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Rodeo Is A Sport Whose Time Has Come.

By Jeff Smith

JANUARY 4, 1999:  OKAY NOW, TO review what we've learned this month about economic and social justice:

A butt-ugly man with really, really bad hair, who can throw a ball very fast and with fair accuracy, is entitled to $13.1 million a year. A tall man with no hair, quite telegenic, who can jump real high and toss a ball through a steel hoop 10 feet off the ground is entitled to something approaching $20 million annually--entirely aside from any multiples of that sum he's paid for doing commercial endorsements--and he may persuade the public, the courts and his employers that if his earnings potential is restrained or even slowed at its present, absurd, level, his family's shelter, security and nutrition are at risk.

Conversely, if a wage-earner who stands on his feet at a smoking grill 40 hours a week flipping burgers, and then to round out his resume, behind the counter of a convenience store at night facing surly customers, some armed with semi-automatic weapons, meekly asks another two bits an hour beyond the five bucks and change minimum wage he's being paid, the entire Congress of the United States will convene in emergency session to quell the threat this poor schmuck represents to the national security.

And to bring our two extremes of the price/performance continuum together, if our pampered and waaaay overpaid ballplayer were to bestir himself to go to work for a couple of hours one of these first evenings, and if our abused and underpaid fry cook somehow could get a ticket to said game, the numbers would break down about like so:

The tickee would cost around 40 bucks, representing close to an eight-hour day's work for the American minimum-wage worker, but the two hour's work contributed by your Michael Jordan or Kevin Garnett-type would put something on the order of $150,000 into the tall guy's Swiss bank account. One hundred and fifty grand.

These are numbers and philosophical calisthenics that give a guy a headache: I've just about decided to quit thinking about them. But before I put it all behind me, I'd like to share with you an epiphany that makes some sort of sense of this insanity:

It's all about television.

The reason Randy Johnson the baseball pitcher, our butt-ugly first example with the bad hair, can get $13.1 million a year for a six-month work schedule in which he works only maybe one or two days out of each workweek; and the reason Mike can demand $20 million a year with no salary cap and make us feel sorry for him when he doesn't get his own way...

...is that these guys are on TV.

Not only that, they're on commercial TV. I myownself was on TV once, but it was only Channel 6, so all they paid me was 60 bucks a week and 26 cents a mile. If I'd been smart enough to land somewhere that sold commercials and had a respectable audience, I could have got maybe 20 grand an appearance. God knows I'm worth it.

The reason--the only reason--that today in America, athletes and entertainers can make such a mockery of economic and social justice is that no matter how ludicrous their salary demands, the franchise owners can pay them and still make obscene amounts of money themselves.

Because the TV networks will pay the owners billions of dollars a year for the chance to broadcast the games, and still make billions from advertisers eager to buy commercial spots during games.

Because that same poor slob flipping burgers and selling sixpacks is spending every cent he makes on consumer goods he sees advertised on TV during ballgames. Some of us are even such patriots that we save up money from the food and beer budget to purchase tickets so we can see the occasional ballgame in person.

So next time you get perplexed and pissed over the injustice of it all, remember: you're the one whose hard-earned dollars are fueling this gas hog.

MY SUGGESTION to you is go see a rodeo.

Just coincidentally, the biggest and best of the year happened this month in Las Vegas, but you didn't even have to ride one of those tour buses all day to see it. It was on TV. Thanks to the greedy basketball players who are cutting their own throats, ESPN was so desperate to fill air-time that they carried the National Finals Rodeo from the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV. This was some of the best televised sports you'll ever watch. And the beauty part is, these are not pampered prima donnas.


A typical top-15 qualifier for the NFR came to Vegas after a year on the road in which he or she entered 120 rodeos, from Washington state to Florida. That's one every three days, year-'round, nation-'round, covering perhaps 50,000 miles of blacktop behind the wheel of a pickup truck with a gooseneck horsetrailer out back. No team jets, chartered flights or even tourist-class flights for these road-warriors. And no whirlpool baths, team trainers, doctors or masseuses either. Rankings and championships at year-end are decided by earnings--hey, it's a cash-oriented game just like basketball--but the range of winnings coming into the finals in Las Vegas runs from a high of around $125,000 to a low in the $40s. And if a cowboy sits out a rodeo, or enters but doesn't make the ride or the tie or the catch, well he heads on down the road with a goose egg in his checkbook.

So what's the catch? How come rodeo athletes are the burger-flippers of the sports world? Maybe what they do just isn't all that hard to do or fun to watch. Bullshit (rodeo term). Baseball, basketball, football those are the easy games: every kid in America can play those games--and has. The irony of money and sports is that the big bucks are in the easy games, the familiar games, the ones most of us have first-person experience and memory of.

Rodeo is hard and dangerous and exotic. How many of us have ever had the chance or the cojones to climb on the back of a big ol' bull with big ol' clown-stabbers and let him try to throw us on the ground and stomp the lunch or the life out of us? Precious few.

And we pay those precious few precious few dollars.

But now that ESPN is forced to fill its air with rodeo, in lieu of NBA basketball, this may begin to change. Rodeo cowboys and cowgirls will probably see some bigger checks in the months and years to come.

It'll probably wreck the sport.

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