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Winston Tour paved way for Wrangler Champions Challenge

Clint Johnson and Bud Munroe earned reputations for fine form in and out of the arena over the years. Left, Johnson goes the distance on Harry Vold’s great Kicking Bear at the 1980 NFR. Right, Munroe sticks it on Vold’s Kojak at Rodeo’s Super Bowl that same year.By all accounts, the Wrangler Champions Challenge has strong game-changing potential for the sport of professional rodeo. Top talent, treating the fans in the stands to every winning ride and run, and TV. What a concept. But the idea of showcasing the sport’s elite contestants and livestock is not unprecedented. And when I ran into ProRodeo Hall of Fame bronc riders Clint Johnson and Bud Munroe at the inaugural Champions Challenge in Redding I knew I’d found a perfect pair to reflect on the obvious parallels between today’s Champions Challenge and the Winston Tour of the 1980s.

“The Winston Tour had two seasons, in 1985 and ’86,” said Munroe, the 1986 world champion saddle bronc rider. “The whole concept was something new and exciting. The point was to market the cowboys and obtain new sponsors, and as cowboys we were willing to take a chance on what it might mean to the sport and its future. We basically signed on for the future of rodeo, because we understood and shared Ken Stemler and Shawn Davis’ vision.

“Shawn was the PRCA president then, and Stemler had set up PRCA Properties as the for-profit arm of the PRCA back in 1975. He came out of the marketing division of Frontier Airlines, and his goal was to see how far he could take rodeo. Stemler introduced the Tri Pro concept, which included the Pro Tour, the Circuit System and Open Division Rodeo.”

Munroe rode for Polaroid both seasons of the Pro Tour. Johnson rode for 7-Eleven brand the first season, then Bull’s-Eye BBQ Sauce in season two.

“They had a draft each year, just like the NFL or NBA, and team owners could trade cowboys,” Munroe remembers. “We started with 18 teams. One person in every event was drafted by each team. Stemler was not allowed to approach existing rodeos, so he brought in all new venues with all new sponsor money. The teams, or ‘outfits,’ as they called them, included Polaroid, 7-Eleven, Jolly Rancher, Copenhagen/Skoal, Coors, Valvoline, Casper Events Center, Coca-Cola, A-Team, Benny Binion’s Horseshoe, Resistol Hats, Justin Boots, Wrangler, Dodge Trucks, Billy Bob’s Texas, United Airlines, Hesston and Rodeo America. Bull’s-Eye BBQ Sauce came on later. Winston was, of course, the Tour’s title sponsor.”

Cowboys were paid appearance fees, and they were based on the world standings from the previous year. “The format was two rounds and an average on two,” Munroe explained. “Then on the last day, the top six in the average came back and in one sudden-death round they narrowed the field to four. Then two. It was tough to win there, because all the best guys were there. But it was a good idea, and what the sport needed. We signed autographs for an hour before and after every perf.”

“I was there because I saw the Winston Tour making it possible to pay cowboys real money,” said Johnson, who won four world saddle bronc riding championships in 1980 and from 1987-89. “Our uniforms looked like NASCAR drivers, but I was in, because I saw it as a way to get paid to ride. It didn’t take too long to see that it really was the future of rodeo.”

Tour crowds were hit and miss in the early going. “One year we were at Adolph Rupp Arena on the University of Kentucky campus and we were up against homecoming at the school and one of the major Thoroughbred (racehorse) sales,” Johnson said. “Then we were in Spokane, Washington, and the interstate was closed for weather because it was 25 below zero. When things like that happened, and because there’d never been a rodeo in some of those places, you could shoot a rifle without risking hitting anybody, because there was nobody there. There are always growing pains when you start something new.”

It’s hard not to wonder what the sport of professional rodeo might look like today if the Winston Tour had survived and thrived. We’d be almost 30 years in by now. I was in college at Cal Poly during those Winston Tour years, and a couple of my classmates were on Tour teams. John W. Jones Jr., who went on to join his dad as a ProRodeo Hall of Fame steer wrestler, was on Team Wrangler. NFR steer wrestler Thomas Switzer rode for Coca-Cola. They were in. And I remember rumblings from some who were out.

“At that time, limited-entry rodeos were few and far between, especially in the timed events,” Munroe explained. “A large portion of the membership wanted it to stay that way, so everybody could enter every rodeo. The backlash from those people caused a different direction in the leadership of the PRCA and was the death of the Tour.”

I don’t talk to too many people these days who don’t believe that tiering rodeo is the future of the sport. We have to get past Little League mentality if we want to be taken seriously as a professional sport. The good news is it seems we’ve evolved into an understanding that there is plenty of opportunity to go around, for the full-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo types to the true circuit cowboys who choose to stay closer to home and rodeo part time. The All American ProRodeo Series Finals in Waco is another great opportunity available to every PRCA cowboy. Guys like Shane Erickson, who teamed up with World Champion Heeler Jade Corkill to win the team roping and all-around titles at the 2013 Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, have proven time and time again that regional rodeo cowboys have tons of talent, too. That’s never been the issue. It’s typically the travel and time away from businesses and family that keeps them closer to home—by choice.

“The Winston Tour died because everybody couldn’t go,” said Johnson, who was serving on the PRCA Board of Directors at the time. “A large number of the general membership didn’t like it because tour points/money counted, and they couldn’t go to those rodeos. Winston pulled out of rodeo and the tour died because of all the turmoil and infighting. The Champions Challenge is the second coming of the Winston Tour, and I don’t want to see history repeat itself. What I see is different this time is that the committees are on board, financially and every other way. They’re committed. They have a vested interest, and are really behind this concept.”

These guys are gold when it comes to pointing out history lessons learned in this game. “The 1959 NFR was the very first limited-entry rodeo and a lot of contestants were very upset because they couldn’t go,” Munroe said. “Showcasing our top talent was a new idea. In any other professional sport, you can’t just show up at the top events.”

In fairness to all PRCA members, money won at this year’s Wrangler Champions Challenge events does not count toward the world standings. Now that it’s established and every member has an equal chance to qualify—the 10 contestants at each of this year’s stops include the top seven from last year’s world standings, last venue champions, and this year’s world and Million Dollar Tour leaders as of 30 days before each Challenge rodeo—next year’s Champions Challenge money will count if contestants choose to include it in their official rodeo count.

The Champions Challenge isn’t easy money, mind you. Ten top talents translates to an ultra-competitive knife fight in every event. But I saw that capacity crowd in Redding respond with a roar, just as that RNCFR crowd in Oklahoma City this spring went crazy over our circuit-system superstars.

Jones Jr. left the full-time rodeo trail when his eldest daughter, Katie, started kindergarten. He’ll walk her down the aisle later this month, when she marries New York Giants tight end Bear Pascoe (Bear’s number, 86, matches the year Katie was born), who grew up in another California ranching and rodeo family. As Johnny put it, there’s no telling where that original tour would be by now if it had survived the initial setbacks.

“The Winston Tour was absolutely the best tour they ever started,” Jones said. “I was a huge fan of it. There were wrinkles, but the membership didn’t give it time to evolve. What it did was create a fan base, where people saw the same guys every week. They had the same guys and the same teams to root for, so they followed rodeo like they follow other sports. It would have grown our fan base if it had had time to evolve. It was great for the cowboys. If it had been able to evolve and grow, we’d be a lot further down the road today. It was a great deal. It had its problems, but they never had a chance to work themselves out. I loved it. It was ahead of its time.”

There are times in every life when the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence. I always admire the women with time to squeeze and weigh their produce, and pay pennies on the dollar because they’ve clipped cost-cutting coupons when my grocery-store fly-bys look more like timed events done at a fast trot. It’s typically before 6 a.m. or after 6 p.m., my boys have calves and/or steers loaded and are in need of a chute crew. I get that if you’re a guy who works all week for the shot at rodeoing on the weekends it might look sexy to be out there on the trail. But giving it your guts in the practice pen all day every day and driving all night to get to the next one isn’t nearly as glamorous as it might look 10 days a year when the NFR spotlights are shining bright. And those guys who have earned top billing envy the fact that you get to sleep in your own bed at night and know when your next paycheck is coming. As with all walks of life, there are trade-offs either way you go.

What we do know is that if we can grow the sport, there will be benefits for all rodeo people—part-time and full-time cowboys, stock contractors, contract personnel, sponsors and fans. The Wrangler Champions Challenge offers everyone that hope.

“This tour has a big advantage over last time in that we’re doing it in places where we know there will be a crowd, instead of starting from scratch to build a crowd,” Munroe said. “This is a made-for-TV production. This concept allows every cowboy the same opportunity to get into the tour, so it’s fair. You have to work your way to the top, just like every other sport.

“At some of the first limited-entry rodeos, there was a rule that you had to have won $1 in the previous year to enter. Believe it or not, that $1 earning requirement cut out 50-75 guys in each of the timed events. As riding-event contestants, we looked forward to limited-entry rodeos back then because there wasn’t the depth of good stock there is today. The Winston Tour was ahead of its time. I hope everyone is ready for the Champions Challenge now, because the concept makes sense. It always made sense. We have the opportunity here to showcase the top talent of rodeo and to attract new sponsors. We’ve got to get it to where everybody knows who our top guys are, and consistent exposure is the only way to do that. If we can get that done, it will be better for every member.”

“The PGA is good for golf, and the NFL is good for football,” Johnson added. “A PRCA ProRodeo Tour should develop more rodeo fans the same way, which in turn benefits everybody in the industry. In the original tour, there were fans who followed the tour in their motorhomes. They’d go on tour with us, just like NASCAR people do. We got to know those people, and they got to know us. When you’re on TV, everybody knows who you are.

“The sense I get for this Wrangler Champions Challenge is that everybody’s excited and optimistic about it. Committees. Sponsors. PRCA leadership. Contestants. If everybody stays on track and committed to making this thing work, the sky’s the limit for the rodeo business.”

PHOTO: Clint Johnson and Bud Munroe earned reputations for fine form in and out of the arena over the years. Left, Johnson goes the distance on Harry Vold’s great Kicking Bear at the 1980 NFR. Right, Munroe sticks it on Vold’s Kojak at Rodeo’s Super Bowl that same year. Randy Huffman Photos
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