The Range War over who owns rights to the longest-running rodeo in the world erupted into a crossfire of lawsuits in Gila County Superior Court.
Like a pair of feuding bulldoggers, the Payson Pro-Rodeo Committee and the Rodeo Preservation Alliance have taken to roping each other, hogtying the August Rodeo at a critical stage in the preparations for this year.
“It’s like kids fighting…no it’s like adults fighting over marbles,” said Pro-Rodeo Committee lawyer Art Lloyd. “It’s really bizarre.”
The Rodeo Preservation Alliance on Friday filed a lawsuit asking Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill to recognize its right to use the name “World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo” and put on the August Rodeo in Payson.
The Pro-Rodeo Committee counter-sued on Monday, asking Judge Cahill to immediately issue a temporary restraining order directing the Alliance to stop claiming ownership of the rodeo and to pay unspecified damages. The Committee owns the rights to the name “Annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.” If Cahill issues the temporary restraining order, he would in theory have 10 days to hold a hearing and decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction.
The dustup has already driven off the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which gives its crucial seal of approval to rodeos nationwide. That sanction by the PRCA means that victories at the rodeo count in establishing the records and standing of professional cowboys and also has an impact on sponsors, who determine whether a rodeo makes money or loses big.
The PRCA had sanctioned an application by the Rodeo Preservation Alliance, which largely ran the rodeo last summer under the terms of a contract with the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, which owns the rights to the “Annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo,” held in Payson for the past 125 years.
However, the Pro-Rodeo Committee last year paid the chamber $20,000 for rights to the name and contracted with the town to reserve the Event Center grounds for the August rodeo. The Committee has run most of the events on the rodeo grounds for most of the past 20 years, but last year lost the contract to the newly formed Alliance.
After the Committee contacted the PRCA to protest the national group’s certification of the rival’s rodeo, the PRCA withdrew its sanction. The PRCA then sent letters to both sides saying it would not certify either group until a judge had cleared up who had the rights to stage the long-running event.
Lloyd said that unless Cahill settles the fight soon, the dispute could have serious consequences for this summer’s rodeo.
“If (the Alliance) doesn’t go away, there’s a good chance the PRCA just won’t sanction the rodeo. (The PRCA) originally gave it to this group because they thought this group was us — but they aren’t us. And now the PRCA won’t do anything until it is sorted out in court.”
The Alliance’s lawsuit says that the chamber violated its contract with the Alliance. That contract required the chamber to give the Alliance “first right of refusal” to hold the 2010 rodeo, according to the lawsuit. The Alliance maintains the chamber instead used an improper “closed bid” process in violation of its contract with the Alliance.
Representatives of the Rodeo Alliance could not be reached for comment Tuesday morning. Chuck Jackman is listed as head of the group.
Jackman served on the Pro-Rodeo Committee some years ago and last year was recruited by town and chamber officials to head up the Alliance.
The Alliance lawsuit is also seeking punitive damage because the Committee allegedly blocked the Alliance’s ability to hold the rodeo with “evil motives and malice.”
Chamber officials maintain that they first tried to sell the rights to the Alliance, but were rebuffed.
Key town and chamber officials reportedly wanted to turn the rodeo into more of a week-long, family-oriented event — pitched more as a small-town, community rodeo than as a major event on the professional rodeo circuit. The rodeo had been struggling to maintain its status in the years since the town moved it from the small, tree-shaded arena in Rumsey Park to the expansive, but uncovered bleacher seating at the Event Center.
The rodeo had struggled to compete with the big stadiums in big cities that can draw the crowds necessary to support the big prizes that can draw the top cowboys and extensive television coverage.
Town and chamber officials last year lauded the rodeo staged under Jackman’s leadership, citing a rise in attendance and a modest overall profit — most of it generated by a fund-raiser and Cowboy Hall of Fame induction staged by the Mazatzal Casino. However, chamber officials say that when the chamber board decided to get out of the contentious and expensive rodeo business, the Alliance said it wouldn’t pay anything for rights to the rodeo, since the event cost $170,000 to put on, but barely made any money.
The Pro-Rodeo Committee then approached the chamber and offered to buy the rights. The Committee ran the rodeo for the chamber for years, but was sidelined last year. The Committee did hold a well-attended fund-raiser dance during rodeo week, but was excluded from the rodeo itself.
The Alliance has hired attorney Neal Bookstan to represent it. Bookstan did not return phone calls prior to deadline for comment.
Lloyd said the dispute makes no sense to him.
“We have the rodeo arena. Where are they going to put it on? What they’re doing is hurting the world’s oldest annual rodeo — these guys are screwing it up and for what? What can they possibly gain? It’s not a money-maker. Everyone donates their time and we turn around and give out little scholarships to needy high school students.
“I wish we knew who was really behind it. I think in my gut it’s the stock contractor that’s trying to take over the rodeo, basically,” concluded Lloyd.
The Pro-Rodeo Committee board some months ago decided to drop its contract with the event’s longtime stock contractor, which provides the horses, calves and bulls used in many of the events.
The quality of the stock used plays a key role in which cowboys decide to compete. Members of the Pro-Rodeo Committee have confirmed the change in stock contractors, but declined to discuss the reason.
Instead, the Committee contracted with a stock contractor from Phoenix.
Lloyd predicted the Committee will quickly establish its rights to the rodeo. “The chamber, the town, everybody is fully behind the Rodeo Committee. The chamber sent two or three letters to the Alliance asking if they wanted to go ahead and buy it. The chamber said ‘we’re tired of putting on the rodeo.’ So we made them an offer and they accepted it and we gave them a check for $20,000.
“To me it’s beyond the pale. It’s just beyond me why another group would want to take the rodeo away from Payson.
“They’re going to get stomped into the ground,” concluded Lloyd.