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The World of Pro Rodeo

To Be a Pro

The difference between professional and amateur in rodeo is basically whether or not the rodeo is sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). If it's sanctioned, it's a professional show, if not than it's an amateur event. While amateur shows also award prize money to the winners, the professional shows award much greater amounts, and this is a very important point in rodeo.
So how do amateurs become professionals?
First, at that point which the amateur individual feels there are ready to turn pro, they must purchase a Permit from the PRCA. With this, they are able to ride in professional rodeos, or in other words, rodeos sanctioned by the PRCA for one year. During this time, the permit member must win a minimum of $1000 in order to be awarded a card by the PRCA, the signature of a professional rodeo cowboy, otherwise known as a "Card Holder."
If the permit holder is unable to win the required amount, they must repurchase a permit the following year and start over again. If the individual is skilled, they may very well fill their permit in just one or two rodeos, but some, unable to keep up at the pro level, may need the entire season to fill their permit. What makes matters difficult for the permit holder is not just that they must win $1000, but that they are only allowed to enter those rodeos which accept permit member entries and even at these shows, card holding members are given priority. So though a permit member may find a show that accepts permits, he may be bumped by a card holder who decides to enter later.
Other than the PRCA, there is the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which produces events that feature only bull riding and are devoid of the other traditional rodeo events. Unlike the PRCA which is a non-profit organization, the PBR is an incorporated entity. The organization was formed when 20 of the top bull riders in the world at the time led by Tuff Hedeman, dissatisfied with the amount of prize money being awarded to bull riders in return for the high level of danger they endure, contributed a thousand dollars each to form an organization that produced only bull riding events. With a tour comprised of over 30 cities and their own major corporate sponsors, the PBR has succeeded in making superstars out of bull riders and awarding prize money in amounts yet unheard of in the sport of rodeo or bull riding.
Formed in 1992, the PBR achieved a level of success which would see it equal to the PRCA in both size and popularity in a mere four years (the PRCA was formed in 1952). Since the organization specializes in bull riding, naturally the level of both riders and the bulls they ride is much higher in the PBR than it is in the PRCA and as such, for bull riders today, it is more difficult to become the world champion in the PBR than it is in the PRCA, not to mention the fact that the PBR title carries more clout.

The Road to Gold

Once a pro, naturally the next objective is to become world champion. Unlike most other sports, rodeo employs the Money Ranking system, where an individual's earnings determine his rank in the world, with the world champion being determined at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) held each December in Las Vegas.
The top 15 money winners in the PRCA are invited to compete at the NFR and vie for the world championship.
The finals are comprised of 10 rounds of competition, with one round being held each day. Prize money is paid out to the top 8 finishers of each round, with more money being paid to the higher finishers of course. This money is also added to the money earned during the season prior to the finals, and at the end of the ten rounds, he who has won the greatest amount wins the world.
When the finals were still being held in Oklahoma City, the prize money awarded was fairly small. As such, some competitors like 8 time world champion bull rider Donny Gay could rack-up a large enough amount during the season that by the time the NFR rolled around in December, there was no way anyone could catch him and his world championship was determined even before the first round got underway.
After the PRCA moved the NFR to Las Vegas in 1985 following a pledge by the city to double the prize money from 900,000 to 1.8 million, the new amounts awarded in each round allowed even the competitor who came into the competition in 15th place an opportunity to win the world title if they are able to make some crucial wins at the finals. This sort of great upset did in fact occur in 1990 when team roper Allen Bach became the first cowboy to rally from 15th place to win the world title. The title was Bach's second. In 2000, bull rider Cody Hancock became the first rough stock rider to come into the finals in 15th place and leave as the champion of the world.

(about $20,000)

2004 NFR 9th Go Round TEAM ROPING Buckle
(about $2,000)
One more thing about the finals: The winners in rodeo are traditionally awarded buckles for their success, but it is of interest to note that not just one buckle is awarded at the finals for each event. In fact, at least 13 buckles are awarded for each event held at the competition; one of course to the world champion, one to the world reserve champion, one to the NFR champion (the guy who won the most money at the NFR alone) and one to each winner of each round of competition.
The buckles are currently all custom made by Montana Silversmiths (until 2000 they were made by Award Design) and are said to cost about $2,000 for the round buckles and $20,000 each for the world championship buckles. During the 2000 NFR, the buckles were placed on display at the Gold Coast Hotel, which is also where the awards ceremony is held to give the cowboys their buckles.
Some months prior to the NFR, the top 30 cowboys vote on which stock should be used at the finals. Therefore, only the best and least ridden of all bulls and broncs make it to the finals. These same cowboys will also vote on the best bull or bronc of the year, and later, a vote will be taken for the best bull and broncs at the finals. In both cases, a buckle and sizable monetary award is given to the stock contractor who owns the stock selected for the honors. It should also be noted here that, since bullfighters are employed by the various stock contractors, the top 30 bull riders also vote to determine the two bullfighters and one reserve bullfighter for the finals as well, and these men are also awarded buckles for this as well as paid handsomely for their work there.
Championships in rodeo are awarded by event. There is no such thing as a "Rodeo Champion." Champions are referred to by the event they compete or competed in, such as: World Saddle Bronc Champion, World Bull Riding Champion, World Steer Wrestling Champion or World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider, World Champion Bull Rider, World Champion Steer Wrestler and so forth.
There is also no "all events" champion either. However, there is the "All Around Cowboy" or "All Around Champion" category. This is awarded to the cowboy that competes in two or more events and who has won the most money at the conclusion of the NFR. One does not have to qualify for the NFR in all events they compete in to win the award, but it would be virtually impossible to win the title without qualifying in at least one of the events. While in the Canadian Pro Rodeo Association (CPRA) cowboys must compete "at both ends of the arena" meaning they must compete in one timed event and one rough stock event, in order to qualify to win the All Around Cowboy title, there is no such regulation in the PRCA, and cowboys can win the tile by competing in two events of the same kind. In fact, Ty Murry won his world record 7 All Around Titles by competing in all rough stock events (bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding), while Fred Whitfield won his 1999 World Champion All Around Cowboy title competing in the timed events of Calf Roping (now called "Tie-Down Roping) and Team Roping.

The Rodeo Circuit

Now, we've explained how to become a pro and how to become a champion, but what is in between?
If you watch the movie "8 Seconds" you will see that rodeo cowboys finish one rodeo only to race off to the next, and once they finish that one, they are off to the one after that. They repeat this the entire year, circling the US and Canada, and when the cut-off date comes sometime in October, the 15 cowboys with the most earnings advance to the NFR.
This is called the rodeo circuit, and cowboys refer to the circling of rodeo after rodeo as "riding the circuit" or, since driving down the highway gives the impression that one is in pursuit of that ever evasive line, they also call it "chasing the white line." So, if a cowboy were to say something like, "Back when I was riding the circuitc" he is referring to the time he was out rodeoing.
In 1975, recognizing the need for a system that would reward those cowboys who, due to their regular jobs during the week, would never be able to compete enough to qualify for the NFR, the PRCA established the circuit system. The system divides the US into 12 regions where generally a cowboy can go to a rodeo and return within the weekend, allowing him to be at work on Monday.
Each cowboy declares a home circuit at the start of the year which corresponds with his home address, and competes throughout the year within that circuit. At the end of the season, the top cowboys of that circuit qualify for that circuit's finals. After all 12 "circuit finals" are completed the top regular season cowboys from each event and the winners of each circuit finals qualify for the Dodge National Circuit Finals (DNCFR) in March, currently being held in Pocatello, Idaho.
It should be noted that professional cowboys are not restricted from competing outside of their declared circuit, however, any money won outside of their circuit will only count towards the world standings which qualifies them for the NFR, and not towards their circuit standings which qualifies them for their circuit finals and the DNCFR.

Written by Randy Reese

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