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Elite Rodeo Athletes will drop lawsuit against PRCA

Bareback rider Austin Foss is sticking with the new Elite Rodeo Athletes organization.
Bareback rider Austin Foss is sticking with the new Elite Rodeo Athletes organization. Star-Telegram

For now, it’s back to business as usual in rodeo.

Sort of.

Earlier this month, the new Elite Rodeo Athletes filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction against the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and alleging that recent bylaws were anticompetitive.

On Tuesday, the ERA announced it would drop the antitrust lawsuit.

“The decision has come after looking at the real reasons the ERA was formed and why the PRCA’s anticompetitive bylaws were put in to place. They are pleased that a court recognized the allegations against the PRCA are serious and authorized the lawsuit to proceed, but have concluded that it is better for them, the ERA Tour, and the sport of rodeo to avoid the distraction of an expensive and long legal battle with PRCA for now,” organizers said in a prepared statement.

In October, the PRCA enacted bylaws denying anyone with an ownership share in the new rodeo enterprise from purchasing a PRCA membership this year and performing in PRCA events.

The lawsuit brought by ERA, which was heard in a Dallas courtroom on Dec. 29, sought a court order to temporarily stop PRCA from enforcing the new bylaws pending the outcome of another lawsuit that challenged the PRCA's right to punish ERA shareholders by withdrawing their memberships, and as a result their right to compete in PRCA events.

More than a month later, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn ruled in favor of the PRCA, allowing the PRCA to enforce bylaws that will keep its members from owning shares in the ERA

Lynn ruled, "Plaintiffs have not made a clear showing that they will suffer irreparable harm absent a preliminary injunction, nor that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claims."

When the ruling came down, the PRCA bylaws at issue were immediately enforced. Several cowboys were denied the right to compete in the Fort Worth Stock Show finals, which is sanctioned by the PRCA, because the ruling was made on Feb. 4, two days before the final round. The ruling would also include the San Antonio Stock Show Rodeo, which ends on Saturday.

Lynn had ruled that ERA shareholders could compete in PRCA rodeos in January and early February while she was studying the motion for a preliminary injunction. Lynn specifically said in her ruling on the injunction that the ERA's lawsuit against the PRCA could continue, and she denied the PRCA's motion to dismiss the original lawsuit.

"Plaintiffs have sufficiently and plausibly pled the existence of monopoly power" in arguments against the PRCA, she wrote.

But on Tuesday, the ERA announced it would drop the antitrust lawsuit.

That means ERA members such as bareback rider Austin Foss have been excluded from PRCA-approved rodeos.

Foss is scheduled to ride in Redmond, Ore., on March 25-26, which is the ERA’s first tour stop during its inaugural season. The $4.6 million ERA tour has scheduled stops in nine cities, including a Nov. 9-13 championship show at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The ERA is advertising ticket sales for the 2016 tour stops on the association's website.

Today, there are more higher-paying rodeos than ever that are not PRCA approved in cities such as Calgary, Houston, Colorado Springs.

“There are a lot more rodeos to go to,” Foss said. “We are about to go to The American, Houston, and of course, the first ERA rodeo Redmond. There are a lot of rodeos that are branching out and doing their own thing.”

For example, the Houston Rodeo was sanctioned by the PRCA for many years. But in 2011, it opted to break away from the PRCA. The American, which began two years ago, has never been sanctioned by the PRCA. Like RodeoHouston, it is an independent, high-profile rodeo that invites the PRCA’s top riders and pays them lots of money.

The ERA will sanction regular-season rodeos in eight cities. In addition to Redmond, the tour also stops in Nampa, Idaho (the Boise area), Valley City, Utah (Salt Lake), Albuquerque, Sheridan, Wyo., St. Charles, Mo. (St. Louis), Duluth, Ga. (Atlanta), and New Orleans.

The ERA will offer $1.6 million during the regular season rodeo, which means each rodeo will average a $200,000 purse. The purse for the Dallas championships is $3 million.

The ERA tour stops are scheduled at a down time during the PRCA’s season, which meant that ERA members were planning on competing on both circuits throughout the year.

"We had it set up so we could go to four ERA rodeos in the spring and several more in the fall,” Foss said. “Under that type of schedule, we had it set up so we could rodeo (on the PRCA circuit) all summer."

Despite the setback, Foss said he’s glad to be a part of the ERA.

"It's worth sacrificing some things for in order to see some positive things happen," Foss said.

Another popular competitor who has been denied a PRCA membership is Richmond Champion, who qualified for the 2014 PRCA National Finals in Las Vegas. Champion took a hit three weeks ago as a result of the court ruling against the ERA. He was leading the bareback riding title race at the Fort Worth Rodeo. However, he was drawn out of the Fort Worth rodeo immediately following the Feb. 4 court ruling.

"It was unfortunate," Champion said. "But the risk was out there and I was fully aware of it."

Champion is sticking with the ER. Tony Garritano, CEO and president of the new league, said that both stockholders and members who do not have ownership are showing unwavering support.

“We’re ready to go, we’re excited and the guys are all excited,” Garritano said. “They feel like in the end, this will help rodeo and help the PRCA and associations like it.”

Garritano said some ERA members have opted to not be stock holders in the new association so they can also legally compete at PRCA shows.

“There are some cowboys who have turned in their stock such as Marty Yates, Shane Hanchey, Zeke Thurston, but they are 110 percent behind the ERA,” Garritano said. “They come to every meeting, they’re behind it, they want the ERA to work and to flourish, they have signed a participant agreement to come to every single event.

“They are saying, ‘Our commitment to the ERA has not wavered.’ So, that’s the most important thing. Whether a guy goes and rodeos (in the PRCA) or not, that doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, the fans don’t’ really care if Trevor Brazile holds a piece of paper that says he’s an owner of the ERA.”

Brazile, a Decatur cowboy, said he’s glad the ERA members are sticking together.

“I’m just proud of the commitment to making the sport better and to add additional opportunities which is what the ERA was put in place for,” Brazile said. “It was just to add additional opportunities for people who wanted to choose rodeo as their living.”