In 2020, female ropers for the first time competed for life-changing money in traditionally male ProRodeo. The $750,000 Women's Rodeo World Championship (WRWC) alongside the PBR World Finals in November, and the $200,000 National Finals of Breakaway Roping (NFBR) alongside the NFR in December were historic inaugural events.
"There are so many women who have all the ability, but because of life and family and careers they just stopped rodeoing," said former NFR tie-down roper and steer wrestler J.D. Crouse, now Chief Marketing Officer for the World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA). "To see them have an opportunity to reengage and reinvest time and energy back into the sport they love—that's been great. But then to also pay the winner of the breakaway at our Women's Championship more than $60,000, it was just huge to honor those ladies. I was proud to be part of it."
PRCA Chief Operating Officer Tom Glause was also elated that the PRCA was able to host the NFBR in the same venue as the 2020 NFR.
"I think the NFBR generated lots of interest and excitement for the contestants and brought a lot of awareness to the sport," he said. "As these girls are coming up through junior high and high school, learning skills and figuring out what they like, this is giving them another event to really consider a path forward."
Plus, the Wrangler Network was happy with its enormous viewership of the NFBR livestream, according to Jolee Jordan of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), which sanctioned breakaway at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeos in 2020.
"I thought the National Finals was a tremendous showcase of talent, and the ladies really set an incredible tone from the start in that first go-round," Jordan said. '"There were not a ton of people in the stands, but I thought it was a pretty good crowd considering it was held on three weekday mornings."
The good news is that all signs point to second editions of both events in 2021. In addition to expanding its opportunities for nominating breakaway earnings at existing jackpots and rodeos, the WCRA has already scheduled its $750,000 Women's Championship fur November 1-6, 2021, in Las Vegas during the PBR World Finals. And as for the PRCA's Glause, he wouldn't speculate, but said the PRCA is "certainly excited to host a second annual" NFBR, so as not to lose momentum.
Glause reiterated that the PRCA sees breakaway as something to focus on, and a way to grow membership thanks to a revenue-sharing agreement with the WPRA. The future is bright for this event. Entries were up at the WPRA's World Finals, nominations are up in the WCRA, and in February RFD-TV's 2021 American semi-finals fielded some 458 entries.
Contestant demand is clearly skyrocketing. So the big question, then, is now what? How to ensure sustainable growth?
"It's kind of funny—those championship events were like running before we were even walking for breakaway in pro rodeos," said Jordan. "We have several circuits that don't have breakaway yet, and we could still use a lot of infrastructure there. Our goal is now to grow breakaway from the bottom up, since we've kind of hit the top end from the start."
The idea of breakaway at the NFR got everyone on the edge of their seats. But Jordan points out that the PRCA has pre-existing contracts with Las Vegas, and performance productions are designed with tight time constraints each night. Inclusion might be a process that takes months or years if it indeed happens. In the meantime, she said, breakaway needs more growth from underneath. It might take hundreds more PRCA rodeos adding the event before a breakaway buckle from the NFR packs the same prestige as those other gold buckles out of Sin City.
''We're out here just starting to get our feet wet," she said.
WPRA Pro Rodeo membership, too, is strong in certain regions of the United States but lacking in others, she said. It takes a bit of commitment to invest in that $395 Pro Rodeo Breakaway membership card, after all. (A $190 card lets you gain points in the WPRA Roping Division.)
"Many women are looking at the opportunities they have close to home," Jordan explained. "Not everybody can pick up and go to North and South Dakota like several did last summer, if that's the only region having rodeos with breakaway again."
Something that's not well understood, Jordan added, is that a lot of the best breakaway ropers have jobs. Roping calves is not something they do full time; they're not simply waiting for rodeos and can just crack out.
"That will change in coming years, but we're not there yet," Jordan said. "To say, 'I'll quit my job and hit the rodeo trail full time,' no. The money isn't there yet. It's getting there, because it's amazing what girls are winning at the big jackpots now."
Jordan Fabrizio, a Colorado native now living in Texas, remembers when there were only two big breakaway jackpots in the country. In December, she won the average on the 10-head at the NFBR, for no prize because the championship was decided via a subsequent sudden-death round (in which she finished second).
"My opinion might be a little different, but I kind of want to earn our stripes," said Fabrizio, 30. "I was picking the brain of [seven-time NFR tie-down roper] Raymond Hollabaugh the other day about how we get to equal money, and he said, 'I roped for less than you did at the NFR.' These things take time."
Fabrizio said even though the perspective feels a bit like "hurry up and wait," breakaway ropers are simply thankful for any chances that come their way. As far as the added-money question from the PRCA perspective, Glause cautions, too, about taking shortcuts.
"I think we've got to be careful about cutting the legs out from under this event with overregulation," he said. ''Definitely not to say girls don't deserve to compere for adequate money, but we've got to bring it mainstream before we start talking equal money, so we can do it without eliminating some of their opportunities."
As a stand-alone event, breakaway has staggering potential. Already this winter, producers in Arizona began hosting weekly jackpots that fielded 80 girls a night—also featuring age restrictions, novice-horse, and divisional formats.
What about the thousands of former breakaway standouts nearing middle age who could re-enter the fray? Do they have a place to go to knock the rust off or season a horse without having to out rope Crawford and Guy or put hundreds of dollars up per calf?
"That's why the circuit system is so important,' said Jordan. "My bigger focus, as far as the rodeo side of breakaway, is to try to add to the circuits that had breakaway at their Circuit Finals last year."
Glause, too, mentioned that his goal is to see six of the 12 Circuit Finals have it this year, and the PRCA is trying to create it as a Pro Tour event. As far as breakaway's female-only designation, historically with barrel racing, it was WPRA sanctioning at PRCA events that helped it stay female-only.
"Allowing men in would not be good," said Fabrizio. "I don't want to back in there against Kaleb Driggers."
She points out, also, the enormous benefits of an all-female event attracting women-driven sponsors and marketing opportunities in rodeo.
"The WPRA is established as a women's organization and there's a lot of value to that,' said Jordan. "We've already fought and won those lawsuits in the past."
While the WCRA allows men to compete in barrel racing (except at the Women's Championship), it doesn't currently allow them in breakaway. Outside that group, breakaway's protection as female-only comes from WPRA sanctioning.
On that note, the WPRA is going back to letting members elect a president. The presidential election will begin alter ballots are sent out in April asking for nominations, and the new president will be seated by June.
"Back in the '90s, the contestants were actively involved in the direction of the association," said Fabrizio. "That's been lost. I think, as a group, we need to rekindle that involvement. Our president needs to be a unicorn—a door-kicker who can also get along great with men and can withstand a tough and sometimes thankless job."
Jordan points our the WPRA president is the leader and sets the tone for what happens, although the board still makes ultimate decisions. She's in the midst of meetings, too, to plan the next WPRA World Finals and its format.
We're all rowing the same boat, so to speak, so it pays to stay in the know which you can do via the digital pages of The Breakaway Roping Journal, Women's Pro Rodeo News, WPRA Roping Division, All Things Breakaway, In The Loop and more.
Grassroots movements are important for growth in sports, so what about formats for wives and mothers who don't want to travel much, or for beginners and for youth?
"I discovered over the past two years there are ladies who rope and ride outstanding literally all over the world," Fabrizio said. "When I went to Cheyenne, girls over there were snapping it off of them and I didn't even know their names. Everywhere you go, it's not a small number. Lots of 15-year-olds rope just as good as Jackie Crawford. This sport is growing tremendously at the youth level."
Just as it led the way in making breakaway a standard event in its roster of leaderboards, the WCRA has big plans for its growth. This is the second year of the WCRA's DY, or Division Youth, leaderboard for ages 12-18 in all timed events.
"We're very much looking to grow that division of our business and want to work closely with the NHSRA,' said the WCRA's Crouse. "We'll have a youth incentive competition at our first Major in 2021, so teenagers can nominate and qualify to compete at the half-million dollar Rodeo Corpus Christi, May 6-9, for a $21,000 incentive. The top 12 on the DY leaderboard as of April 11 will make the qualifying rounds, and those same kids have the opportunity to advance through the actual rodeo."
Crouse appreciates that breakaway ropers have been among the WCRA's biggest supporters, and he thinks it's because it was the first co-ed sports property to compensate female ropers equally on a big stage.
"When Jackie [Crawford] won our Chicago major in 2018 and we paid her $50,000, that really got the attention of cowgirls across the globe." he said. "Ladies have really supported us from the very beginning, and we're so excited to see them getting involved, from those who maybe haven't competed in several years to young women who can potentially earn a living if they choose."
Here's the biggest news yet: the WCRA has already begun handicapping breakaway.
"One of our big initiatives is to tier all of rodeo," Crouse said. "You know how team roping exploded after the classification system was in place? We're doing the same thing inside of women's rodeo—in barrels, heading, heeling and breakaway. We've separated all female competitors into Pro or Challenger classifications."
Crouse said the WCRA has compiled the most comprehensive data in the world on breakaway ropers, including earnings from nearly 40 associations and stand-alone jackpots from the past five years. If you've earned less than $20,000 in your lifetime and make less than $6,000 per year with your rope, you can compere against other Challengers or, if you choose, with the Pros. But Pros can't compete down (see details and official rules at wcrarodeo.com/wrwc-tiering).
"The goal with tiering is to provide a fair playing field for Challengers without them having to battle the Pros, who represent about 10% of the field," Crouse said. "We're doing it in barrel racing, too, through our partnership with Equi-Stat on earnings, and in team roping, so that any roper with a Global Handicaps classification of 5 or above in the Pro category and 4.5 and below are Challengers."
In the WCRA, it's easy to nominate your entries from any jackpot or rodeo you enter. But what about at actual events? What can ropers do to help grow the sport?
"First of all, show up when an event offers breakaway," said Jordan. "Enter up so the committee or producer knows there's demand for it. And talk to your local committee people and sponsors. Everyone in our business is connected, so get them talking about adding it."
Jordan said what sells breakaway once it's included is being professional.
"Get in and out of the box without wasting time, follow your cattle out and put on a good show," she said. "Committees have already established performance times and worry about length. Breakaway should generally run off very quickly in a perf. The girls have been fairly good about self-policing on that, too."
With grassroots efforts like this, and with more rodeo committees and jackpot producers adding breakaway, it's simply up to actual breakaway ropers to be supportive, professional and patient. If they are, Fabrizio thinks there's no limit to breakaway's potential.
"We need to do our best to understand that even though we want it to be at the forefront yesterday, we need to be respectful of the rest of rodeo and cowboys who have gone before us," Fabrizio said. "There will be a learning curve. We need to be mindful of rodeo as a whole and see what outsiders are seeing so we can move forward with them versus as an isolated group. We all want this to go places, but it takes time and it's a process. If we just keep our heads down and work, it'll come."