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PRCA proved better horse in battle with start-up rodeo tour

When you’re in the fight, Karl Stressman says, the fighting part is all you think about, fighting with everything you have, fighting for what you believe in, fighting until the bitter end.

And when the fight is over?

“Man, let’s shake hands and drink a cold one and move on,” said Stressman, outgoing commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “I honestly believe we all have.”

There isn’t a rodeo cowboy alive without some battle scars, and Stressman knows this both from roping steers in an arena to facing off with his sport’s most talented folks in a courtroom.

His side won this go-around, and it was a doozy.

The National Finals Rodeo has a different feel from last year to this, meaning some familiar faces have returned to compete at the Thomas &Mack Center, meaning many of the world’s best cowboys who went searching for a different sort of greener pasture realized history is pretty clear:

The challenge of creating and developing and building a league that can compete successfully with a respective sport’s leading organization is tougher than it was riding the legendary Tornado back in the 1960s.

And given the bull threw every competitor over six years and 220 outs, you get the idea how this whole Elite Rodeo Association venture has gone.

I mean, even that crazy United Football League lasted longer.

Some background: The ERA was founded in 2015 and attracted more than 80 of the sport’s top competitors, enticing them with a stated mission of improving rodeo for everyone: fans, athletes, associations, stock contractors, sponsors and venues.

The idea was more exposure, more ability to earn, more of everything.

It featured names like Trevor Brazile and Tuf Cooper and Ryan Motes and Clay Tryan and Kaycee Feild and Bobby Mote.

Best of the best.

But in its inaugural season of 2016, the ERA canceled its last three events and cut its finals in Dallas from five to three performances.

It then canceled all rodeos for 2017.

What happened?

In terms of owning the best path, the PRCA rode its to a clear victory, approving a bylaw that stated its members could not have financial interest in another rodeo association, meaning all those cowboys who were shareholders in the ERA had to make a choice.

The ERA filed an antitrust lawsuit, asking a court to temporarily stop the PRCA from enforcing the bylaw.

Three months later, the suit was dropped.

One by one, cowboys began purchasing their PRCA memberships.

“You’re never 100 percent confident things are going to work out, but I’m certainly glad to have them back,” Stressman said. “We’re talking about a lot of champions. There were certain things they looked for in going to the (ERA), and all of them weren’t wrong. But it was the duty of the PRCA to take a stand for all of its members.

“Let’s face it: The world runs on the development of the next generation. Now, we have the best of both, with former champions returning and mixing with our young talent. It runs deep in rodeo. There is a lot of it out there.”

What those cowboys learned from the ERA experience is what other athletes, for both similar and different reasons, learned in the UFL and XFL and USFL and World Hockey Association and American Basketball League and Elite Xtreme Combat and so on.

That it’s incredibly difficult for any start-up league to create long-term staying power. That it takes a whole lot of money and community involvement. That asking fans to in some way abandon a product they have been loyal to for decades while financially embracing another version is like asking a roper to change horses to one he has never worked immediately before the chutes open at the NFR.

“I’m glad I was part of it,” said bareback rider Steven Dent, ERA world champion in his event. “I wish it would have worked. I think the cowboys who started it had the right interests in mind. We got pegged as selfish, and I didn’t like that, but I stuck it out because that’s what cowboys do. Tell a cowboy he can’t do something and he’s only going to work harder.

“I’m proud of what we did. I hope everyone in rodeo world can respect we stuck to our word and really tried to grow the sport.”

Some at the ERA insist they are just taking this year off while changes are made and the tour improved, that there are plans to field a 2018 schedule.

It doesn’t make much sense, really.

A start-up that stops and then starts again?

Man, maybe it really is time to shake hands and drink a cold one and move on.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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