By Kendra Santos
The World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA) has always been about creating additional opportunities for all rodeo athletes, and has never been satisfied with settling for the status quo. The inaugural Women’s Rodeo World Championship (WRWC), coming up November 3-7 at the South Point in Las Vegas in conjunction with the November 4-8 Professional Bulls Riders World Finals across town at T-Mobile Arena, will pay like a slot machine for barrel racers, breakaway ropers and team ropers. The $750,000 2020 WRWC also will introduce the long-talked-about, but never-before-implemented concept of tiering in all events.
In an effort to create more opportunities for all women rodeo athletes, the WCRA will debut a tiering system based on earnings and rankings in the respective events at this first-ever WRWC. Offering a path to center stage for everyone by leveling the playing field up front is the point, and WRWC qualifying rounds that include both pro- and challenger-division pools will put this premise into play.
California mom Alison Grantham and Louisiana teen Kylie Conner are from opposite ends of the country. But they’re both perfect poster peeps for the benefits offered by this innovative tiering system. The cream of the cowgirl crop from both the challenger and pro pools will square off in the final showdown for the big bucks in Vegas. And this tiering system will make sure everyone has an equal shot at getting there, regardless of their age, occupation or ability to travel.
Grantham, 52, is a ranching cattlewoman whose top priority is as mom to son Chase, who’ll turn 12 on July 15. Alison, who makes her home on California’s Central Coast in the tiny town of Templeton, has had much success in West Coast rodeo arenas, from her college days at Cal Poly to regional ranch and open rodeos. Grantham has done a lot of team roping over the years, and the WCRA and WRWC have renewed her enthusiasm in the breakaway roping, too.
Anyone can enter the WRWC (entries open on July 27 at Entrytool.com), but the top 64 from the Virtual Rodeo Qualifier (which is powered by Rodeo Logistics) nominations leaderboard will have their entry fees paid at the Finals.
“I’ve been mostly heeling, and there aren’t that many girl heelers, so I’ve been nominating our local jackpots,” Grantham said. “I’m excited about this finals, because it’s going to pay a lot of money and we only compete against other women. The fact that it’s an all-women’s rodeo makes it a more even playing field in itself. Equal money for women team ropers is amazing, and it has me motivated to get busy and back to my breakaway roping, too. There’s a lot of incentive here—a high-stakes challenge—so I want to try it on.”
Grantham has stepped onto big roping stages and succeeded before. In 2014, she and friend and fellow Central Coast mom Amy Lewis won the Ladies Only Invitational Team Roping held in conjunction with the Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West in Reno, with many of the all-in women-roper wolves also in attendance. Lewis and Grantham each won $15,000 for their efforts. Each partner on the winning team at the WRWC in Vegas will win a whopping $60,000, thanks to equal money in the team roping. The WRWC all-around champ also will earn a $20,000 check.
Grantham—who lost her right thumb dallying in 2016—and her chestnut horse Douglas are fired up about the chance to rope for so much money. Heeling contestants can pick their preference and dally or tie on at the WRWC in Vegas.
“I can’t swing my rope the same since cutting off my thumb, because my thumb is shorter and doesn’t bend the same as it used to,” Alison said. “But I’d still rather dally, so that’s what I’m going to do. I watched (Arkansas cowgirl) Whitney DeSalvo win first, second and third (with Hope Thompson, Lari Dee Guy and Audrey Hart, respectively, for a total of $29,250) at the BFI (Charlie 1 Horse All-Girl Challenge) at the Lazy E last month. As a girl heeler, that was awesome to see. I hope I get the chance in Vegas to shake her hand.
“I crave roping. It’s what gets me out of bed and motivates me. Getting better is a game with me, and I work hard at trying to get that done. For an event like this to come along for someone like me is really cool. I just want to see if I can compete with all the new girls coming in. There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to go for it. I’ve got to try, and if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it now. I’m not getting any younger, but I still feel like I’m competitive. My plan and goal is to breakaway rope and heel in Vegas. I want to go for it, so I’m going to have three horses saddled every morning starting today.”
Kylie Conner of Welsh, Louisiana, comes from the other end of the WRWC contestant spectrum. At 17, she’s starting her senior year of high school. And because of her age, she can’t compete on the full-time rodeo trail until she turns 18. But the WRWC is open to all women 13 and older, so young cowgirls like Kylie are welcome.
Conner knows a little bit about the WCRA and its #AllForRodeo opportunities. She and her best friend and neighbor, Josie Conner, competed alongside their rodeo heroines earlier this year at the $1 million WCRA Royal City Roundup. In fact, Kylie celebrated her 17th birthday in Kansas City, where she and her palomino partner, Fancy, did barrel racing battle against the likes of World Champion Barrel Racer Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi and 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Barrel Racing Champ Ivy Conrado Saebens.
“The WCRA event in Kansas City was amazing,” Conner said. “The money was great, but the biggest thrill was being able to run against the stars. The chance to prove myself, and that I can rodeo on the biggest stage there is—was priceless.”
The winners in Kansas City won at least $50,000 apiece. Each champ at the WRWC in Vegas will win $60 grand. And Conner plans to double down, as a challenger in both barrel racing and breakaway roping—which also will make her a contender for that $20,000 all-around bonus. Up-and-comer Kylie will charge the open barrel racing field at the WRWC aboard her four-footed best friend, Fancy, who’s a 12-year-old gelding just five years her junior.
“Fancy is amazing,” Kylie said. “He just makes my job easy, because he does his job every time he goes into the pen. He never shoulders or dives into barrels. He just stands up, stays true and does whatever I want him to do. I’ve had Fancy about five years now. He’d been to some futurities and jackpots, but no rodeos when I got him. So we’re climbing the rodeo ladder together.”
Kylie has competed in Vegas one other time—in the breakaway roping at the Junior World Finals a couple years ago. She isn’t afraid of the cross-country commute, courtesy of her “truck-driving dad,” Kyle Conner.
“Vegas is obviously a major rodeo destination,” Kylie said. “And I really like that girls get to run at an all-around. That’s unique at pro rodeos. I think it’s awesome that I’ll get to be a challenger in two events. I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to go up against the pros, but also to compete with the other challengers. There are some really talented people who aren’t out there on the road full time. We all get to meet up in Vegas, and I think it’ll be so fun. I’m planning to enter (the WRWC) early. In fact, I’m 99 percent positive that we’ll enter as soon as entries open.
“Las Vegas has a special rodeo atmosphere, and is the home of one of my biggest dreams, which is to make the NFR. To get to go there and compete now—before I even turn 18—will do nothing but make me stronger. The WRWC will help me build my confidence and prove to myself that I can make it all the way in rodeo. This is another chance to run against the same caliber of contestants as we did in Kansas City.”
Though they haven’t yet set their November travel plans in stone, odds are Cajun Conner cowgirls will make the trek to Nevada together.
“Like I said in Kansas City, it’s hard to explain the awesome feeling we have to get to go up against the best in the world, and everybody in the WCRA has been so welcoming and nice,” Kylie said. “I’m so happy I’m speechless.”
Progress always comes with questions. All details and answers to most questions can be found at WomensRodeoWorldChampionship.com. Anyone needing additional clarification, who wants or needs to talk to someone at the WCRA, is welcome to call 833-368-3787.