Last Thursday evening J.W. Hart was relaxing in the bar of Manhattan's ultrahip Bryant Park Hotel, sipping a beer and taking in the scene from beneath a black Stetson. His getup was no urban-cowboy fashion statement. Hart, 30, who's from Marietta, Okla., is the real deal and a founding member of the Professional Bull Riders tour, which sidled onto Long Island for a two-day hitch at Nassau Coliseum last weekend. He was hanging with a group that included PBR chief executive Randy Bernard, and at one point a stylish woman in her mid-30s approached their table. "Oh, my God," she blurted when she realized whom she was talking to. "I'm Reindeer Dippin's biggest fan!"
If you think Reindeer Dippin is a Scandinavian fraternity stunt (he's actually one of the most popular bulls on tour), you're part of a shrinking subset of sports fans: people who haven't been turned on to the sight of 150-pound men being hurled about by 2,000-pound bulls. The PBR, which launched in 1994 when 20 riders invested $1,000 each and broke ranks with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, is, by some measures, the fastest-growing sport in the nation, one making inroads into suburbs and cities, where people can afford the $100 top ticket.
"That split my mind," says Hart, one of the 45 riders who competed at the Nassau Open last weekend. "I couldn't believe we were in New York City and people were talking about their favorite bulls."
At the Coliseum two nights later Hart was tossed 3.7 seconds into his ride on Shock and Awe, a bull whose name describes the reaction the PBR hopes to stir when it introduces fans to what it calls the Toughest Sport on Dirt. Bullriding's appeal is visceral and violent, and each ride is a bite-sized bit of chaos: imagine the speed and daring of a NASCAR race packed into eight seconds, with a wreck all but guaranteed at the end. Says Bernard, "If you like to see danger, like in NASCAR, you can't help but love this sport."
The motor sports comparison is no accident. Bernard is selling bulls as the new stock cars, a red-blooded extreme sport, packaged for right now. Hard rock music, light shows and pyrotechnics are event staples; a racier version of a rodeo clown keeps the crowd stoked; and a high-energy announcer turns each ride into a personality clash between man and beast. Research shows that fans follow the bulls--Little Yellow Jacket is the biggest bovine "star"--as closely as the riders. Bull-themed merchandise, in fact, outsells the riders' stuff.
The approach is working. According to a study by Scarborough Sports Marketing, the number of people who watched or attended a PBR event swelled by 52% from 2002 to '04. The PBR's fan base (16 million) is less than half of NASCAR's (38 million), but its growth rate was the largest of the 12 sports studied in the survey. (Pro bowling was second, with a 12% spurt; NASCAR increased by a mere 1%.)
Those numbers are backed by healthy crowds on the 30-city tour--most events sell out--and solid TV ratings. The PBR can be seen every week on the Outdoor Life Network (which pays more than $700,000 a year in rights fees) and on eight Sunday afternoons on NBC (from which the PBR buys airtime for $225,000 per hour). The PBR's average 2004 rating on NBC was 2.1, higher than those of college basketball's regular season, the NHL or the Arena Football League. More than half of those viewers live east of the Mississippi. "The red states are watching," says Joe Loverro, who produces the telecasts for NBC and OLN. "We think the blue states are starting to, too."
So does corporate America. Ten years ago the PBR had $364,000 in sponsorship. This season it's raking in $22 million, from the likes of Ford, Wrangler jeans and Jack Daniel's. "This sport is a hot rocket--you will see a lot of mainstream companies get involved," says Peter Wyatt, marketing communications director for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which is signing a new seven-year, $9 million deal with the circuit.
None of that mattered to the 11,000 PBR fans who showed up last weekend in New York. They saw 19-year-old Kody Lostroh pocket $79,470 as the winner, and Justin McBride, 25, the top rider this season with six titles, hold his advantage in the chase for the $1 million check that goes to the PBR points leader when the season ends in Las Vegas in November. Says PBR president Ty Murray, a Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer known as the King of Cowboys, "We're trying to show people this sport is not all banjo music, bales of straw and handkerchiefs." Ride 'em, cowboys.
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