PRCA seeks deeper ties with core fans
Published January 3, 2011
When the head of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association announced last month that the sanctioning body's Super Bowl, the Wrangler National Finals, would be leaving ESPN for a network seen in about two-thirds as many homes, it raised eyebrows in western business circles.
"I don't want to lose ESPN," said Jeff Chadwick, director of special events, rodeo and equine for Wrangler Specialty Apparel, the sport's leading sponsor. "But that's not our decision. It's the PRCA's decision."
And therein lies one of the great hurdles for the PRCA, one of the larger, better-kept secrets in U.S. sports. While it sanctions hundreds of events across the country, including a 10-day finals event in Las Vegas that paid out $5.875 million last year and annually stands as one of the tougher tickets in sports, the PRCA struggles to operate as a typical pro sports property would. It is a member organization that services about 2,500 cowboys and cowgirls, most of whom compete as an avocation rather than a vocation.
So when the commissioner of the PRCA, Karl Stressman, reviewed the sport's television options last year along with the body's board of directors, he landed on the decision to leave ESPN, even though it was where the circuit would find the broadest exposure.
The PRCA's deal with ESPN was a time buy, and Stressman said he no longer could abide spending his members' money to drive exposure for the handful who compete at the highest level — especially when the network bounced the rodeo around its schedule like a cowboy atop a bucking bronc.
Beginning next year, the top PRCA events will air on Great American Country, a channel that reaches about 60 million homes. The channel will air all 10 days of the National Finals, bracketed by a pre- and post-rodeo studio show each day. It also will air four other major PRCA tour events during the year, as well as the nine events on the PRCA's Xtreme Bulls Tour.
The PRCA is gambling that it will get back more in consistency and overall coverage than it loses in mainstream exposure.
"Do you utilize the members' dollars to create new things, or do you use members' dollars to access and reward your current fans?" Stressman asked, explaining the PRCA's decision to switch networks. "It's not that we don't want to create new fans. But what's the value? We used to say that for us to be a professional sport we have to push this button. Well, I don't think we do."
No other sport is structured as rodeo is. The PRCA sanctions more than 600 rodeos across the country each year. In 2000, in an attempt to create a more marketable and organized product, it created the Wrangler Pro Tour, with larger purses meant to attract the top competitors. Now known as the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, it will grow to 26 events for 2011. Last year, it paid out more than $6 million during the regular season and another $1.25 million in two postseason events sponsored by Justin Boots.
Still, those larger tour events and the Finals account for less than 5 percent of the rodeos that the PRCA sanctions each year. While sponsors such as Wrangler and Justin enjoyed the broad brand exposure afforded by ESPN, their decision to sponsor the PRCA is rooted in the breadth of that vast menu of events.
"The strength of rodeo is that it really is a grassroots opportunity to engage consumers at a local level," said Louis Russo, brand manager for Justin Boots, an official-status sponsor that activates at almost all of the PRCA events. "Hanging banners in the arena is fine and reinforces brand positioning. Rodeo is the iconic sport for our industry. But the trick to it is to leverage the events before they happen."
Justin does it through a promotion that offers rebates to customers at participating retailers in the two weeks leading up to an event. Three months out, Justin sales representatives contact retailers, offering point-of-sale materials, ads promoting the rodeo and Justin boots, and the rebate program. The company launched the program last year in about 100 markets. This year, it plans to expand to every PRCA event. Like the sport's iconic sponsor, Wrangler, Justin knows that fans see the rodeo as a social event — one that merits a new pair of boots or a western shirt.
At western-oriented retailers in many markets, the two weeks leading up to a rodeo can rival Christmas as the busiest sales week of the year.
"If you go to a rodeo you're going to see people wearing cowboy hats, cowboy boots, western jeans and a snap shirt," Chadwick said. "On the grassroots level, that's an ideal situation for us. You see people wearing jerseys to an NFL game. Well, when people go to rodeo, they want to buy a new outfit every time. They buy their tickets and they buy their cowboy hat. You see them and you can see it's new. Sometimes it's on backwards. But that's OK."
Sponsoring rodeo is similar to sponsoring auto racing, in that a deal with the sanctioning body doesn't guarantee the on-site rights that sponsors often want. To make the most of the sponsorship, brands must work with individual rodeo operators and engage retailers across the PRCA's vast map of events.
"If you think you can leverage it as a broad national program, you're not going to not maximize the opportunities it offers," Russo said. "You have to recognize what it is and then put together programs that are effective. You can leverage it in print, in store, online and through social media. It's got to be multifaceted. You can't just say you're going to hang banners in the arena. That doesn't necessarily sell product."
Wrangler is the most visible and longest-standing sponsor in the western lifestyle world, playing major roles with both the PRCA and its more mainstream competitor, the PBR. While Chadwick said Wrangler activates at almost all PRCA-sanctioned events, it focuses its most robust program around 120 of them. At those, consumers who spend $50 on Wrangler western wear receive a free ticket to the rodeo. That promotion can spur a retailer to double its stock in the weeks leading up to an event, Chadwick said, and then have to reorder when it's over.
"[For] our consumer base … rodeo is a common denominator to almost all of them," Chadwick said. "If they don't participate, they enjoy watching it. They can all relate to a good horse or a good cowboy."
Structured as it has been, with sparse national coverage around anything other than the National Finals, exposing that "good cowboy" has been difficult for the PRCA. Stressman said he believes the new TV deal will help address that, likening it to the boost the sport got from consistent carriage on TNN a decade ago.
"The sport has tried hard to make stars of its athletes and make them better-known personalities," said Rick French, chairman of Raleigh-based communications agency French/West/Vaughn, which represents Wrangler, Justin and several other western properties. "That being said, there are not a lot of those. There are guys like Ty Murray who was the greatest all-around cowboy in history. He's married to Jewel. That certainly helps.
"Ty has been on 'Dancing With The Stars.' But how much of that is related to his wife's clout and how much was that he was the Michael Jordan of the sport of rodeo?"
|According to Scarborough Sports Marketing, pro rodeo’s fan base is far more gender equitable than other major pro sports properties.|
|Gender||U.S. population||MLB||MLS||NASCAR||NBA||NFL||NHL||Pro rodeo|
|Nearly 52 percent of pro rodeo’s fan base is over the age of 45. Among the other major U.S. pro sports properties, only MLB has a higher rate.|
|Age||U.S. population||MLB||MLS||NASCAR||NBA||NFL||NHL||Pro Rodeo|
|Eight percent of U.S. residents say they are “very” or “somewhat” interested in rodeo. Here are the most avid markets:|
|Market||2011 major scheduled event(s)||% of market that is a pro rodeo fan|
|Oklahoma City||PBR Oklahoma City Invitational||18.9%|
|Tulsa||PBR Tulsa Invitational; PRCA Tulsa State Fair||16.5%|
|Spokane||Spokane County Interstate Fair & Rodeo||15.2%|
|Albuquerque/Santa Fe, N.M.||PBR Sandia Resort and Casino Presents the Ty Murray Invitational||14.7%|
|Salt Lake City||PRCA The Days of ‘47 Rodeo||14.5%|
|Las Vegas||PBR Las Vegas Invitational, PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals; PRCA Elks Helldorado, PRCA Benny Binion’s WNFR Bucking Horse and Bull Sale||13.3%|
|Bakersfield, Calif.||PRCA Kern County Fair Rodeo||12.6%|
|Denver||PRCA National Western Stock Show||11.9%|
|Little Rock/Pine Bluff, Ark.||Southeast Arkansas District Fair & Rodeo||11.6%|
|Houston||Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo||10.80%|
|San Antonio||PBR Bass Pro Shops Shootout; PRCA San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo||10.60%|
|Source: Scarborough Sports Marketing|