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Professional Bull Riders, Inc., was founded in 1992 by 20 accomplished bull riders who joined together and took a business risk to try to make bull riding--the most popular event in traditional rodeo--into a stand-alone sport.
With its headquarters located in Colorado Springs , Colorado, Professional Bull Riders Inc. (PBR) is the governing body for the stand-alone rodeo event of bull riding. According to the rules of the sport, a rider must stay mounted on a bull for eight seconds with the use of just one hand gripping a rope lashed around the animal's belly. PBR's "major league" tour of 29 annual events, culminating in a world championship held in Las Vegas, features the top 45 out of a pool of 700 qualified riders. Events take place in larger urban areas such as Anaheim, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, as well as smaller markets such as Billings, Montana; Guthrie, Oklahoma; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Worcester, Massachusetts. Most of the competitions are two-day affairs, with all 45 participants making a ride at both Friday and Saturday sessions, and the top 15 scorers advancing to a final round when money is awarded. Scores are determined on a 100-point basis, with 50 points devoted to the rider's performance and another 50 judging how well the animal performed. Should a bull not jump or spin hard enough to give the rider an opportunity to earn a competitive score, the judges may award a re-ride. Bulls and riders are matched at random by use of a computer, and the bulls that are the most difficult to ride are reserved for the "money round." Some of the bulls are pampered celebrities in their own right. Nevertheless, the bulls are dangerous and powerful, some weighing 2,000 pounds, and as a result professional bull riders sustain a high number of injuries, making it one of the most dangerous sports in the world. None of the participants are under contract by the PBR and are responsible for their own expenses. The organization also maintains minor league feeder operation. The second tier circuit, the Challenger Tour, sponsors more than 60 events held in smaller markets. After the completion of every five major PBR events, the top five riders in the Challenger Tour replace the five lowest ranked riders in the main tour. Top 45 riders may also participate in Challenger Tour events, and many participate in order to maintain their place on the main tour. A third tour, called Humps N' Horn, provides aspiring bull riders with a chance to compete and learn the sport. PBR has enjoyed steady growth in recent years, prompting some to call it the next NASCAR, the popular stock car racing series.
Bull-Related Sports Origins in the Bronze Age
Sporting contests involving bulls can be traced back to the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, which evolved on the island of Crete from 3000 to 1100 B.C. Such activities as bull vaulting and bull grappling were conducted as part of religious occasions and have their modern day rodeo counterparts in the antics of the rodeo clown (called "bullfighters" on the bull riding circuit) and the rodeo events of steer wrestling and calf roping. Steer wrestling, in fact, was part of the ancient Greek Olympics. These activities ultimately spread to the Iberian peninsula, resulting in the Spanish tradition of bullfighting, which in the 16th century was brought to Mexico and became popular across all social classes. The Spanish also introduced cattle, horses, and the lariat to the New World, all key elements of the American rodeo. Mexican ranch hands, the most skilled known as charros, displayed impressive riding and roping skills (as well as indulging in elaborate dress). At cattle auctions, fiestas, roundups, and brandings, the charros held contests to show off their skills, one of which was to chase down a bull on horseback, grab it by the tail, and flip it to the ground. As the cattle industry flourished in the southwestern portion of the United States, American cowboys picked up and modified the Mexican tradition and began to hold their own informal meets, called a rodeo (also a word with Spanish origins), where they held trick riding and bronco busting contests. The first organized rodeo, featuring advertised cash prizes and charged admission, was held in Prescott, Arizona, in 1888. Rodeos also became an important part of the Wild West shows that began to tour the country and became cornerstone events at Fourth of July celebrations, cattlemen conventions, and annual "stampedes" and Frontier Day celebrations.
Rodeo became organized in the 1920s, and major events were held at Boston Garden and New York City's Madison Square Garden, which led promoters and managers in 1929 to establish the Rodeo Association of America. The contestants remained unorganized until 1936 when, unhappy with prize money, judging, and the way their sport was advertised, they went on strike during the Boston Garden World Championship and formed the Cowboys Turtle Association. The CTA changed its name to the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1946, then became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975. The PRCA is the chief sanctioning body in rodeo today.
With the advent of World War II, the sport lost a high number of participants to military service, forcing the cancellation of many rodeo events in both the United States and Canada. Yet the war also provided rodeo a chance to be held around the world, essentially wherever American troops were stationed. Rodeo came to be associated with patriotism and American values, major aspects of which are still found today in the presentation of the PBR, as revealed in a 2002 Los Angeles Times profile: "The PBR has marketed itself carefully, and tirelessly, and from the beginning eschewed the "Happy Trails" nostalgia of rodeo in favor of speed, noise, patriotism, and dramatics. The big-screen TV overhead plays a video showing U.S. soldiers at attention, then bull riders in front of a flag, then more soldiers, then more riders. The rockets fired from the scaffolding have slammed into the dirt arena, igniting crystallized chemicals. A massive 'USA' sizzles in the soil."
Aside from women's barrel racing, the five standard rodeo events became bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, and bull riding. Only bull riding held no plausible connection to cowboy skills. The difference between riding a bucking horse and a bull, however, was dramatic. Horses jumped forward, making it relatively easy for a skilled rider to remain seated, even without a saddle. Both bareback riding and saddle bronc riding became an event based on flair rather than the ability to avoid being thrown off. Rodeo bulls (humpnecked Brahmans mixed with other tighter-skinned breeds) not only jumped, they also spun as well as performed what riders called belly rolls. Moreover, many were massive in size and able to generate a great deal of torque as they attempted to shed the man sitting on their back. While style and the ability to spur the animal were also important elements in bull riding, simply being able to remain seated for eight seconds was a major accomplishment. Moreover, there was an element of danger involved. The power of the bulls caused hard falls, but once on the ground the contestant also had to fear being stepped on or have the bull attempt to gore him. Although horns were shorn off, they remained potentially lethal. Often a rider would be unable to free his rope hand, become caught up, and was dragged around the pen by a wildly bucking and spinning bull. As a result, rodeo clowns became more protectors than entertainers, their chief function to draw a bull away from a competitor lying on the ground or to rush in to help free a rider caught up in his rope. Out of respect for their value in protecting the health of the bull riders, the clowns increasingly became referred to as bull fighters. In the PBR, they eschewed the makeup and baggy pants that remained a feature of the men working PRCA bull riding events.
Rodeo Grows in the 1980s
Because of the danger and difficulty, bull riding became the most popular rodeo sport and was the last event of the day. Much of the rising success of rodeo was attributed to bull riding, and more and more participants became specialists. In 1985, the annual championships, The National Finals Rodeo, moved from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas, which elevated rodeo to a new level. Bull riders, the stars of the sport, came to believe that they were not receiving their just due. Although a number of bull riding only events were held on occasion, it was not until 1991 that a break-away bull riding circuit was formed to establish an alternative to PRCA events, which charged riders an entrance fee. The company was called Bull Riders Only, founded by former bull rider Shaw P. Sullivan and investment banker Eric Dickson. The first BRO event was held in June 1991 and grossed just $40,000. Four other events were held that year and were successful enough to warrant the production of 11 events in the second season and television coverage by the Prime Network. BRO established the sudden death format of bull riding, with the top 18 out of 30 contestants proceeding to the second round, and the top ten vying for the cash prizes. By the second year, total prize money for each event was $20,000.
The PBR was formed in 1992 in Scottsdale, Arizona, by 20 bull riders, including the top stars. They each invested $1,000 to launch an athlete-owned and operated bull riding tour, which like the PRCA would be headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Their goal was to increase the opportunity to earn more money as well as to gain some control of their sport. Most riders continued to compete in PRCA events as well as BRO. During its first season in 1994, the PBR conducted eight events with $250,000 in total prize money. Like the PRCA, it held its world championships in Las Vegas, hosted by the MGM Grand Garden. It also secured sponsorship from brewer Anheuser-Busch and its Bud Light brand and sold exclusive broadcast rights to The Nashville Network cable channel through 1999. Although it was far from certain that it would succeed, the PBR grew steadily and began to challenge the BRO for supremacy in the stand-alone sport, despite BRO's head start. In 1994, the BRO circuit included 17 stops and featured essentially the same riders as the PBR, many of whom owned interests in the PBR. In 1995, the PBR grew to 12 events and sought professional management help, hiring Randy Bernard to serve as the chief executive officer. Bernard had several years of experience in the marketing and entertainment department of the California Midstate Fair. By 1997, both BRO and the PBR were producing two dozen events each, although it was becoming clear that the PBR was the stronger of the two rival organizations. BRO one- day events paid $25,000 in prize money and $50,000 for two-day events, while the PBR paid out $75,000 for all of its regular season stops. The market for bull riding, however promising, simply could not support two tours and by the end of the 1997 season BRO went out of business, leaving the PBR as the lone tour. In the meantime, the quality of bull riding in the PRCA greatly deteriorated. While bull riders continued to attend PRCA events in the hopes of make the lucrative National Finals Rodeo, they chose to ride in as few events as possible in hopes of earning just enough money to qualify. The PBR tour, which required participation in all of its events, was becoming the focus of riders, who were now able to make a better living--and lessen the physical toll on their bodies--by devoting their energies to the PBR tour. As a result, PRCA bull riding events often lacked quality fields and resulted in poor performances.
PBR Tour Expands in 1999
In 1998, the PBR conducted 24 events, the minimum amount of prize money now reaching $80,000 per stop, with a total of $4.5 million for the year. Ratings on TNN were growing, and the popularity of bull riding at the Las Vegas championships prompted a new five-year deal which moved the event to the 19,000-seat Thomas and Mack Center located on the campus of the University of Las Vegas. The event headquarters was also switched to Caesars Place. In 1999, the PBR tour expanded to 28 cities, adding former BRO stops Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Its rising popularity was also prompting a comparison to NASCAR, the stock car organization that through savvy marketing grew beyond a regional following to become a national success. The PBR shared a similar demographic to NASCAR, and its fans were also brand loyal to PBR sponsors. It was understandable, therefore, that the PBR would try to emulated NASCAR's success. PBR sponsorships were available at a fraction of the cost of NASCAR, a three- to five-year sponsorship deal in 2000 starting at just $350,000. In 1995, the PBR collected a total of $365,000 in sponsorship revenues. That amount in 2001 would exceed $10 million, as the PBR aggressively pursued all manner of sponsorship opportunities, including signage, on-site inflatables, ring banners, hospitality tables, retail-tie ins, and co-marketing efforts. The PBR gained a major partner in Ford, which launched a sponsorship of the tour, renamed the "BR Built Ford Tough Series," in order to tap into the large truck-buying segment of the sport's demographic.
On November 25, 2001, the PBR received a major boost when NBC televised an event opposite a National Football League game and golf's Skins Game. It garnered surprisingly high ratings, and in the New York City market even outdrew a number of network sporting events that weekend, including golf, a college basketball game, and a National Hockey League game. The strong showing resulted in CBS and NBC deciding to air seven PBR events between them, staring in late 2002 and into 2003. The Outdoor Life Network also began to provide expanded coverage of the PBR on cable and satellite television. Moreover, Spanish language broadcaster Telemundo secured rights to televise PBR events. Ford, pleased with its association with the PBR, extended its commitment in 2002. The tour also launched its PBR Headquarters Program to expand its officially licensed products and make more of it available to western apparel retailers. Key partners included Wrangler, Lucchese Boots, Resistol, Montana Silversmiths, Cripple Creek, Paramount Headwear, and Chambers Belts. In 2003, the PBR launched its Humps 'n Horns tour for aspiring riders to augment its Challenger Tour. All told, the PBR was well positioned to continue its goal of becoming the "next NASCAR." With some of its top riders hailing from Brazil as well as Australia, the PBR held some promise outside of the United States. The next step in the growth of the PBR was the development of superstars. Riders were required to sign autographs after each event and the tour made every effort to promote its personalities, again a fan-friendly approach that worked quite well for NASCAR. No one expected the PBR to produce a Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, or that the bull riding would begin to rival more established sports, but there was every reason to believe that the PBR could continue to grow on the success of its first ten years and become a popular and profitable entertainment product.
Principal Operating Units: Challenger Series; Humps' n Horns.
Principal Competitors: Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.