Will the next big American sports superstar weigh over 2,000 pounds and come with two horns on his head and a name like “Little Yellow Jacket” or “Reindeer Dippin’”?
Yes, he will, according to the guys who want to make professional bull riding the next big American pastime.
And whoever that megastar bull turns out to be, he won’t just be carrying a cowboy along with him — he’ll also be bringing an all-American niche sport bucking and hollering into every television in America.
“We want to take bull riding into the mainstream and be recognized as one of the top sports in the world,” Randy Bernard, CEO of Professional Bull Riders, Inc., said. “If I’d said that five years ago, everyone would’ve laughed at me, but we’ve got a five year plan and the growth potential, and I believe we can be a major-league sport.”
He would know. In its 14 years, the PBR has become the premier association for bull riders and has taken the sport from a time slot in traditional rodeos to a standalone event with network coverage, offices in four new countries and, yes, its own reality show.
It's also made Justin McBride, Adriano Moraes and J.W. “Iron Man” Hart near household names.
"You know, five years ago I could walk through airports and nobody would know who I was," said Oklahoma's McBride, who was the top bull rider last year and is considered the Michael Jordan of bull riding.
"I was in an airport today and you get all kinds of people asking where I'm headed, mentioning they saw me last week on TV. It's kind of cool that the sport's big enough where you're a recognizable figure."
McBride agrees with Bernard that bull riding is only getting started.
"When I come around to bull riding eight years ago, I thought it was huge then. I think it's only going to get bigger. We have so many huge sponsors -- U.S. Smokeless, Ford. I made $1.5 million last year. I think you'll see a guy making $5-10 million five years from now."
So far, the numbers seem to bear out Bernard’s and McBride's optimism. In 1998, PBR events had 33,912,988 television viewers. In 2004, that number grew to a whopping 104,277,264. Its growth from 2002 to 2004 alone was 51.93 percent, qualifying bull riding as the fastest-growing sport in America.
The latest stats about the in-person audience are just as impressive. In 2004, the PBR had 16,355,000 fans who attended events. In 2005, that number was 18,569,000 — a single-year growth of 14 percent. From 2002, that figure's risen a jaw-dropping 72 percent — an increase big enough to make even a bull like Moss Oak Mudslinger stop in its tracks.
And the demographics seem to break all the stereotypes about the kind of people who’d come to watch a cowboy ride a bucking bull for eight seconds at a time -- though maybe not as much as, say, a recent critically acclaimed movie starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and a whole lot of sheep.
“We attract everyone from 8 years old to 80 years old, with our key demographic obviously being 18- to 34-year-old men,” Bernard said. “But if you come to one of our events, it’s more like a rock ‘n’ roll event than anything else.”
Sean Gallagher, senior vice president of production and development for TLC, which carries “Beyond the Bull,” a 10-hour reality series on bull riders that began airing this year, said it’s obvious to anyone who attends an event that the audience for bull riding is burgeoning in all directions.
“I brought my kids to a couple, and it’s amazing how many people there are from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s not just the cowboy-hat-wearing crowd.”
Troy Ellerman, commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which represents cowboys involved in rodeo events including bull riding, said bull riding’s explosive popularity might have more to do with more and more Americans’ disaffection with the trappings of modern life.
“People identify with what the cowboy represents. We’re not the NFL or NBA, but we’re a slice of America that’s carved out an identity for itself and is becoming more and more popular. And a 2,500-pound animal against a 150-pound guy? It’s pretty good to watch,” he said.
Vanessa Hodgson, a 22-year-old Michiganian and bull rider, agreed with Ellerman about the yearning for country life.
“People are getting away from country life, and it isn't very common nowadays,” she said. “I think it’d be a good idea if bull riding became one of the best sports around.”
Hodgson is one of the few female professional bull riders, but the gender barrier isn’t enough to hold back the bulls and their riders.
“Beyond the Bulls” has been “bringing a nice female number,” Gallagher said. “We try to go deeper into the lives of these guys. An audience member might say, 'Yeah, I don’t know a lot about bull riding, but I know what he’s going through with his wife and I know what it’s like to have to leave my kid for eight days to go on a business trip.'"
And a PBR-commissioned study found that women were making heroes not of the cowboys but the bulls, some of which, like the notorious and now retired Little Yellow Jacket, have carved out fame of their own, even if it's on the backsides of the sport's less nimble cowboys.
“What we did find was that the women were more interested in the bulls,” Bernard said. “We thought tight Wranglers would be the top reason women would go, but it wasn’t. It was the bulls. So we started merchandising the bulls, and our bull merchandise outsells our cowboy merchandise.”
As bull riding’s viewership has ballooned, so has its corporate sponsorship and advertising dollars. In 1995, the total sponsorship and advertising for the PBR was about $360,000, Bernard said. This year, it’s projected to exceed $22 million, and includes heavy hitters such as Anheuser-Busch, Ford and the city of Las Vegas.
And PBR is certainly enjoying the increased popularity with the sponsors.
“Ten years ago, when I’d call a potential sponsor, PBR stood for Pabst Blue Ribbon,” Bernard said. “So it’s fun when you call now and those folks actually now Professional Bull Riders.”
Smaller bull riding tours and associations are also popping up all over.
“When I first started out back 22 years ago, there were only two associations around for rodeo riders,” said Bob Sauber, a former bull rider from St. Charles, Ill. “Now it’s gone to the point where you have probably six or seven associations that are just for bull riding alone, plus the rodeo associations.”
Sauber’s organizing his own tour, the Professional Bull Riders, for the upper Midwest. His first event, in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 10-11, will cost him roughly $100,000, and he expects to make a third of that back, which he’ll put straight back into the tour. He’s planned five rodeos this year, but hopes to have 15 annually soon.
“The buzz has been really good in the air, and the people have not had a bull riding event there in like five years,” he said. “If it’s something thrilling, people will want to watch and pay to come see it.”
Not everyone, actually. Animal rights activists have long targeted rodeos as festivals of cruelty, and bull riding’s no exception.
Eric Mills, coordinator for Action for Animals in Oakland, Calif., who helped draft that state’s rodeo laws, said bull riding’s a vain attempt to grab for a glorious American past that never existed, and needs to be reined in for its anti-animal excesses.
“This is a bogus event to begin with,” he said. “It was never part of life on a working ranch, and this is what they’re trying to shove down our throats as ‘real cowboys.’ What are we doing riding bulls? Why not cocker spaniels or pit bulls?”
The PBR’s been aggressive about marketing the bulls as “animal athletes” who are the equals of their human adversaries, or partners — half a bull-ride score, after all, comes from how well the bull does. And the cowboys themselves, many of whom own and raise bulls as well, dismiss criticism of animal cruelty in the sport.
“I take better care of the bulls than I take care of myself,” said J.W. Hart, a top-rated rider and one of the stars of “Beyond the Bull.” “They’re the first things on our thoughts; they’re part of our
livelihood. They get fed before I eat; they get washed before I take a shower.”
Mills acknowledged that, of all rodeo events, bull riding is the “most innocuous,” but said stricter
safety rules for both bull and rider should be in place.
Naysayers aren’t slowing down Bernard, who can flip to PBR shows on NBC Sports, the Outdoor Life Network and TLC but says he "wants more network television."
Even for Hart, it’s become about more than those eight seconds on the bull.
“Yeah, I do get more recognition on the street than I did five years ago, but I’m reaching toward the last quarter of my career, and I see the guys just getting started, and I know that five years from now they’re going to be the Jeff Gordons or Dale Earnhardt Jrs. of bull riding,” he said.
“That’s where I’m trying to take this sport. That’s the goal from now on, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job for a bunch of cowboys.”