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The State Of Rodeo After World War II



Like World War I, the end of the 2nd World War was an important marker in the history of professional rodeo. At the time, the sport was undergoing massive upheaval. The country was struggling to return to a normal daily routine and many people were beginning to lose interest in rodeos. At the same time, the organizations that had emerged to establish standards and govern the industry were becoming increasingly contentious with each other. Through bold moves and creative management, professional rodeo went from the brink of destruction to new levels of popularity.

Tension Amongst Governing Organizations

The Rodeo Association of America (RAA) was created in 1929 by a group of like-minded promoters. Their goal was to help instill uniformity to an otherwise anarchic sport. They strove to establish a standard set of rules to which everyone would adhere, including eliminating women's events. A secondary goal of the RAA was to get rid of the corrupt and dishonest promoters who were damaging the integrity of professional rodeo.

Unfortunately, an influential player in the industry named Col. William T. Johnson ignored the RAA's goals. He continued promoting cowgirl events which agitated many cowboys. They thought Johnson was misappropriating profits from his shows, keeping most of it for himself. Finally, in 1936, the cowboys went on strike at Johnson's Boston Garden location. The strike, which eventually forced Johnson into retirement, led to the creation of the Cowboys Turtle Association (CTA) which, following the RAA's lead, refused to sanction cowgirl events.

All of these events were the prelude to the formation of the most powerful governing organization in rodeo after World War II. When the war ended, CTA and RAA agreed to merge and form the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Due to its size and the influential names on both boards, the PRCA quickly dominated the sport. They forced the "Old Guard" of rodeo (Gene Autry, Johnson and others) out and quickly began to standardize the events and raise purse money, setting the stage for a long ascent of popularity.

Growing Purses

In 1953, the PRCA managed to raise nearly $2.5 million in combined purse winnings. It was an astounding figure at the time. Over the next 3 decades, winnings continues to escalate, reaching nearly $13 million by the mid-1980's. High-profile competitors began winning six-figure purses, a figure that was unimaginable just a few years earlier.

Women Contenders Take Action

During its most formative years, the PRCA drew massive criticism for catering to a mostly white male league of participants. This ultimately led cowgirls to form their own professional governing organization for female events, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). The WPRA had 2 main goals. First, they wanted to promote women's inclusion in rodeo competitions sanctioned by the powerful PRCA. Second, they wanted to promote events that were exclusive to cowgirls. Through constant lobbying and promotion, the WPRA eventually succeeded in its first goal: WPRA barrel racing was sanctioned at PRCA events.

Equal Pay For Both Genders

Cowgirls had another problem with the industry: a gender-based inequality of pay. In 1980, the board of the WPRA issued a nationwide ultimatum to hundreds of rodeo promoters. If the pay for cowgirls wasn't raised to the same level as cowboys, the WPRA would refuse to participate in their events. The ultimatum worked. Nearly all of the rodeo promoters and committees conceded to the WPRA's demands.

Professional rodeo has undergone massive changes since the end of World War II. Tensions between the ruling organizations before the war set the stage for major changes to the industry after the war had ended. The rise in position and stature of cowgirls as well as the quick climb of purse winnings mark an interesting point in the popularity of rodeo. Though that popularity wanes today, the decades following World War II will always be an historical marker for professional rodeo.