Breakaway ropers enter more rodeos, on average, than any other competitors except the barrel racers. They're doing so without a guaranteed chance at roping for big money in Las Vegas. What's at play here?

Breakaway ropers are putting their money where their mouthes are—with entry numbers at the Fourth of July rodeos higher than every event other than the barrel racing—despite the fact that the details of the National Finals of Breakaway Roping remain unclear for 2021 and beyond. 

In a survey of 27 rodeos held across the country over the Cowboy Christmas run, breakaway ropers averaged 76.6 entries per rodeo, while barrel racers averaged 80.7. Comparatively, bareback riders averaged 20.2, saddle bronc riders averaged 30.25, bull riders 28.8, tie-down ropers 60.8, steer wrestlers 47.0, team ropers 43.7 and steer ropers 54.3. 

“These numbers mean the sport isn’t just growing—it’s grown,” JJ Hampton, 17-time WPRA World Champion, said. “It’s outstanding to think it’s come this far. Now we need to know where and when our Finals will be and what they’ll add. Right now we don’t know what the end game is, and we’re rodeoing out here like the men. We’ve earned the right, and we’re here to make money and we need to be in all the rodeos and they need to push the equal money. We spend a lot of money when we go places.”

While barrel racers made up the largest share of the entries over the Fourth with 2,179 total entries, breakaway ropers—who had twelve fewer rodeos to enter—entered a whopping 1,227 times. The team roping had 1,224 total entries, the steer wrestling 1,317 and the tie-down 1,703. There were more than twice as many breakaway roping entries as bareback riding entries, and at least 350 more breakaway entries than saddle bronc and bull riding entries. 

“There are a lot of women out there who want to be part of ProRodeo,” said Jolee Jordan, NFR barrel racer and current WPRA roping director. “In such a short amount of time, with fewer rodeos, the numbers are still there. Just think if all those rodeos had breakaway. There’s definitely interest and the demand is there.”

Breakaway entries by the numbers over the 2021 Fourth of July run. Numbers courtesy WPRA. 

Limiting Breakaway Entries

And these entry numbers are not even taking into account that the breakaway roping was limited at rodeos included in this list—like Cody, Wyoming’s Cody Stampede and Prescott, Arizona’s World’s Oldest Rodeo, who had 100 and 64 entered, respectively. 

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“We have a lot of rodeos limiting the breakaway, because, for most of them, it’s their first year and they see things like 189 entries in Belle Fourche, and they’re worried about their ability to absorb those costs of parking, etc.,” Jordan said. “At Prescott for example, they already have a long perf and they were concerned they would make it even longer. I talked with Jim Dewey at Prescott, and we could have gone two go-rounds and had the same format as the other events, but it would have taken even less contestants. Some of the rodeos that are limited probably won’t be moving forward as we normalize the breakaway.”

Paying Their Own Way

While more and more rodeos are adding breakaway, the WPRA made the concession to allow committees to add a stock charge to the breakaway ropers’ fees to cover the cost of the cattle, up to $25 per contestant. 

“Paying a stock charge has really helped get us through the door,” Jordan explained. “Sometimes that covers it, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s less than they have to pay out of pocket. There have been quite a few committees I’ve talked to that the stock charge has been a determining factor to adding breakaway. There are some committees who don’t charge it or charge less. My hope honestly a year ago was to eventually phase it out. But watching the last year, even in the other events, the PRCA is starting to make some concessions in the men’s events. They used to only do so in very specific circumstances. Obviously we don’t love it, but I don’t see it going away any time soon. It’s helping those committees recoup those costs.”

What Will It Take to Get Breakaway Roping in Las Vegas? 

While the WPRA and PRCA have yet to comment on the status of the National Finals of Breakaway Roping or the breakaway’s inclusion in the NFR as a whole, Jordan said last she spoke to President Jimmie Munroe, breakaway was on the table for discussion with Las Vegas Events. 

“The last official thing that happened was that they want to make sure the NFR was all settled and start talking about breakaway,” Jordan said. “Now Las Vegas has announced that things will be back to normal for 2021, so the breakaway conversations need to start happening, but I haven’t been a part of those yet. When we did talk about it this spring with [PRCA COO] Tom Glause, I think all of our hope was that if not getting it into the actual NFR, was to at least have it in the Thomas & Mack. So that I think is still the desire. But I’ve had producers reach out to help us put it on at other venues if that isn’t the case.”

In 2020, the PRCA and WPRA hosted the National Finals of Breakaway Roping over three days in the morning before the NFR at Arlington, Texas’s Globe Life Field. The event was a 10-head average, followed by a round of eight then final round of four to crown the event champion—a concession on format Jordan said was made in order to convince the associations to allow ropers to compete. 

“Overall the ladies overwhelmingly want 10 goes, with an average paid and recognized. They want it to mirror the regular NFR. That’s what I continuously advocate for, and last year was a compromise. This year I’ll push again with what the ladies want,” Jordan said. 

Breakaway roping’s leading ladies are entering up in hopes of a financial windfall as part of rodeo’s endgame. Rodeo contestants have long known that any money made during the regular season just covers the costs of being on the road, while any profit is made at the NFR. 

As of July 13, 2021, the top 15 breakaway ropers in the WPRA world standings have earned less than one third that of the top 15 in the PRCA. (Also, money from RFD-TV’s The American counted toward the PRCA’s world standings, while it did not count in the WPRA’s.) The top 15 tie-down ropers’ average rodeo count at this point of the season is between 50 and 65, while the top 15 breakaway ropers’ average 28.2 rodeos at this point of 2021. 

A comparative look at the earnings of the top 15 in the WPRA’s breakaway roping world standings versus the PRCA’s tie-down roping earnings. 

“I want to keep the growth of breakaway on the rise,” eight-time WPRA World Champion Lari Dee Guy, who sits fourth in this year’s WPRA standings as of July 13, said. “I’m worried that if they don’t dangle the right carrot, it will decline. We are going to have to have a Finals, with equal money, in Las Vegas, to keep this momentum. I feel rodeo spectators are hungry for another women’s event at the NFR.”

Guy’s right—at the conclusion of the 2020 NFBR, fans overwhelmingly voted to add breakaway as part of the regular NFR performance, according to a survey done by The Breakaway Roping Journal. 

“It’s a double-edged sword because they haven’t had us at the NFR with equal money before, and nothing has changed because we’re still entering,” eight-time WPRA World Champion Kelsie Chace added. “It’s to the point that yeah, we want a Finals and equal money, but what happens if we put our foot down? Will they put their foot down too? I just don’t know what more we have to do to prove to them. I don’t think we can be out here on the road for more than a year more without a real incentive.”

Indeed, Jordan said the WPRA’s breakaway ropers are doing their part to show committees and the associations how beneficial their event is to ProRodeo as outstanding liaisons for the sport. 

“The breakaway ropers are their own advocates,” Jordan said. “They make the job so easy. The secretaries at Reno stopped me to tell me how grateful and polite the breakaway ropers are. They said they’re a breath of fresh air and they make their own case.” BRJ