DALLAS (CN) - The powerful Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association is a monopoly that illegally bars stars of the sport from competing in events sanctioned by their new association, cowboys claim in federal antitrust complaint.
The newly formed Elite Rodeo Association, Trevor Bazile, Bobby Mote and Ryan Motes filed a class action against the PRCA on Monday. The cowboys say they intend to hold ERA's first season in 2016, with a final World Championship Rodeo at the American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas in November.
Their new sanctioning body says its entire tour will be broadcast nationally by Fox Sports on the Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 cable channels.
In response, the PRCA quickly enacted bylaws banning ERA cowboys and cowgirls from PRCA-sanctioned rodeos.
"PRCA's message is clear: If you want to compete in PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, it's the PRCA way or the highway," the 40-page complaint states. "The PRCA bylaw is intended to force members to make a Hobson's choice: i.e., to participate in any PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, a rodeo athlete must do so exclusively and stop participating in any ERA rodeo. PRCA is bullying its own membership into toeing the PRCA line by threatening any member who wants to be involved in ERA with being locked out of PRCA rodeos."
The cowboys say they have been longtime, loyal, dues-paying members of the PRCA, the self-described largest and oldest rodeo sanctioning body in the world, which holds more than 600 multiple-event rodeos a year.
"PRCA is threatening to kick them out simply because they want to have some basic control over their professional careers and lives in a responsible way that will improve the sport of rodeo for everyone," the complaint states.
"For decades now, PRCA-sanctioned rodeos have been the only game in town for a professional rodeo athlete. Under the current system, the sport of rodeo is not set up for the most part in any organized way that showcases elite professional rodeo athletes competing against each other on a scheduled basis and in a way that makes it easy for fans to follow and sponsors to promote.
"Right now, professional rodeo athletes typically compete against any PRCA member - regardless of whether those members rodeo on a part-time basis, as a hobby, or for the first-time. Also, there are no dedicated time slots based on rankings or otherwise, so fans buy a ticket not knowing if they will see even one of the best professional rodeo athletes in the sport or not."
The plaintiffs say this hurts fan interest and TV and sponsorship opportunities, because the most popular athletes may compete in nonpeak hours, sometimes as early as 7 a.m.
"It is not uncommon that a competition-winning performance is given to an empty arena early in the morning, while peak time performances that have no bearing on the outcome of the rodeo are made in front of a full arena," the complaint states. "Put simply, no other professional sport is organized like this."
The cowboys say there is no legitimate or competitive reason for PRCA's new bylaws.
"No other sport threatens to kick out its top athletes and voluntarily chooses to lose revenue from those athletes in the form of membership fees and all other forms of revenue from fan and sponsorship interest," the complaint states. "The PRCA's new bylaws only serve to hurt the sport by reducing output as ERA will add events, fans, sponsorships, and television interest to rodeo in the United States now and in the future."
The plaintiffs dispute PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman's purported statements that the bylaws are meant to stop "free-riding" on the PRCA. They say the sport of rodeo was built by competitors who risk "life and limb" to compete in rodeos full time.
"These professional athletes endure numerous serious injuries, spend endless weeks on the road away from their families, and devote their entire professional lives to rodeo. In addition, ERA athletes are also ERA's owners," the complaint states. "They have invested their time, money, and efforts to create ERA and have a stake in it to ensure that it will be a success. They are not free-riding on anything."
The plaintiffs say they seek to co-exist with PRCA, and compare their group to smaller regional rodeo associations and to the successful Professional Bull Riders sanctioning body, formed in the early 1990s by the top 20 PRCA bull riders at the time.
PRCA spokesman Jim Bainbridge said the group is aware of the lawsuit.
"It is prepared to and will vigorously defend its position in this matter," he said Tuesday morning.
The cowboys seek class certification, costs, a declaration that the PRCA is violating the Sherman Act and an injunction blocking the "anticompetitive" bylaws.
They are represented by T. Ray Guy with Weil Gotshal in Dallas.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association awarded $39.3 million prize money in 2012, according to its annual report . Pro rodeo attendance hit 5 million people that year, in which 5,138 cowboys and cowgirls entered 118,733 pro rodeo events.
Fifty-one percent of PRCA members are women.Follow @davejourno
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