This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of The Team Roping Journal.
What image is conjured up by the word? A bronc buster, twisting the air in a swirl of dust? In modern times, maybe it’s a bull rider, spinning furiously on a ton of bovine fury.
Does a cowgirl come to mind? It should: The sport of rodeo has a much more feminine flair than most likely realize, particularly when viewed through a financial lens.
While women have played a role in the sport even as competitors since its inception, the explosive growth of women’s breakaway roping in the last five years has highlighted a little-known fact: Women are critical to the industry’s bottom line.
It Has Always Been a Numbers Game
Rodeo purses have always relied heavily on the number of athletes putting their entry fees into the pot, and producers need numbers. Jackpot producers depend on high entry numbers to make their break-even points and other producers use those numbers to attract sponsors.
To that end, the sheer volume of breakaway ropers out there has caught the eye of major rodeo events like The American, as well as ProRodeo and the World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA).
The time is now for female competitors, particularly breakaway ropers: The American Rodeo paid out $344,951 this year and ProRodeos paid $3,986,063 in 2022. Breakaway ropers in the WCRA have cleaned up to the tune of $1.9 million since that organization’s inception in 2018.
But producers benefit as well, both from direct and indirect financial boons. Organizations collect membership dues and keep part of payoffs to direct to business operations. Having more female participation can also make sponsors take more notice, as all industries have long researched and recognized that women hold the power of the purse in household buying decisions.
When ProRodeo started to take notice of breakaway roping, many rodeo committees considered the new event, not only because they thought breakaway ropers deserved their chance at the spotlight, but also because their fans told them they wanted it.
“We did ask our season ticket holders how they felt about adding breakaway roping,” said Katelyn Scates, Director of Sports and Event Presentations for RodeoHouston. “Hands down, the response was clear.”
“They love it and wanted to see it,” Scates said. “And that’s one of the reasons we did it.”
Annually, RodeoHouston is one of the sport’s largest productions and, in 2023, paid out $242,000 in each of the ladies events, breakaway and barrel racing. For their Board, the numbers don’t lie: 62% of their 1.3 million rodeo/concert attendees annually are women.
Perhaps even more importantly, 73% of ticket purchases made for those events are made by women.
Numbers shown in economic impact studies for the 2022 Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo showed a similar pattern: Of the 215,804 ticketed rodeo spectators, 67% were female. In 2020, Fort Worth became the first major PRCA/WPRA-sanctioned rodeo to offer breakaway roping at equal prize money and annually pays out $120,000 in the breakaway alone.
With women’s ranch bronc riding cropping up in rodeos, too, it appears clear that rodeo committees are getting creative in finding more ways to include the ladies.
World Champions Rodeo Alliance Banks on the Ladies
In May 2018, the WCRA became the first major rodeo organization to announce that breakaway would be a standard offering on equal footing with other events at all of its rodeos.
The relationship has been mutually beneficial from the beginning. The breakaway ropers and barrel racers help fuel the WCRA through a high number of paid nominations using its Virtual Rodeo Qualifier (VRQ) tool and, since 2018, have been paid out nearly $4 million.
“Female involvement has played a key role in not only the growth but also the development of all WCRA properties,” said Bobby Mote, WCRA President.
“We have enjoyed the feedback that the ladies have given,” he continued. “Many of our rules and policies are a result of female feedback. The guys generally come with problems, and the ladies come with solutions. Our staff always takes feedback seriously and does work to implement where it makes sense.”
In a nod of acknowledgment to what the ladies contribute, the WCRA created the Women’s Rodeo World Championship. The richest all-women’s rodeo event in the world, the WRWC has paid out more than $3 million in four years to breakaway ropers, team ropers and barrel racers.
“The ladies’ disciplines are the most competitive of all the rodeo disciplines, which is why we introduced the Challenger class, which has opened the door for more female competitors,” Mote said, referencing the launch of a tiering system for competitors which they will expand upon in the future with a third tier, the Limited Division for novice competitors.
“It’s an exciting time for women in rodeo.”
These moves have helped the WRWC see participation via nominations increase from 500 ladies in the inaugural year to more than 700 in 2023. The women are nominating approximately 2,500 events every year in the WRWC segment alone.
The success of the WRWC has had an added benefit to the industry, as pointed out by Sami Jo Smith, Director of Operations & Rodeo Administration.
“We’ve got established producers like [Rope for the Crown’s] Chris Neal calling us and wanting to add women’s only events to their ropings,” she said.
Some of those events are part of the Qualifier Series for the WRWC.
“The creation and increase in all-girls ropings has been exponential over the past three years.”
Breakaway Boosts The American
After years of quiet lobbying by the ropers themselves, telling producers to just look at the numbers, The American added breakaway in 2019. More than 1,000 qualifiers entered and half of those competed at the Semi-Finals.
With the shocking strength of the numbers, the purse was immediately bumped to match the other events. Five years later, Jackie Crawford claimed a share of the $1 million in the first year breakaway ropers were eligible for the contender bonuses.
“It is incredible to think that the American Rodeo Breakaway Roping Champion Jackie Crawford walked away from Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, last year having earned $624,394, and most of it in a single day,” said James Miller, Sr. Vice-President of Competition and Athlete Development for Teton Ridge.
On the regional level, the American Contender Tournament Semi-Finals and Finals rodeos awarded $301,225 in both events.
“Once they advanced to the big stage at Globe Life, we dispersed another $987,700 in those two timed events alone,” Miller added. “We are very proud to have a positive impact in the industry and believe that this is just the beginning.”
On the flip side, there is no denying the financial impact that both events have had on The American.
Through its history, nearly 7,000 lady ropers have paid an entry fee into a qualifying roping for The American at $350 each and about 14,000 have paid the $500 to try for a spot in the barrel racing.
Though hard numbers on total entries in other events don’t exist for comparison, Paul Crain, head of Athlete Relations for Teton Ridge, estimates the ladies’ impact is large.
“It’s over half [the total entries,] I can tell you that,” he said. “I’m going to tell you 60% probably.”
breakaway ropers were eligible for the contender bonuses.” | RC photography
The vast majority of associations within the rodeo industry are membership-based, with significant portions of their revenue coming from dues paid. Women pay memberships not only to compete but also to work as contract personnel.
The sanctioning body of the barrel racing and breakaway roping in ProRodeo, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s annual budget is largely generated through its female membership. In 2022, membership was a strong 3,628, representing more than $1 million in revenue, a percentage of which is shared with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association under terms of their most recent agreement. Half of new memberships in the last two years have come from breakaway roping only members.
On the men’s side of ProRodeo, the PRCA had a membership of 6,064 in 2022, which includes all categories of membership.
Though the PRCA doesn’t officially track female versus male in their membership, approximately 430 are women: secretaries, timers, stock contractors, contract acts, music directors, photographers, laborers and flankmen, a handful of contestants and at least one pick-up (wo)man.
The conclusion is that of the roughly 9,692 members in ProRodeo between the two organizations, 37% are women, with two of nine competitive events devoted to them and women filling many of the working roles of the sport.
But ProRodeo is the anomaly in the industry with most organizations encompassing all events, male and female, under one umbrella. All offer many more events for male competitors than female. Despite this, the split between the genders is usually pretty even due to the high entry numbers in the ladies’ events.
The largest of these, the International Professional Rodeo Association, was founded in 1957 and operated with just a single women’s event from 1961 until 2011 when breakaway roping was added to the lineup.
“We got on the bandwagon earlier than some,” Dale Yerigan, IPRA general manager, joked. “In fact, I spoke at the ARC (Association of Rodeo Committees) Convention and met with then-PRCA CEO George Taylor. I told them breakaway was the real bonanza, the greatest thing going in rodeo. And now the boom has come.”
Yerigan noted that the addition of breakaway definitely generated plenty of new membership back in 2011 and, today, the Association boasts 487 members who rope. Coupled with 527 barrel racing members and 84 secretaries and timers, female membership in the IPRA accounts for 50.7% of the total.
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“The WPRA presentation at the ARC Convention cited a 200% increase in social media engagement across platforms since adding breakaway.”
“In 2022, PROCOM took 124,743 entries. Of those, 34,043 were from WPRA barrel racers and 16,306 came from WPRA breakaway ropers. That amounts to 40% of all entries.”
“The conclusion is that of the roughly 9,692 members in ProRodeo between the two organizations, 37% are women, with two of nine competitive events devoted to them and women filling many of the working roles of the sport.”
Any qualms that the rising tide of female rodeo participants will slow in the future are easily allayed by looking at the numbers in the feeder system—youth, high school and college rodeo.
Female membership in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, despite a downturn in the COVID-19 year of 2020–2021. In the just-completed season, ladies totaled 1,849 across the 11 regions, outpacing male membership for the second straight year. That equates to $203,390 in dues, a $18,490 contribution to the NIRA Foundation, $46,225 to the awards fund, $14,792 for the NIRA publication and $221,880 that goes toward paying the association’s annual medical insurance policy.
Women accounted for more than 51% of NIRA membership the last two seasons, significant in and of itself but even more so given that there are five events for men, three for women and, of course, team roping, which is featuring growing numbers of lady ropers.
The recently concluded International Finals Youth Rodeo hosted a record number of breakaway ropers in its 31st incarnation with 284 ropers, the most of any of the 10 events. In addition, there were 116 pole benders, 91 goat tyers and 228 barrel racers, along with about 16 ladies entered in the team roping, too.
That’s 64% against 36% in favor of the girls at the $320,000 event.
The 75th National High School Finals Rodeo kicked off July 16, 2023, in Gillette, Wyoming, with an expected economic impact to the community of more than $11 million with families converging to stay in hotel rooms, eat in restaurants and buy goods and services.
Fully 68% of the 1,700 competitors in Gillette sport the XX chromosome pairing. Girls vying for money and scholarships will compete in six girls-only events, matching skills against the boys in team roping, shooting rifle, shooting trap and reined cow horse.
The profit or loss at the youth events is impacted by competitors buying stalls, family tickets and camping/RV spaces. So, it’s fair to say the girls of the industry are covering a big chunk of the costs of production at these events.