The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) wants to rope in the masses. Steve Hatchell, former Southwest Conference sports commissioner, took the PRCA's reigns with an eye toward broadening rodeo's popularity.
'We're positioning rodeo as the original extreme sport,' quips David Gwyn of Richard French & Associates. The PRCA hired the Raleigh, NC firm to help it reach the national media. To do that, the group has had to focus on two targets: television and the media capital of the world, New York City.
Hatchell sees TV as the primary venue for bringing rodeo into the mainstream, building sponsorship interest and attracting top-notch athletes. The PRCA and Wrangler, a long-time rodeo sponsor, launched the Wrangler Pro Tour this year; cowboys and cowgirls can earn tour points through a special scoring scheme designed to increase the excitement level of Sunday rodeos, typically the final events in multi-night series.
For TV appeal, rodeos are taped then aired three weeks later. Grand entries, trick riding expeditions, musical acts and other slower-paced elements of live rodeo are edited out, leaving 90 minutes of the most spectacular rides. TNN televised the first half of the Wrangler Pro Tour, including the winter series championships in Las Vegas. ESPN and ESPN2 picked up the second half and will air the summer series finals from the venerable Mesquite Rodeo near Dallas.
The main strategy was making Sunday night analogous with rodeo the way Monday night has become analogous with football, says senior AE Charles Upchurch. Secondary goals included positioning cowboys as professional athletes and creating interest for marketing and sponsorship opportunities.
To generate media interest, the Richard French team decided to take a few cowboys where they could get the most exposure among the national sports press: New York City. 'If you put cowboys on horses in Midtown Manhattan, then you've got something,' Upchurch says. PR practitioners played up the fact that the first world championship rodeos took place in Madison Square Garden in the 1940s.
Organizers rented quarter horses on March 10 at a historic stable on the Upper West Side. Recent hall of fame inductee Ty Murray, singer Jewell (his girlfriend) and saddle bronc rider Dan Mortensen rode through Central Park to the CBS studios for an Early Show appearance. There they met reigning champ Fred Whitfield, the first African-American all-around cowboy, where he had set up a roping demonstration.
The rodeo stars were made available for press interviews throughout the day. They also attended an evening reception at Michael Jordan's Steak House at Grand Central Station with key reporters and advertising execs.
Though the reception was private, the event took place in plain view of afternoon commuters.
In addition to the Early Show feature, the cowboys appeared on WCBS and the Fox News Channel. The event also garnered mentions in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Business Week and over the AP wire. Forbes plans a business feature on professional rodeo, and barrel racer Fallon Taylor was profiled in Good Housekeeping.
'We're pretty pleased with the increased exposure we're reaching with the help of Richard French & Associates,' said PRCA PR director Steve Fleming, who also is happy with the television ratings thus far.
The PRCA and the Richard French team plan to build on this season's success during the coming year. Goals include creating strong public images for star rodeo athletes and reaching out to Hispanic and urban audiences as well as TV viewers east of the Mississippi. 'Rodeo deserves a cover story,' Upchurch proclaims. His goal? A front page feature in Sports Illustrated.