Looking to the future

Stressman will leave Wrangler for the PRCA after 12 years as director of rodeo and special events. Courtesy PRCA

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association recently announced the hiring of Karl Stressman, formerly the director of event marketing for Wrangler Jeans and Shirts, as the new president and CEO of PRCA Properties and interim CEO of the PRCA. The position, which has rarely seen a consistent presence as of late, is one fraught with the challenges of bringing the organization back to life after recent and ongoing turmoil.

ESPN.com sat down with Stressman for an exclusive two-part interview to introduce him to rodeo fans and get his thoughts on the current state of the sport and the rodeo industry as a whole, as well as its future.

ESPN.com: First of all, congratulations on your new position, it sounds like it's going to be pretty exciting.
Karl Stressman: I think exciting is one of the good words for it, I think challenging would probably be the major word for it.

ESPN.com: Are you going to be moving your whole family up to Colorado Springs?
KS: You know what, I came from Colorado when I came here to Greensboro 12 years ago, so we're kind of going home (Stressman was in the retail business in Colorado Springs before he began working for Wrangler.)

ESPN.com: You've obviously had a lot of success at Wrangler. What prompted you to take on this new job with the PRCA?
KS: I will tell you that it was a very difficult decision to make, because I have been sitting at this desk at Wrangler for the last 12 years and it has been a phenomenal ride. It's been a great opportunity, a great job with a great company that is like a family. So to attempt to leave took a lot of thought. But I do think there's an opportunity sometimes when you just know it's okay to walk away. To say, for 12 years we did everything we could do. We had some great successes, the company is successful, and maybe it's just time for another challenge.

ESPN.com: What was your family's reaction to the decision? Are they as excited as you are?
KS: My kids have their snowboards packed in the car just in case we have to leave at a moment's notice. All of my children are 18 and over and they remember the Colorado days and they have good memories of Colorado, so they're very excited about the opportunity to go back there.

ESPN.com: You grew up in Tucson. What was your early involvement with rodeo growing up?
KS: I was not involved with rodeo directly when I was in high school. We owned horses and rode and all that, but I was more involved in the traditional sports like baseball. But I started team roping soon after I got out of high school and started competing  matter of fact I do still.

ESPN.com: What is your earliest memory of the rodeo?
KS: I think I went to the Tucson Rodeo something like 25 years in a row. So my earliest memory was attending that rodeo as a kid and growing up watching it. When we were kids, Thursday and Friday of the beginning of the Tucson Rodeo were holidays for the kids. You got two days off from school to go to the rodeo, that's how big an event it was at the time. And my parents were always rodeo fans too.

ESPN.com: Who is your favorite cowboy, past or present?
KS: Jim Shoulders. I knew him before I came to work at Wrangler, but I certainly got to know him much better when I started working there. Up until his death last year, he was the longest sports endorsee with one company in the history of sports. He was with us almost 60 years. He was really part of our family, and of course won 16 world titles and was arguably the greatest cowboy of all time.

ESPN.com: Do you think you see a difference now between the old guard and new guard of cowboys? Do you think cowboys now are different than they used to be?
KS: I don't think the makeup of the cowboy is any different than the Jim Shoulders era, but I think the modernization of cell phones and Blackberries and laptops and those kind of things probably make a huge impact on the cowboys themselves. But I think as far as the quality of person and the toughness and the things that are required to be a cowboy, I don't see much change in them.

ESPN.com: How has your experience and what you've done at Wrangler prepared you for your new position with the PRCA?
KS: I think that really the biggest advantage that I do have going into Colorado Springs is that Wrangler is so steeped in tradition with rodeo that I've had the fortune to have worked with an awful lot of the cowboys themselves and had personal relationships with a lot of the cowboys that are competing&we, as the largest sponsor of the PRCA, have worked with an awful lot of the committees over the years.

I know most of the stock contractors that are out there certainly by first name and can correspond with them. I know all of the other sponsors, and the sponsors that are in fact involved with rodeo are a pretty close-knit group and talk often, so I do have that advantage. So in terms of who the players are in the rodeo business&I have been fortunate to have worked very closely with all of those groups. So it's kind of a natural fit.

ESPN.com: It's no secret that the PRCA has faced some turmoil recently with barrel racing, the PBR, the Cowboys Inc. thing, etc. So I'm curious to know, what is the current state of the PRCA? If people are worried about it, what would you tell them?
KS: I think one thing is that financially, we are very stable. That's always the first question people ask. In terms of do we have some work to do  absolutely, we have some work to do. One of the things that I believe I can bring to the PRCA is the communication aspect that I think is so desperate to make things work. I do believe that over the last couple of weeks even, if you talk to the cowboys, they'll tell you they are communicating more than they have in a very long time. And that's what's going to carry rodeo into the future. Our committees, and our cowboys, and our contractors, and our contract personnel and our sponsors all seem to be at a place now where they are really trying to communicate with each other, and I think that's a first for the sport of rodeo really.

ESPN.com: How do you go about promoting that communication and convincing them that there's a new way to do things?
KS: I think they have to take the responsibility themselves. And I think that they've finally come to the realization that if they want any change in the sport of rodeo, then they need to take the opportunity to have their voice heard  and not in a demanding tone, but in a tone of 'we all have to work together to be successful.' So, rather than saying 'me, me, me,' why don't we say 'we, we, we' and figure out a way to come together.

I think you're going to hear the word compromise a lot out of the PRCA office and certainly out of my mouth in the future. How do we get together and compromise so that everybody wins the situation? It can't be just a one-sided event. Nobody can make rodeo work by themselves, so isn't it time that we all communicate? I think there's many avenues&we can help communicate with all of the entities of rodeo, and that's what's got to happen to make it successful.

Go to Part 2 of Stressman's interview