One of the fastest-growing sports has an image problem, but not because it’s looking for a kinder, gentler reputation or any warm and fuzzy solution.
Professional bull riding, after all, is most assuredly not warm or fuzzy.
According to an article in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily, professional bull riding (known as PBR in the trade) is one of the top 10 professional sports in the U.S., with 35 million global fans, 14 events televised on CBS and 22 broadcast on CBS Sports.
But PBR is still trying to break free of its rodeo roots and establish itself as an independent event. It has the big-name sponsors, including Ford trucks. And in January, The Built Ford Tough series returned to Madison Square Garden for the “Monster Energy Buck-Off at the Garden.” According to the ad writers, the sport appeals to the demographic that sees it as a hybrid of Motocross racing and boxing: fast-moving, dangerous and unpredictable.
The problem, says PBR CEO Sean Gleason, is that the public tends to associate the sport with rodeo, which is more of a variety show often found at fairgrounds, and including other events like barrel racing, calf roping and lassoing, along with rodeo queens, clowns and cotton candy. PBR, by contrast, would like to be known as an extreme sport, and to reap the benefits of the edgy, adrenaline-fueled punch it packs.
“We are bull riding only; we take the most exciting sport and wrap it in a rock concert environment with state-of-the-art production, lights and sounds, and pyro,” says Gleason. “So we are delivering a highly entertaining product. It's a formula that works.”
The Built Ford Tough Series tour has 26 stops and a five-day world final, televised on CBS. The New York stop is one of the four majors in the series, in which the top 35 riders compete week in and week out, ending in Vegas at the world finals.
Some cities are actively marketing against the old images. The Sprint Center, located in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, noted, “The PBR is bringing the pain, as the toughest cowboys and baddest bulls on the planet rock Sprint Center. The top 35 bull riders in the world risk it all for two unforgettable nights. Don’t even think about calling it a rodeo…this is BULL RIDING! This is the PBR!”
But another part of PBR’s struggle is establishing an identity when it comes to economic impact. For example, California’s Salinas Sports Complex estimated the direct economic impact of the California Rodeo Salinas and Professional Bull Riding events to be $6,214,000.
Occasionally, figures are broken out. Explore Big Sky, Montana, noted that a PBR event made an estimated $250,000 impact in the 24 hours surrounding the event. It netted an additional $25,000 in money for local charities. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the event can bring an estimated 70,000 attendees and generate an estimated economic impact of $15 million in non-gaming revenue for the city.
Let that sink in for a moment: $15 million in non-gaming revenue in Las Vegas. And it isn’t even an Olympic sport.
And there’s no questioning the numbers PBR is posting in other areas. The MediaPost article noted, “Top athletes (and the bulls are also considered athletes) make upwards of $6 million per year. The top bull made half that last year (though it's hard to imagine how a bull spends that kind of money). The Built Ford Tough Series 2015 event in Tucson drew 2.3 million viewers, per PBR, which said that the draw was the highest for a PBR event in four years and more than that day’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. The Built Ford Tough events at Madison Square Garden are among the biggest attendance generators of all the PBR events, according to Gleason, who says that the three-day event garners about the same numbers as the one-day event in Cowboys Stadium -- about 35,000 people. Other PBR venues are in markets like Anaheim, California; Little Rock, Arkansas; Chicago, Oklahoma, and Colorado.”
While PBR may have its roots in rodeo, which, of course, is a uniquely American sport, it is branching out for a global audience. PBR is now found in five countries including Brazil, Canada, Mexico, and Australia, and will have events in China, according to Gleason.