you ain't gonna be able to survive."

Added Trevor Brazile, five-time all-around champion and Peek's idol: "I see a lot of talent come up, and I've seen a lot of guys who are more business-minded trying to get the job done. They try not to shorten their careers by acting ignorant. Shoot, if you don't do well in this business, then you have to get a real job."

But there's the rub -- these young cowboys view rodeo as a real job. Time was, all it took to be a cowboy was an 8-second ride and a tip of the hat.

The complete cowboy now doesn't just perform in the arena but outside of it, too.

"It needs to evolve into a media-friendly sport," Peek said. "To do that, it's not the 'aw, shucks' stuff. You create more for a sponsor when you're athletic and competitive in the arena, and then you can go outside and it doesn't matter what happened inside of the arena five minutes ago."

Added Gay: "They're stepping out of the normal mode of the majority of cowboys who have the 'aw, shucks' persona, tip their hat, duck their head and walk off. While that's good, the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

The easiest way for the sport to evolve will be through television, which delivers cowboys -- and their sponsors -- into living rooms. For at least the last 15 years, ESPN has aired the NFR. Now, smaller rodeos are creeping up on other cable sports stations.

"The sport is growing just rapidly," UNLV bull rider Colin McTaggart said. "People keep watching, people keep coming, then you can't really put a limit on it. But it's not gonna help the sponsors too much if they're just putting their logos on for people coming to watch the rodeo. The TV coverage is the big deal. If you can get your logos out on TV, it's worth a lot more.

"You can only fit so many people in a grandstand -- you can fit as many people as you want in their own living room."

With patches all over their shirts, the next level for the modern cowboy is the national cowboy. If the sport lacks anything, it's a Tiger Woods or a David Beckham; a guy who embodies the sport. There are stars -- Brazile, Cody Ohl and Fred Whitfield come to mind -- but no true media darlings.

"That's the only way we can go -- brand name rodeo cowboys," Peek said. "There are so many great athletes out here, why can't rodeo be up there with the other sports? I'm trying to create myself as a brand name, as a professional athlete."

Contact reporter Jon Gold at jgold@ or (702) 380-4587.