Friday, September 4, 2009

Craig Thompson Part II: A Real PRO

In Part II Craig Thompson talks about:
  • Professional Rider's Organization, how it got started and keeping the band marching. At least in the same direction.
  • What Bull Riders and NASCAR have on eventers.
  • How to make eventing an even better sport, and
  • How you can be involved!

Q. What is PRO?

A. A very cool acronym, first and foremost. We got the cool acronym. It’s the Professional Riders Organization. There are five people on the Executive Committee and twenty on the Board. I started to sense from a bunch of us that we could do more. It felt like things had ground to a halt. There was a lot of talk about raising the profile of sport and putting it on par with tennis and golf, also the professional bull riders and NASCAR. I’m happy just getting it on par with show jumping and getting purses. We’ve got great and talented horses and riders but making a living is very hard. To me, when I am said and done I want an eighteen-year-old to say, “I want to event” and their parents don’t say, “Oh my god my kid is going to starve”.

The first step is to organize event riders, which is like herding cats. There are twenty five on the list who have made a financial commitment and a commitment of their time and energy. More spectators and prize money is on the top of everyone’s list. Then there are more mundane things—like benefits for members and retirement and insurance. We want a Pro Tour linking the best events. At the end of the day there’s a gap between the USEA and the USEF. The USEA does an excellent job promoting sports, the USEF does an excellent job of fielding teams and administering rules. But neither has an office of eventing development. Nobody is sitting around trying to raise money or link events in a series or figuring out how to get spectators to come and learn our sport and understand. That’s where most of us fall. There’s a demand for an organization to try to fill that gap.

Riders are great at hacking around the warm-up and talking about what’s wrong. Trying to do something about it is an effort to get people to put their money and time where their mouth is. Complaining is one thing; coming up with an actionable plan is another.

Q. What’s the story behind PRO? How did it get started?

A. I am a member of the Professional Horseman’s Council at the USEA, which tries to provide an organize and unified voice for riders. I got frustrated quickly. It’s very clunky in decision making and slow to react to events as they unfold. I didn’t feel like that was the answer. Several of us talked shop and had a few drinks and talked about what we should do. It’s easy to get people talking and thinking together in Ocala or Aiken in the winter. You’ll see the bull riders on TV and that came from twenty guys sitting around talking about it. Now the PBR has a pro tour and minimum prize money.

In 2007 I wrote an article for The Chronicle [of the Horse] laying out ideas, one of them being to create an independent think tank to develop and promote good ideas. PRO is a little of that—to incubate ideas and foster plans. Then, more specifically, I remember being in a local bar talking with Phillip Dutton and Mara Dean. We’re 3 very different people but we left thinking, yeah, we can do this. In 2008, when Darren fell on his head, a lot went wrong. As professionals we didn’t have the opportunity to say what did happen, what went wrong. We saw public and media finger pointing and didn’t have a way to respond to that. Mara, Laura, Boyd, Will Coleman, and I sat down and tried to answer questions on the Chronicle chat room--which was a disaster. We were shocked by level of anger and lack education on behalf those who were asking questions. There’s a big disconnect between public opinion and what we as riders know to be true. At the Fork Horse Trials last year we had a riders meeting. Fifty or 60 riders showed up, and we sat around and talked. I asked, “Do we need a professional riders organization to represent our interest?” The answer was unanimous—Yes.

photo by Emily Daily

We spent the summer game planning how to get this thing off the ground. I pitched it first at a hotel bar in New Orleans during the USEA Annual Meeting. People kept coming and by time I did the pitch in a big conference room in front of a couple hundred people, we walked away with an organization. There is the executive committee, a board, and members (anyone riding at preliminary and above) and also a participating membership (any fan). Monday night football has taught everyone about football. We need to do a better job of bringing fans to the sport, a better job of getting fans to know that it’s not just Kentucky. No other organization is trying to do that. That’s where we’re at now. That’s how it started.

Q. What is your role?

A. I guess my official title is president. That’s because at one of our very early meetings Phillip and Buck were going to the Olympics, Allison was headed to Europe, and Laura was stuck in traffic. My role is to be the public face and spokesman. Doing things like this interview, press conferences. Conduct the orchestra a little bit. That’s how I think of it. I keep everyone marching, if not in a straight line then in some formation.

Q. How do you know when you’re successful?

A. The British Professional Event Riders Organization was successful in the 1990’s. When funding withdrew it collapsed. PRO has to be self-supporting. Simply sustaining is a huge first step.

We are working with very closely with the Plantation Field CIC ** and *** in September. We wanted an event we could use as lab to see what PRO could do well. We want to work with the best events and make them better events. At Plantation we are trying to do things better. Better commentary: the NFL's John Madden idea; a concierge where owners and riders can hang out with good food and have a good time. We’re holding a silent auction leading up to Plantation with prizes from inexpensive riding lessons and course walks to a beach house in on the Gulf of Mexico and a tour of the Muppet factory in Manhatten. There’s also the $15,000 in prize money, which is huge. Next year we’d like to see a tour and give spectators and fans a reason to follow us from one event to the next. If we can pull all that off I’d say we were successful.

photo by Emily Daily

Q. How can amateur riders or eventing enthusiasts provide support or be involved?

A. The Participating Membership is a $35.00 and includes a quarterly newsletter. You can do things fans wouldn’t be able to do—get behind scenes tours and course walks. Fans need to feel like they’re part of the action. Need to know the horses and riders. Need to figure out which ones they like. Fans can be cheering at the water jump or a minority owner in syndicate, that’s great too.

Q. Anything you want to add or wish that I’d asked?

A. Come to Plantation Field and watch!

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