The BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., lights up with the PBR. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Charles)
Don’t call it a rodeo. The Professional Bull Riders is all bull riding, all the time.
Throughout its 20 years of competition, the PBR has awarded more than $120 million in prize money. Now, the PBR sells out arenas such as New York’s Madison Square Garden and is viewed by more than 100 million people annually on multiple networks. The PBR found a way to monetize the original extreme sport, bringing bull riding to the mainstream in five countries, including Brazil and Australia. More than 1,200 bull riders own PBR memberships today, but it wasn’t always this big.
The Professional Bull Riders was founded in 1992 by 20 bull riders. “They all got together and each wrote a check for $1,000, and that’s what started the organization,” said Jack Carnefix, senior manager of Public Relations for PBR.
In rodeos, there are a variety of events. Tie-down roping, steer wrestling and barrel racing are all common sights at a traditional rodeo. Not at the PBR.
“We’re only what we think is the most exciting part of a rodeo, which is the bull riding,” said Jim Haworth, PBR chairman and CEO. “We’re the original extreme sport, if you think about it.”
From that first $20,000 contribution by 20 riders, the PBR has grown bull riding into a stand-alone sport. There are now more than a thousand PBR bull riders and millions of dollars awarded each year.
“If you would have asked them back then if PBR would have more than 25 million viewers on television, have two million people that come watch live events in the U.S., and pay out more than $10 million in prize money this year, I bet that those original founders never would have guessed it would get to this size,” said Haworth.
Even as big as it is, there’s plenty of potential to continue expanding. Untapped markets in Asia and South America are being considered by the PBR, as is adding additional events in the United States.
The Sport Expands
The first few years, the PBR had about 10 events. This year, more than 300 PBR-sanctioned events took place in five countries.
The PBR is made up of a few parts. The Built Ford Tough Series had 29 events in the United States this year featuring the top 35 riders.
“We’ll do another 120 minor league series that we call our Touring Pro Division where riders can come in and participate and, as they earn points and money, it helps them get qualification to come up to the top level and be in the Built Ford Tough,” said Haworth. “We’ll also do 70-plus events in Brazil this year, 15-16 events in Australia, close to 10 in Canada and two or three in Mexico.”
Haworth said that Brazil and Australia are key markets for the PBR.
“When you think about live attendance, we have a higher attendance for bull riding in Brazil than soccer does,” said Haworth, citing a study from firm Price Waterhouse.
“As we think about the Pacific Rim, Australia’s important for us because you can’t take bulls from the U.S. into Asian countries, so we’d be taking the bulls out of Australia,” Haworth said. “We’ve had some inquiries from different places in Europe, but you have to have the right bulls there because once you take them there, you won’t be able to take them home.” Argentina is also a potential market for future PBR-sanctioned events.
“The bulls will lead the way and we’ll continue to think about different opportunities,” added Haworth.
As the sport grows, so does the celebrity stature of the bulls — athletes in their own right who have a higher profile than the bull riders.
Haworth said that Bushwacker, the bull of the year, has one of the highest ‘Q scores,’ or popularity ratings, in the league, with more than 5,000 articles written about him last year. At the Built Ford Tough Series World Finals at Thomas & Mack Center at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Oct. 24-28, about $2.1 million was be paid out to the bull owners based on performance. The PBR pays about $3 million to bulls over the course of the year.
For a two-day event, the rider with the highest combined score on four bulls is the winner. Three-day events count scores from five bulls. To become the Built Ford Tough World Champion, a rider has to earn the most Built Ford Tough Series points throughout the entire season, including the World Finals. Any of the top 14 riders coming into the Las Vegas event could potentially come out with the title.
During a ride, the rider attempts to stay on the bull for eight seconds. A score out of 100 is given to each ride, with 50 available to the rider and 50 for the bull. A rider is awarded points based on how well they remain in control during the ride. High scores go to the bulls based on how powerful they are and how difficult they make the ride.
Asteroid, ranked second in the Built Ford Tough World Series, has a career buck-off rate of more than 85 percent, with an average buck-off time of 3.27 seconds. The PBR online store is full of Asteroid and Bushwacker merchandise, from belt buckles to T-shirts to baseball caps.
“These bulls are as much like a rock star as anything and are taken care of very well,” said Haworth. “We have great names like Bushwacker, Asteroid, Smackdown, and Gunpowder and Lead.”
Haworth added that his bull name would be ‘Big Jim.’
“When we think about our sport, we believe that we have two very important athletes: the riders are important and the bulls are important,” said Haworth.
More than 60 licensed stock contractors work with the PBR to lease bulls for events. Most of the bulls are worth more than $10,000, with some valued at as much as $100,000 depending on their performance in the arena.
Tickets for Professional Bull Riders events usually range from $15-$125 for normal events. For the finals in Las Vegas, five-day VIP ticket packages cost $1,250, with single day tickets starting at $20.
“We get a wide range from families to a group that we call buckle bunnies who are kind of our groupies that follow the riders around,” said Haworth. “There are young male sports enthusiasts and also a large Hispanic following. We have a very wide demographic and cover a lot of the spectrum.”
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer serves as the sport’s national sponsor. The events usually run Friday-Saturday, with some lasting the whole weekend. Saturday serves as party night at the PBR, with a demographic that Haworth calls a “celebratory group.”
Nearly two million people see PBR events live each year, although given the wide range of venues utilized by the PBR, it’s hard to designate an average attendance number.
“There are unique places that we can take this to. Two or three years ago, we set up an outdoor event and actually bucked bulls in Times Square in New York,” he said. “We can go from an NFL stadium to a college fieldhouse.”
Venues hosting the Built Ford Tough Series range from The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., which holds about 15,400 to the 80,000-capacity Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The PBR also hosts several smaller and outdoor events each year.
“It just depends on the venue, and there’s a wide range there,” said Haworth. “There’s probably about 10,000 attendees at an event on average.”
Interviewed for this story: Jack Carnefix and Jim Haworth, (719) 242-2800 x3372