GOING, GOING, GONE
The Future of Open Ropings in America
With the end of some open ropings comes the question of what’s in store for high-numbered ropers. Producers and professional ropers weigh in on the nostalgia of days gone by and come to terms with the reality of mega-money runs. by Kendra Santos
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George being a team roper himself had a lot to do with that longtime labor of love. Money is usually not the motivator for open-roping producers, and most of the ropers understand the expense of good cattle and other bottom-line business realities, including the venue itself, insurance, a strong staff and other expenses vital to a successful event. Those stresses and headaches have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by most of the players.
Tsinigine, who won the world on the heading side in 2015, won both the Wildfire (with Patrick Smith; they split it with Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira) and the Strait (with Clay O) this year.
“Thank you, Mr. George and Mr. Billy, for helping me make a dream a reality, and helping me support my family,” Tsinigine said. “Big hits like that are how you get to buy the nice things, like homes and ranches. That’s how you get your life set up. I have no debt because of those ropings. Those are life-changing wins, and they make everything so much easier.”
Open ropings and rodeos combine and co-contribute to all world-class ropers’ portfolios.
“The NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) is where you make or break your rodeo year,” Tsinigine said. “Going through the year—the grind and expense it takes to get there—is a lot of hard work. My bank account is typically at about zero when I get home in October after rodeoing all year. Vegas makes or
breaks you. If you don’t make the Finals, and win when you get there, you’ve pretty much wasted a year. The ropings help us survive and make a living. We can’t survive without winning at both the jackpots and the rodeos.
“Winning the Wildfire and the Strait was a life changer for me, and I’m so thankful for those opportunities. I had $37,000 won at the rodeos this year as of the middle of August, so my rodeo season was over. But I’d won $200,000 jackpotting before I showed up to Reno in June, because of the Wildfire and the Strait.”
Trucks, trailers, entry fees, fuel, food and high-dollar horses are part of the steep overhead faced by today’s open roper. Tsinigine lost his bay horse of a lifetime, Smudge, this year, so he’s been busy reinvesting in replacements. Tall order. In Tsinigine’s words, “This horse has made me who I am.”
LONGEVITY REQUIRES 'IVERSIFICATION
Kory Koontz has heeled at the NFR 20 times, and if anyone understands the value of the big ropings to an open roper’s long-term survival it’s the talented redhead best known to his big-dog friends as “Dawg.” Koontz’s roping resume includes winning the Strait three times—in 1993 with Rube Woolsey, 1994 and 2000 with Steve Purcella; the Wildfire five times, with Daniel Green in 2000, Matt Tyler in 2002, ’03 and ’04 (the 2004 Wildfire buckle is the one you’ll find on KK’s belt today), and Chad Masters in 2016; the BFI back-to-back with Woolsey in 1995 and Tyler in 1996; and the 2008 US Open with Clay Tryan.
“I’ve rodeoed a long time, and have always looked at rodeoing and jackpotting as a 50/50 deal when it comes to how I make my living,” said Koontz, who’s roping with 2016 Resistol Heading Rookie of the Year Dustin Egusquiza and was ranked 16th in the world as of late August. “I’ve always counted on the NFR for a profit at the end, but looked at the big ropings to help make ends meet throughout the year. I’ve had a pretty good rodeo year this year, I’m in contention to make the Finals and I’m in debt on the year, because I’ve spent more than I’ve made. Those big wins at those big ropings made it possible for me to keep going. My longevity at roping for a living has always depended on both the ropings and rodeos.”
Koontz credits his great dun horse Iceman for a lot of his success on roping’s biggest stages, and says, “Those big wins afforded me the opportunity to make a living with my rope, and raise three kids. If you add up all the money I’ve won at those very biggest ropings, and ropings like the Windy Ryon (which he’s won five times) and Spicer Gripp (he won it with Jake Barnes in 2005), it really adds up. And winning three pickups and trailers at the George Strait alone over the years— what’s that worth?”
Koontz turned 46 this summer, so he realizes his full-time rodeoing days are numbered. As he starts transitioning into the next phase of his roping career, which he expects to include more training of ropers and rope horses, the impact of losing some of open roping’s main events won’t hit him quite as hard as his junior counterparts.
“To lose those big ropings in their prime is going to be very tough,” Koontz said. “It’s a big loss. And it’s not just the money. Winning those big ropings makes a difference when it comes to sponsor-
ships, and even what horses are worth if you win a major on one. People are more likely to want to come to your roping school if you’ve succeeded at that highest level also, so there are all sorts of ways that winning big at the big open ropings pays the bills.”
S:EETENING T+E 3OT %Y SU%SI'I=ING IT
Pipes, who like George Strait loves to team rope, pumped $1.64 million out of his own pocket into producing the Wildfire Open to the World over the past 19 years. He did it for the love of the game, and knew up front there was no profit in it. That passion he shared with fellow pioneers, such as Strait and Bob Feist, motivated him to keep raising the bar on his beloved “Texas gunslinging.” The two-team tie at the top between Tsinigine and Smith, and Driggers and Nogueira gave Pipes his goal of crowning 20 Wildfire champs before riding off into the open-roping-producer sunset.
“The best short round you could ever want to see and 20 Wildfire champs (teams) for the record books is the perfect ending,” Pipes said. “It all started with the Godfather, Bob Feist, and the BFI. Then came the King, George Strait, and his great roping. The Wildfire Open to the World has been one of the Big Three (technically, the Big Four, including the US Open), and that makes me proud. I set out to put on one of the biggest, best ropings in the country, and we got that done. For those who say I was crazy to put $1.64 million of my own money into this thing, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t trade that money for all the friends I’ve made in this industry. But most people have no idea what it takes to put on a roping of this caliber. That’s why people aren’t standing in line to put on open ropings.
“Every jackpot roper in America puts up money and ropes for his or her own entry fees. Open ropers will not do it. At one point, I was adding the $100,000 to make first place at the Wildfire pay $50,000 a man out of my own pocket. At our first roping that paid $50,000 a man, we had about 230 teams. The team count kept dropping. At this year’s roping, which again paid $50,000 a man, we only had 71 teams in the open. That weekend—producing the open, the ladies open and the sponsor pro-am roping—cost me $94,000 of my own money. The only roping that had a net profit was the businessman’s roping, which is a World Series event.
“For those who have not done the math, the big lower-numbered ropings pay out less than they take in, because that’s a sustainable model. It’s ludicrous to me that open ropers won’t put up their own money. Open ropings do not work financially for the producers. Period. What we’ve done at the Wildfire is put on ropings all year long to try and make enough money to put on that three-day Wildfire Open to the World Weekend and try to break even at the end of the year. It does not pencil.”
Pipes encourages everyone to do the basic business math on the risk-reward ratio, and prioritize accordingly.
“The open ropers say they don’t have the money,” Pipes said. “But if I was one of the best ropers in the world, I’d be willing to put up $1,000 to try to win $100,000, even if that meant I could only go to three ropings a year. They’ll put up $300 to win $1,200 at a rodeo. Those are the real numbers. We raised our entry fees from $600 to $1,000, and it cut our teams by more than half. We’d advertised the start time on the short round, and with so few teams decided to start the roping later than originally scheduled to take care of the fans and sponsors, and to time the free dinner we feed the ropers right. I actually got told by two of the young open ropers, ‘You don’t care about the open ropers.’ Needless to say, I was pretty disgusted after putting up money I worked hard all year
long to earn.
“That’s the entitlement generation talking. I can laugh about it now, and look at it like those guys did me a big favor, because now I don’t have to spend my own money trying to make a special roping for them next year, which would have cost me another $90,000-$100,000. There’s a reason open ropers don’t put on open ropings. It’s a fool’s game. The open ropers who complain about the ropings should go get a job. Nobody said you had to be a professional team roper. Nobody owes you anything. I’m not mad, but the truth is the truth. Over the years I’ve made a lot of friends in the Western industry and ropers from every level, novice to open. I wouldn’t change anything in the rearview mirror—I’m just done.”
T+E %FI %LA=E' T+E TRAIL
Feist held the first-ever BFI in Chowchilla, Calif., back in 1977, and a lot of people called him crazy. “All the big open ropings have been subsidized by good people who wanted to help others,” said Feist, who after 35 years and 34 ropings sold the BFI to Ullman-Peterson Events after the 2011 event. “You have to have a real love of the sport to put on an open roping. George Strait. Billy Pipes. The money for the producers is in the handicapped ropings, because that’s where the masses of ropers are.
“I started the BFI to help the open ropers, and also showcase the talents of the likes of Jimmy Rodriguez, Ken Luman and the Camarillos for the recreational ropers to watch. At that time, everybody would stop what they were doing to go watch those guys rope, then they’d go back to playing pitch or drinking beer. I was going to some tennis matches, and saw recreational tennis players in the stands watching the professionals. I thought maybe ropers would like to go watch the best in this sport play the game also.
“I lost my tail the first few years I put the BFI on, and I wasn’t going to have it anymore. Perry Bigbee saved the BFI. (There was actually no BFI in 1983, when the roping truly was teetering on the edge of extinction.) Perry asked me what it would cost to keep the doors open on that roping, and stay at it. After he stepped in and brought it back to life, it finally started working and was a dream come true when it became a status symbol in the team roping world, like Wimbledon in tennis or the Masters in golf. It proved that people will buy a ticket to watch the best in our sport, too.”
The BFI was born out of the era in which the biggest open ropings in the world included the Oakdale and Riverside 10-Steer averages, and the eight-head Chowchilla Stampede, which were all in California. All ropings were open back then.
“I got tired, and all the little things that go with producing an event of that magnitude started to stress me out,” said Feist, now 77. “It was just time. The BFI is an institution that needs to keep going. People in other businesses who rope for fun have the money to bring financial support to the sport and make it better. They buy new ropes, saddles, horses, trucks and trailers, and that helps things work at every level of the game.”
Daren Peterson and Corky Ullman are partners in Ullman-Peterson Events, and produced their first edition of the BFI in 2012.
“After talking to the ropers, we changed a few small things to make it even better for them,” Peterson said. “Turtle Powell’s a buddy of mine, and when he was in Arizona getting ready to head to Vegas for the 2012 NFR I told him I needed the team ropers for 15 minutes in a room to talk about the BFI. Their first suggestion was paying more places in the average. The BFI conditions are so demanding on horses, and guys placing seventh were leaving there owing money. So we shifted that. If you make the short round in the top 15, you’re guaranteed at least your fees back for beating 85 or more of the best teams in the world. Instead of top-loading the payoff so much, we spread it out more.”
Per Peterson, they only hold out three percent of the entry fees. “That doesn’t cover anything, like the cost of the cattle and labor,” Peterson continued. “The problems with an open roping that pays back 97 percent start with the financial hurdles you have to go through. Getting sponsors on board is the first hurdle. And we need sponsors to make it work.”
Peterson says their goal for the roping is “to produce an event that’s as fair and even for the cowboys as we can. Everybody’s got to have a chance, so we’ve got to level the playing field by having good cattle and good help, from the guys opening the chute and taking off the ropes to the people working in the office.
“We put on ropings every day—at the Dynamite Arena in Arizona in the wintertime, the World Series of Team Roping events under the California Shootouts umbrella in California, and some ropings in Colorado in the summertime. We’re in the business with both feet putting on ropings around the country.”
TEA0 RO3ING TRAIL%LA=ER
Denny Gentry founded both the United States Team Roping Championships (USTRC) and World Series of Team Roping (WSTR). So Gentry, who currently serves as president of the World Series of Team Roping and act-
ing manager of roping operations for Active Interest Media, which now owns both organizations, knows every aspect of the roping industry inside and out.
“Though it’s doubtful anyone will ever recreate the atmosphere at the Strait, it is more doubtful that anyone will be willing to burn up that much money for one roping,” Gentry said. “I expect some producers to try and duplicate the Strait and the Wildfire. In fact, I have already been contacted by several wanting to have World Series ropings in conjunction with their open ropings, in order to subsidize those open ropings.
“Open ropings aren’t profitable as a rule, and they are usually the last choice for development by promoters for lots of different reasons, including the fact that open ropers are the minority in our sport and the numbers aren’t there. The weekend warriors are obviously the majority. Those are also the people who buy tickets to the BFI, which allow that roping to operate in the black, as opposed to the Strait or Wildfire.”
The World Series of Team Roping Finale in Las Vegas now pays more than $10 million, which makes it the second richest horse event in the world—second only to the $20 million Breeders Cup, according to Gentry. The $10 million NFR is a close third. Historically, some roping producers have been willing to produce open ropings in conjunction with their other ropings, but made no money at it. That, Gentry says, “raises expectations that everyone should do it. But there are only three ways to raise the payoff level for any subset of team ropers—volume of teams, high-priced fees or external cash (added money). Volume is simply out of the (open roping) equation. Higher-priced fees are not an option in most cases, because open ropers are balancing limited resources between rodeos and jackpots. So really, their biggest hope is to find someone willing to subsidize their events, like George and Billy did at their ropings and Las Vegas Events does at the NFR.”
During his original USTRC years, Gentry always included an open roping “to give an opportunity to the young ropers who grew up working their way through the system. But what we’re here to do is provide opportunities for working-class cowboys, cradle to the grave. When players reach a professional level in most sports, there is another product in place to give them an opportunity for bigger payoffs.
“That does not happen very often in professional rodeo, because these guys continue to embrace the non-profit model. Every other major sport abandoned that foolishness long ago. I’ve listened to all those old stories about what is wrong with the PRCA for years, but there is really only one major problem, and that’s the lack of money. If they want more money in rodeo for the professionals, then money has to be their goal. Excluding the NCAA, that can’t be done with a non-profit. Fact is, all ropers try to hold their money together during the year, then hit the jackpot in December. The difference for recreational ropers is that if we don’t win, we have a job.”
REFLECTIONS OF IN'USTRY ICONS
Seven-time Champs of the World and ProRodeo Hall of Famers Barnes and O’Brien Cooper have basically done it all and won it all with a rope. They’ve won the BFI together, and Jake won the Strait with both Allen Bach and John Paul Lucero.
“In my opinion, the George Strait is the very best roping of all time,” Barnes said. “George is a fellow team roper and loves it, and he invested a lot of time, money and effort into the open ropers. That rop-
ing will be missed like I can’t even say. Trucks, trailers and huge checks—no one has ever created anything close at a two-day roping.
“Losing those big ropings will have a huge impact on the industry. To make a living team roping, you need to win or place at the major ropings. That funds your regular season, and is how the open guys make it work other than surviving off of the NFR. It’s a thankless job putting on a roping of that caliber, and I’d like to thank George for all he did for us open ropers these last 35 years. Most producers are looking to profit, and I know open ropings are tough. I’ll always be grateful to guys like George Strait, Billy Pipes and Bob Feist for all they’ve done.
“The open ropers have basically been groomed to be high-stakes gamblers. A lot of cowboys go home broke every year. There are no two ways around it—roping for a living is a tough way to go. If you have $60,000-$70,000 won going into the NFR, and you have a family and a mortgage, I have no idea how you’re making it. A lot of rodeos are one-headers now, and you have to be 3 or 4 to win anything. We drive about 50,000 miles a year, and when Clay and I were in our prime it wasn’t even a tenth as tough as it is now. I’m the last one to try and discourage any- one, and I tell young people to follow their dreams. But I’m a realist, and this is a tough, tough, tough business. And it’s a roller coaster.”
Cooper won the Strait three times—with Tee Woolman in 1995, Speed Williams in 2005 and Tsinigine in 2017. He never won the Wildfire, but placed second at the Salado, Texas, roping with both Charles Pogue and Kevin Stewart.
“Those big jackpots are the big payoff on the roping side of our business, like the NFR is on the rodeo side of our business,” Cooper said. “Rodeo and roping for a living are changing. Now that they’re making everything, including the circuit finals and the national circuit finals, count toward making the NFR, we have to rethink the way we enter rodeos and which ones we go to. You now need to get to your circuit finals and try to win your circuit, which means traveling to more smaller rodeos. And you have to go to at least 30 smaller rodeos to qualify for the All-American Finals in Waco, which also counts now, so that’s another change. For decades, I’ve gone to the best rodeos and not really concentrated on the circuit rodeos or smaller rodeos. The way it’s set up now, you need to go to the big rodeos and the little ones, too, so you can capitalize on all of it and find a way to get to the Finals.”
Cooper hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a young gun. “I wanted to be out on the road every single day when I was young,” he said. “I thought I might as well sleep in the parking lot at a rodeo, because I didn’t have a home or anywhere to be. Then life comes along, you fall in love and invest in a place. Your priorities change. You start thinking it would be nice to go to 50 rodeos and spend the rest of the time at home with your family. There are guys at the top of their game now who are feeling that priority shift now that they have families. But the young guys with nothing to go back home to just keep coming.
“Hopefully, somebody will come in, fill those voids and recreate other ropings that will be successful places of opportunity for the open ropers. We just have to wait and see. I grew up going to the big open ropings in Riverside, Oakdale and Chowchilla, so I grew up a jackpot-minded guy. I always loved the big ropings, and still do. It’s sad to see the change taking place. I sure thank George, Billy and all the roping producers for all they’ve done for me and the rest of the open ropers. Here’s hoping we can all work together to make the future bright for generations to come in this sport we all love so much.”