For someone who likes roping cattle, there's no better place in the world to be this week than State Fair Park. That's because Oklahoma City is the site of the 2012 U.S. Team Roping Championships National Finals.
“I would liken it to the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Masters in golf,” said roper John Johnson, who made the 16-hour trip from Piney Flats, Tenn., to Oklahoma City to take part in the event.
Attending the championship at Jim Norick State Fair Arena are qualifiers from 43 states, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. The teams of two cowboys — one who ropes the steer's horns and the other who catches the heels — are flying out of the roping boxes at a rate of more than 1,800 runs a day.
The National Finals will divvy up some $5 million in cash and prizes among thousands of ropers — men, women, children, and seniors — most of whom are nonprofessionals.
“When you have a purse like that, the ropers from all around the United States are coming. There are about 3,760 ropers entered, which equates to 8,000 teams,” said U.S. Team Roping Championships President Kirk Bray, who has 128 staff members on site to manage the competition, which started last Saturday and runs through Sunday.
They will stall 5,000 head of horses, manage 1,600 head of steers and coordinate 17,000 total roping runs by the time the event ends.
The National Finals program, with its listing of thousands of qualifiers, is bigger than the phone book in most Oklahoma communities. Making that list and earning the chance to chase a steer in this event is the culmination of a yearlong quest by ropers.
“There are 80 sanctioned events nationwide and there are seven regional events throughout the country, so everything is structured to filter people here to the National Finals,” said Johnson, the Tennessee roper.
The U.S. Team Roping Championships was started more than 20 years ago and has transformed amateur roping by creating a handicapping system that groups ropers by skill levels, with a numbering system that increases as the skill level increases. The system allows ropers across the continent to compete at different levels and win money and prizes even as novices.
“It really revolutionized the sport,” Bray said. “That's why the sport has grown so much over the last 20 years.”
Just since last year, the number of entries in the National Finals Team Roping has swelled by 20 percent.
Qualifier Jody Doescher, of Oklahoma City, said he remembers the days before the U.S. Team Roping Championships.
“Back then, if you had the money, you put your money up and the four or five guys better than you usually beat you,” he said.
Now, Doescher said the playing field has been leveled.
“When it first came along, you got to rope with people of your caliber and if you were good, they gave you a higher number and you would rope with the high number guys,” he said. “If you were an older guy like me, you could rope in the lower-number ropings and be competitive still.”
As a result, he says roping has become a family event for the Doeschers.
“I started roping. I had kids. My son has grown up roping and now he's a professional roper. We come to cheer him on in the professional roping and then he comes and cheers us on in the lower-number stuff.”
The event culminates on Sunday with the finals of the lower amateur divisions. On Saturday afternoon, there is a Junior Looper Final for children 12 and younger.