GO­ING, GO­ING, GONE

The Fu­ture of Open Rop­ings in Amer­ica

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - By Ken­dra San­tos

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.”

CHAMP, KING GE­ORGE AND SPINIGINE MADE HIS­TORY AT THE LAST STRAIT.

WES­LEY THORP, WHO JUST WON HIS SEC­OND STRAIGHT NA­TIONAL INTERCOLLEGIATE RODEO AS­SO­CI­A­TION TEAM ROPING TI­TLE, GREW UP JACK­POT ROPING AND WON THE 2016 BFI WITH ZAC SMALL.

BFI PRO­DUC­ERS CORKY ULL­MAN, FAR LEFT, AND DAREN PETER­SON, FAR RIGHT, PRE­SENTED JAKE LONG AND LUKE BROWN THEIR CASH AND PRIZES FOR BE­ING THE 2017 BFI CHAMPS.

ZAC SMALL AND WES­LEY THORP WON THEIR FIRST BFI AND QUAL­I­FIED FOR THEIR FIRST NFR IN 2016. THIS YEAR, SMALL’S IN VET SCHOOL AND THORP IS HEEL­ING FOR CODY SNOW.

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