As someone who has been hyper critical of how rodeo markets itself, I was pleased to see someone like Alexis Bloomer write at length about rodeo’s marketability and its place in the mainstream. Alexis writes about how she grew up in rodeo, and since my background couldn’t be any more different than her background, I have some different thoughts on the subject. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a conversation that is long overdue, and I hope that more people will jump in with their thoughts and begin to push for changes.
Some background for those not exposed to my previous rants: With the exception of college in Alabama, I have only ever lived on the coasts. I’m not a cowboy. To this day I feel ridiculous wearing a cowboy hat, and don’t even get me started on the boots, but I love rodeo as much as anyone. While I came to rodeo later in life than most, (after I saw a poster for the 2007 Grand National in, of all places, a Jamba Juice) I do have a background in sports, and not just playing them. My father was the athletic director for a community college system with 100,000 students, and coached track & field and consulted in promotions for Nike. I grew up around world class athletes and talk of how to get them as much exposure as possible was regular dinner-table conversation. In short, while I’ve only been around rodeo for seven years, I’m not at all new to sports marketing.
It’s funny that Alexis starts out her post with an anecdote about seeing the trailer for The Longest Ride with non-rodeo friends. I worked on that movie last summer, and while it is mostly a love story, there are some bull riding scenes. Those scenes were done with PBR cowboys and the PBR served as technical consultants, but that’s not a distinction that people who don’t know the difference between PBR and PRCA will be making. It’s all “rodeo” to them. In a few weeks there is going to be a small period of time where “rodeo” is going to be on just about everyone’s TV as Fox rolls out their advertising for the movie. You can bet that the PBR will do an effective job of touting the fact that their cowboys were used as extras and stunt doubles to take advantage of this push. A couple of those guys also ride in PRCA events, but that’s not important. “Rodeo” will be on the TVs (and other plenty of other media) of people who have basically no awareness of rodeo. Does anyone think that the PRCA is anywhere near close to being able to take advantage of any of this?
Alexis seems to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on becoming Twitter Verified, I’ll settle for just increased usage. Social media is critically important, and an easy area where rodeo cowboys/cowgirls can raise their profiles. When I first started going to rodeos, my iPhone was a curiosity in a sea of cowboys with flip phones. That’s not the case anymore, and there’s really no excuse for not engaging with fans on social media. Sometime last season I was shooting a rodeo where the announcer gave out his Facebook and Twitter names and asked the crowd who had Facebook and Twitter. The response from those with Facebook accounts was very loud, the response from those with Twitter accounts was barely audible. I understand that the asymmetrical follow model on Twitter is more attractive to anyone in the public eye than the free-for-all spam-fest that Facebook’s symmetrical model has become. But you still need to go where the fans are, and for the very most part, rodeo fans are on Facebook. Deal with it. But Alexis is not wrong, more engagement with current fans is critical because it’s those fans who might be able to convince their friends to go to a local rodeo or watch one on TV.
Which brings me to the point where Alexis and I have the most agreement: there’s only so much that the cowboys/cowgirls can do by themselves, and if they don’t get marketed to the masses by their governing body, that governing body has outlived its usefulness. Two years ago, the PRCA’s Director of Communications Kendra Santos told me that rodeo would be better off if everyone stayed off of social media. Not long before that, her “Senior Public Relations Coordinator” Jim Bainbridge told me that the exposure I get for rodeo didn’t matter. True stories. Forget making Sports Illustrated’s Pictures of the Year, forget SI.com and the cover of American Cowboy…the 10,000 circulation (1/10th the circulation of even American Cowboy) Pro Rodeo Sports News is apparently supposed to be the only outlet for rodeo, LOL. Theoretically their incompetence could be left in the past, but both are still in their positions, and PRCA social media is rife with bad iPhone pictures from behind the scenes, mostly bad action photos from inside the arena, and ads trying to sell you last year’s NFR gear overstock. As Alexis mentions, there is nothing close to updated results. The PRCA almost completely cedes real-time updates to individual rodeos who may or may not be Internet/Twitter/Facebook-savvy. In the absence of real-time results or same-day (or even next-day) results, the default delivery method of both results and replays is cell phone pictures/videos of a computer monitor covered in stickers posted to the Facebook page of a sound guy. This is how the PRCA expects rodeo fans to keep up with their sport for the 50 weeks of the year outside of their local rodeo and the NFR.
And none of this would matter all that much, except as Alexis points out, rodeo cowboys/cowgirls don’t make much money. There seems to be a huge misconception about where professional athletes’ salaries come from, and the place of rodeo in the greater sports landscape. The top mainstream pro athletes make tons of money via endorsement deals, but the bulk of NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL/NASCAR salaries come from TV rights. The NFL brings in $7 billion dollars per year in media rights. The PRCA has to pay CBS Sports an undisclosed amount of money to get them to air the NFR (in a spectacularly atrocious bit of negotiating, delayed by early-season non-conference college basketball) and Champions Challenge events. This is why PRCA athletes don’t make very much money.
Obviously there is no straight line between paying someone to pre-empt your “super bowl of rodeo” and raking in billions of dollars. But the good news is that with the total money in rodeo so insanely small, any additional money can have a fairly large impact. The question then becomes are the people at the PRCA capable of bringing in that additional money? Clearly they are not. If you look at the commissioners of the major professional sports, you will find no ex-players. If you look at marketing departments in those same leagues, you will find few to no ex-players. Successful organizations value competence and results. Hey look, even Canadians can do it. The PRCA values being an ex-contestent and…apparently not a whole lot else. We constantly hear how terribly hard those Colorado Springs jobs are. How it’s nearly impossible to get visibility for rodeo. How restrictive it is to work within the bylaws to get anything done. Cry me a river. Why not bring in some young ambitious VP of whatever who has a proven track record at a successful league? You know, someone with contacts at major media outlets who wants to make their name turning around a moribund association and who would be too busy producing to have time to talk about how hard everything is. And bylaws? Bylaws are broken all the time, and if the one breaking them has any kind of standing, everyone looks the other way. Everyone is tired of hearing nothing but excuses. If everything is so hopelessly broken, blow it up and start over…it’s been done a few times before.
Is rodeo marketable? Absolutely. Is it likely to be mainstream in any of our lifetimes? No. Does it have to be mainstream to be in a much better position than it is now? Absolutely not. But the people in charge can’t continue doing what they’re doing. Rodeo’s demographics are aging out every day, and with those demographics go any hope of success.