Big Bucks – Bull riding’s eight seconds
of danger turning into big profits
Author: Dave Brooks
Date: November 01,2006
The bulls may be getting tough,
but his boys are getting even
tougher.        
           
“There’s a joke out on the tour that some of these bull
riders need to start their own breeding program,” joked Randy
Bernard, CEO and president of the wildly popular Professional Bull
Riders Inc. based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
           
It’s not like they don’t have the money to start a
breeding program. The original 20 cowboys who each pooled in $1,000
apiece to incorporate the PBR in 1995 — then a renegade
offshoot of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. — are
turning a nice profit these days as the niche sports grows in
popularity, surpassing Indy Racing League, extreme sports and
professional wrestling in both tickets sales and television
audience viewers, according to the Scarborough Data Research.
          
           
Bernard now estimates the PBR is worth somewhere between
$90-to-$120 million, attracting 1.5 million fans a year for four
different bull-riding events with ticket prices ranging from $15 to
$120.    
           
But while the money is coming in steadily, PBR faces a number of
new challenges from both sides of the turnstile, including older
rodeo enthusiasts who worry the audience demands for excitement and
peril are making bull-riding too dangerous across all levels of the
sport.         
           
“There’s a lot of concern that they’re killing
off bull riders,” said Bruce Lehrke of the Longhorn World
Championship Rodeo. “They’re breeding these animals so
dangerous, they’re almost becoming impossible to ride. The
last figure I saw said that one-in-every-15 bull riders is
seriously injured. By the time they’re 30, a lot of them are
certainly going to be washed-up and that kind of pounding is going
to hurt.”   
           
Bernard takes the criticism in stride, arguing that many of his
bull riders are developing ability at a rate that is outpacing the
strength of the bull. Since its inception, the cowboy-bull buck-off
ratio has changed very little, he
said.           
           
“Bull riders used to do their thing and then party on the
weekend, but we’re seeing that beginning to change as bull
riders begin to look at themselves as serious athletes,” he
said. “You see a lot of these guys undergoing pretty
stringent training programs.”
           
Bull riders also must follow a strict conduct code to stay on the
tour, he said. That includes no rowdy behavior during an event, no
missing tour dates and mandatory autograph signings after every
event.      
           
A recent report by Scarborough Data Research ranked bull riding as
the fastest growing spectator sport in the U.S. from 2003 to 2005,
enjoying an increase of 48 percent in ticket sales and television
presence. When the PBR announced it would open its 2007 season at
Madison Square Garden, New York, on Jan. 6 and 7, it sold all of
its 3,600 premium seats — currently priced at $125 a pop
— within a few
hours.       
           
That’s pretty big news considering that PBR is facing a
showdown with New York City Councilman Tony Avella, who is working
on legislation to ban the use of a flank strap on bovine within
city limits. Flank straps are a padded belt-like device placed in
front of the bull’s hind legs to cause irritation to the
animal and initiate bucking.
           
           
Avella is portraying the practice as animal cruelty, but Bernard
said it’s necessary in bull riding to protect both the animal
and the cowboy. He said part of the problem is misconceptions about
the strap, which many erroneously believe gets placed around the
animal’s testicles.
         
           
If Avella is successful in banning the flank strap — a
similar ban was enacted in Vancouver, British Columbia — the
law could derail the Madison Square Garden event, but Bernard said
he was confident an agreement could be worked out. The PBR also has
major events planned this year at the Save Mart Center in Fresno,
Calif., the Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif., the Charlotte (N.C.)
Bobcats Arena and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
           
           
The PBR has four tiers, the premier being the Built Ford Tough
series, followed by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company Challenge
Tour, Enterprise Tour and the Discover Tour — a sort of
development league for young bull riders 18 and over. Each premier
event is a major production effort boosting nine semi-trucks full
of equipment and up to 103 heads of cattle per show. The PBR has
been successfully increasing its use of pyro and light displays as
well as its own sound engineering. Bernard said PBR rarely hauls
its own dirt, instead opting to work with a local contractor to
provide the necessary
flooring.        
           
In terms of booking, Bernard said he doesn’t feel his
bull-riding events really compete with other horse and bull riding
expositions.           
           
“I’m not worried about rodeos. I want to know what is
going to be in the building 60 days before and after a PBR
event,” he said, adding that PBRs biggest competitors are
other tertiary sports like UFC fighting, motocross and
supercross.           
           
As for international growth, the PBR said it’s mostly
planning to pass over Europe for growing markets in Canada, Mexico,
Brazil and Australia — all regions with a significant cowboy
culture.     
           
“That’s really the key,” Bernard said, “And
those countries have huge growth potential and there aren’t a
lot of sports to compete with.” In Brazil, PBR works with
regional promoters Tierra Vive Bandesport; in Mexico they work with
Ocesa; in Canada and Australia, most shows are self-promoted.
           
Mexico’s Chihuahua was the only city to host the premium
Built Ford Tough Series on Aug. 26 and 27, selling out and drawing
in 25,000 for a promotional parade.
           
“We charged 650 pesos (about $60) for top-level seats and the
people at Ocesa said they had never been able to charge that
much,” he said. “Next year we’re looking at
doubling the price.”     
           
Corporate America has also taken notice. In 1995, the PBR did about
$395,000 in corporate sponsorships — this year they brought
in $23 million.
           
A lot of those deals come from the television exposure, which a lot
of venues like because of the free publicity, Bernard said. PBR
estimates that his Built Ford Tough events draw in about 18.2
million viewers per year, half of NASCAR’s viewership, but
higher than a cable-broadcast National Hockey League game. Bernard
said he’s been working to partner with NASCAR and this year
introduced the Dale Earnhardt Jr. PBR Clash, a mixed racing-rodeo
event for mid-January in Charlotte,
N.C.        
           
“What they’re doing right is producing an unbelievable
show and establishing the PBR as a worldwide brand,” said
Mike Ferrazza, senior director of live event marketing for Live
Nation, which co-promotes the Built Ford Tough series. “They
have a lot of different tentacles in the entertainment business,
but it all relates back to bull riding.”
 

Interviewed for this story: Randy Bernard, (719) 471-3008; Bruce
Lehrke, (615) 876-1016; Mike Ferrazza, (630) 566-6100