Months of anticipation have finally led the rodeo world to March 2, 2014, a day which could forever change the industry. Back in the summer of 2013 RFD-TV announced its new venture, The American. It has been billed as the richest single day in rodeo, promising a $2 million payout to the contestants. Its website proclaims, "Every sport needs a large impact moment, and this will be that defining day for the best rodeo athletes in the world."
The American has captured the imagination of fans and competitors in rodeo alike. Dubbed by its creator, Rural Media Group's CEO Randy Bernard, the "US Open" of rodeo, The American will be held at the home of the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, AT&T Stadium. It follows the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Iron Cowboy V event.
The comparison to golf's US Open is appropriate--The American invites the top ten contestants in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) following last December's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) in the saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping and calf roping along with the Women's Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) barrel racers. The top ten from the PBR's World Finals held last October will compete in the bull riding.
The organizers of the event also granted a number of exemptions including Justin McBride, the first $5 million cowboy in western sports and a two-time PBR World Champion bull rider, and Charmayne James, an 11-time WPRA World Champion barrel racer and the first $1 million barrel racer. They also chose Dan Mortensen in the saddle broncs; the Montana cowboy won five PRCA World titles in his signature event along with one in the All Around. All three competitors are retired but decided to take their shot at the $1 million for one day's work.
But much like the US Open, The American set up a series of qualifying events and invited everyone in the country the opportunity to qualify to compete in Arlington.
The last fact set fires across the industry. Instead of facing limited entries, everyone who has saddled a horse for rodeo competition now had a legitimate chance to earn their way to the big money. With $1 million promised to any qualifiers who happen to win The American, entry numbers at the qualifiers were huge.
The American partnered with several organizations for the purposes of creating qualifying events. For barrel racing, they choose the Better Barrel Races. For team roping, the United States Team Roping Championships (USTRC) and the Pro Rough Stock Series (PRS) for saddle broncs and bareback riders. The tie down ropers went to the Ultimate Calf Roping (UCR) while the PBR used its Touring Pro Division events to qualify bull riders.
After months of qualifying events, all contestants who made the cut arrived in Mesquite, Texas on February 21-23 for the Semi-Finals. Timed events competitors made two runs in slack (just one for the barrel racers) and the top 20 came back into the two performances.
Every step is sudden death with what you did before only mattering in that it got you this far. The top 20 at Mesquite competed once more and the top 10 earned their shot at The American in the barrels, top 5 in the remaining events.
Meanwhile, event organizers decided to up the ante with their exemptions, announcing exemption matches between world champs Joe Beaver and Fred Whitfield in the tie down roping and Jake Barnes, Clay O'Brien Cooper and Speed Williams in the team roping. The world champs squared off in Mesquite but event organizers decided to bring all of them to Arlington for the big show.
RFD-TV has promoted the event to the hilt with shows like "Road to The American" airing for months on its network along with accompanying programming on its radio presence, Rural Radio, on SiriusXM Channel 80. The organizers have also utilized social media to keep the buzz steadily growing since the announcement of the event.
The beauty of the event is that it allows qualifiers including 70-year old June Holeman (once a WNFR competitior but no longer a full time competitor) in the barrel race to compete alongside reigning WPRA World Champ Sherry Cervi; it allows up-and-comers like Tyler Waguespack the same chance as reigning World Champion Steer Wrestler Hunter Cure. The qualifiers gave Rusty Wright, the son of two-time World Champion Cody Wright who just turned 18 and bought his PRCA permit mere months ago, the chance to battle his dad for a huge payday.
In short, The American capitalizes on one of rodeo's biggest assets -- its depth of talent. It would be hard to argue that there are football or baseball players out there capable of competing with the professionals in their sport, even on a short term basis. But in rodeo, there is talent in every corner . . . not just young competitors capable of moving up and becoming world champions but older competitors who are not full time rodeo participants.
While the professional rodeo season banks its most lucrative events on limiting entries, picking up only those competitors who won a certain amount the previous year, The American recognizes the fan appeal of the underdogs who don't make that cut. They may have regular jobs and families, intangibles that aren't worth missing out on to spend 12 months a year on the road; they may recognize the huge financial burden a full time rodeo career can impose.
Rodeo is a sport that requires great skill but also a little luck. After all, there are a lot of factors that can't be controlled when you consider you are competing with and against animals who have minds of their own, on varying conditions of ground and weather, in many different set-ups.
All those variables mean anyone can beat the best from one day to the next. Of course, the stars are the guys and gals who do it day in and day out under all conditions. But there is always a chance they can be beat.
The best guess is that for every fan in the stands cheering on Cure, Cervi and Cody Wright, there will be one rooting for an "unknown" to beat the big kids. At The American, those unknowns have the chance at a life changing payout for doing so.
The competitors, invited, exempted and qualified, have been outspoken in their support of the new venture. Many used their Facebook pages to speak out. Amongst the best was this post from WPRA barrel racer Sabrina Ketcham:
"As the much publicized RFD-TV The American Rodeo approaches, the interviews increase, the electricity builds and the question arises what does it really mean? Every time I run down an alley it's important to me. I love what I do, and what I do has made me who I am. The sacrifices I make to be out here, assure a drive to win that many will never understand. The opportunity to compete at an inaugural event that will impact the future of rodeo is amazing. So what does the American mean for us? The future. RFD-TV has stepped up and presented a progressive event to a sport that hasn't seen significant change in several generations. There's a 1 in 21 chance that it will be life changing for me on Sunday, but there's a 100% chance that when the lights go out Sunday night, rodeo will never be the same."
RFD-TV's Facebook page has been on fire as fans have weighed in with their predictions for each event and the excitement is likely to continue long after the lights go in Cowboy Stadium tomorrow night.
RFD-TV carries full coverage of the event which begins at 1 p.m. Central time on Sunday, March 2. Rural Radio will also cover the event on SiriusXM radio via Pro Rodeo Live. All competitors will receive one round of competition with the top four fastest times or highest scores coming back later that performance for the shoot-out. Event winners earn $100,000 and second is worth $25,000. All event-winner qualifiers will earn a share of $1 million but if no qualifiers win an event, the winners award will increase to $225,000, ensuring a total payout of $2 million.
Stay tuned to the National Rodeo Examiner as well for complete post-event coverage.