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Faces of the Rodeo: The men in charge

James Cheng / msnbc.com

PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman, right, discusses business concerns with a group of bull riders in the locker room on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010 during the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The athletes were concerned about the PRCA's unwillingness to sanction an event in Houston that was catered toward bull riders.

LAS VEGAS – Karl Stressman walked into the locker room at the National Finals Rodeo and made the rounds with a group of bull riders, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. He probably didn’t expect it to turn into a heated – if well-mannered -- discussion.

Such is the challenge of working as commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. It’s not easy keeping peace in a sport that is battling some growing pains as it attempts to increase its share of the sporting world’s pie.

At issue on this day was the bull riders’ desire to compete in an event that wasn’t sanctioned by the PRCA. The athletes wanted a shot at the money from the event, while Stressman is more concerned about his organization’s members as a whole.

“They have their own sanctioned things. … They’re trying to figure out how to deal with that,” Stressman said. “Where should that money be? In my opinion, that money should be in our kids’ pockets.

“We’re the biggest sanctioning body in the world and we’re always going to be the biggest sanctioning body in the world. We’re going to fight every minute for what we’re going to put in our contestants’ pockets, so that was the discussion.”

It’s difficult to make a living in rodeo, as the costs are high, the travel grueling and the system complex. Anyone who pays an entry fee can compete in most rodeos, and every entrant, from superstar Trevor Brazile to the weekend warrior from the ranch down the road, competes in “slack” in the morning, which is a qualifying procedure for that night’s competition. That’s sort of like having Tiger Woods have to compete against a local club pro for a spot in a golf tournament.

Most of the top competitors think something has to be done to make it easier to make a living.

“The sport of rodeo has really got to evolve like the rest of professional sports,” said top-flight barrel racer Lindsay Sears, an outspoken athlete who has fought battles over her own sponsorships. “I feel like they’re a lot further behind in going after sponsorships and all that sort of thing. The people here at the NFR, the top 15 people in the world, are not on salary. Every time you go into the arena you have to earn a paycheck. I think that needs to change.”

Stressman said he would like to see a tiered system put into place where the top competitors go to the highest-paying rodeos, while the part-time cowboys compete in lesser events, but still have a big event to aim for other than the NFR, such as the All-American Finals in Waco, Texas. If a rodeo wants to bring in the top cowboys, it will have to raise its purse money.

“We’ve got the toughest athletes and we’ve got a family friendly show,” Stressman said. “We’re growing double digits in attendance every year across the United States. How do we convert that to real dollars so the kids get paid? That’s our biggest challenge.”

James Cheng / msnbc.com

Shawn Davis, who is in his 26th year as the NFR's general manager, pose for a portrait in the arena at the Thomas & Mack Center, in Las Vegas, NV. Monday, Dec. 6, 2010.

Stressman isn’t the only busy executive at the top rodeo in the world. Shawn Davis, the general manager of the NFR, also has a lot on his plate.

Davis is in charge of the NFR, which he says is an $11-12 million operation. It goes far beyond keeping the competitors happy, as his responsibilities include the care and feeding of more than 700 head of livestock, the shifting around of 4  million pounds of dirt and the overseeing of 1,000 credentialed people, from vendors to maintenance workers to security forces and stock pen workers. He works with the FBI as well as the police forces of both UNLV and Las Vegas metro.

“Our main security is controlling our own people, controlling the flow of people,” said Davis, who has been doing this for 27 years. “They’re not going to create anything dangerous, but just so they don’t get in the way.”

The stock pens must be secured 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Also, 120 tons of hay are needed to feed the animals. Rehearsal times must be scheduled for the side acts that perform during television breaks. His day sometimes begins at 4 a.m. and lasts until midnight, all to keep everything operating in an orderly fashion.

“I think the main thing is the people you have involved,” Davis said. “We hire the best people. The challenge when you hire the best people is that they’re not used to taking instructions. They’re used to giving them, so to organize them as a team you have to work with them and maintain the respect.”