Leading the charge

The Numbers Don’t Lie
In a world rife with dirty recession rumors, rodeo is making gains, and the girls are leading the charge.
Beverly Robbins
Bev Robbins during the Showdown and Triple Crown round of the WCRA Women’s Rodeo World Championship. Photo By: Bull Stock Media

Rodeo.

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.

READ: Winningest Women of the USTRC

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.”

With a time of 7.08 seconds, Martha Angelone and Jackie Crawford each earned their first-ever WRWC Team Roping Championship. Photo courtesy of the WCRA.

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.”

READ: Jackie Crawford is Richest Woman in WCRA History

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.”

“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.” | RC photography

Membership Organizations

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. 

READ: Cadee Williams Makes History, Joins First-Ever Ranks

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.

Tammy West-White heeling a steer at the 2023 California's Richest All-Girl Breakaway & Team Roping.
Tammy West-White was the WRWC Pro Heeler Qualifier from the 2023 California’s Richest All-Girl Breakaway & Team Roping. | Phil Doyle photo

“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.

click graphic to enlarge ↴

“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.”

The Future

Hali Williams, 19, won $50,000 in the RodeoHouston breakaway in 2023. By mid-June, she had more than $100,000 in ProRodeo earnings. | James Phifer photo

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.

DEEP DIVE: Women in Rodeo Archive

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.

The Intangibles

Both the PRCA and WPRA tout the breakaway ropers as a group as excellent social media users—a big benefit to the organizations as they seek sponsorship, as well as to the rodeo committees hosting those athletes. 

The WPRA presentation at the ARC Convention cited a 200% increase in social media engagement across platforms since adding breakaway. Anecdotally, it was also reported that social media posts featuring barrel racers and breakaway ropers on The Cowboy Channel (ProRodeo’s official media partner) garnered larger response than many other posts.

The popularity of women in rodeo—and their bankability—was no more clearly illustrated than with the launch of The Cowgirl Channel this spring, an entire network devoted to programming surrounding women of rodeo.

In addition, using Nielsen tracking, the PRCA reported that, of their 40-plus million fans, 52% are women.

The Power of the Purse

Though comprehensive research studies simply don’t exist due to the fragmented nature of the industry, it’s not a stretch to state that the women working in rodeo provide a powerful financial boost to the sport. Whether through direct revenue streams like dues, entry fees and entry system fees, or indirectly through their buying decisions that stimulate sponsorship growth, women are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to compete, to watch and to work in the rodeo business. TRJ

More Benefits than Just Paying Dues

➳ Revenue Sharing from Purses
Most organizations keep some percentage of all purses paid under their umbrella as another revenue stream to keep the doors open. Obviously, with big entries in the ladies events comes a larger take for the association when purses are figured.

In the WPRA, 6% is withheld in both events with a percentage (5% of barrel racing and 85% of breakaway roping) going to the PRCA. In 2022, total purses in both events were a staggering $11,205,344

➳ Revenue Sharing from Entries
Depending on the organization, there is money to be made on the process of taking entries as well. While some rely on third parties like NextGen, Rodeo Management System and others, in ProRodeo, all entries are handled by PROCOM, a division within the PRCA.

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. Currently, WPRA members pay $18 in PROCOM fees plus $3 to support the circuits for each entry, running the grand total for PROCOM to $906,282.

➳ Driving Down Insurance Premiums
Most organizations provide some level of accident insurance coverage for members and it’s a fact that women’s events such as barrel racing and breakaway roping generate fewer claims, helping drive down the costs for the organizations as a whole as evidenced by the difference paid for insurance by WPRA members ($35) versus PRCA members ($150 plus $10 per rodeo entered).

Powering the Ship

➳ Leadership Roles
While women have always been integral in their service to the many rodeo committees, today there is a trend toward more women in leadership roles, particularly in the major rodeos. Katelyn Scates runs RodeoHouston, Darci Owens is Rodeo Director in San Antonio, Caroline Lukens is the first female Rodeo Operations Coordinator in the 100-plus-year history of the National Western Stock Show.

In March, Cherie Copithorne-Barnes became the first woman elected to the board of directors of the Calgary Stampede. In 2024, Carrie Ann Sattler will become the first female Reno Rodeo President when she moves from her current position as second vice president.

Women are taking on more responsibilities within college rodeo, as well. There are approximately 135 college rodeo programs in the country and 22 of them are led by female head coaches. In addition, there are about five dozen more programs with female coaches on the staff.

➳ Essential Staff
Rodeo productions, no matter the sanctioning body, depend upon services provided by contract personnel like secretaries and timers. In all organizations, these positions are overwhelmingly held by women and provide vital functions in the competition, information processing and dissemination to media.

Though the numbers of contestants are larger, contract personnel have a big economic footprint as well. The average rodeo employs about 20 contractors who contribute approximately $250 a day to the local economy as they stay in hotels, eat meals, buy necessities and fuel and do laundry before heading to the next town.

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