Bull Riding Is Roping in TV Audiences

From Bloomberg News

With a nod from Rob Bell, the gate swings open and the snorting 2,000-pound bull beneath him explodes, sending Bell flying, then snapping the rider back by a rope tangled between man and beast.

As the animal lurches and kicks, Bell is dragged around the arena before thousands of stunned spectators.

"I just got hung up a little," Bell explains later, nursing a knot on his forehead and drag burns on his face. "No big deal."

It's that kind of life-threatening drama, and the cowboys' aw-shucks manner, that has made bull riding attractive to TV audiences on Comcast Corp.'s Outdoor Life Network and to sponsors such as Ford Motor Co. and Anheuser-Busch Cos., the world's largest brewer.

What started as a rural event popular in towns from Bakersfield, Calif. to Odessa, Texas, has outgrown America's ranch and farm communities and plays to packed houses in major cities across the U.S.

A decade after 20 of the top U.S. bull riders founded Professional Bull Riders Inc., the tour says revenue will reach $34 million this year, up from $1.6 million in 1994. PBR's founders each invested $1,000. Their stakes now are worth at least $1 million, based on buyout talks involving three companies, including Clear Channel Communications Inc., said Randy Bernard, the tour's chief executive.

"It's consistent with the growth of extreme sports on TV," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who operates a consulting firm, Pilson Communications. "U.S. television audiences seem attracted to high-risk, personal-danger situations."

Agreements with companies such as Ford, VF Corp.'s Wrangler jeans and Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser beer have led to an increase in sponsorship revenue to $15 million from $356,000 in 1995, Bernard said.

"We knew we had the only sport in rodeo that could stand on its own as a spectator sport," said Michael Gaffney, a founder who still competes.

"There is a reason they have bull riding at the end -- to keep people in the stands and buying beer and hot dogs."

And with fans paying $15 for stuffed bulls, $25 for T-shirts reading "Wanna Buck?" and $25 for bull-riding highlight videos, merchandising revenue has increased to $1.8 million from about $140,000 in 1997, Bernard said.

Prize money for the 700 PBR members has jumped to $9.5 million this year from $660,000 in 1994, and attendance topped 1 million last season, from 310,000 in 1995, according to the tour, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The 29-event competitive season, which runs almost year-round, ends in Las Vegas with the three-day World Finals starting Thursday.

"In the beginning, people would call and mistake us for the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer company," Bernard said. "A few years later, we wanted to hold an event at Madison Square Garden, and they blasted us, saying we had no credibility within the industry. We're not hearing that anymore."

The PBR played New York's Madison Square Garden in 1998, selling 12,000 tickets.

Twenty-two of the PBR's 29 events are broadcast on Comcast's Outdoor Life Network. Bernard declined to reveal how much Comcast pays the tour for TV rights.

For the other events, PBR buys time on General Electric Co.'s NBC network and keeps revenue from ads it sells on its own. The Outdoor Life Network has the right to rebroadcast the seven NBC events.

In a comparison of the latest TV ratings on similar networks, bull riding beat professional hockey. The three bull-riding events that have aired on NBC this year have drawn an average audience of about 2.3 million U.S. households, according to NBC. The five regular-season National Hockey League games shown during the 2002-03 season on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC have averaged 1.2 million households, according to ABC.

The bull-riding tour lost money last year on its television package, although it expects to make a profit this year, Bernard said. Television ad spots are 90% sold for the remaining NBC events through November 2004, he said.

The tour is marketed as a burst of Wild West action. It features clean-cut cowboys, who still tip their hats to the ladies and offer a firm handshake to the men, risking life and limb for as much as eight seconds on the backs of some of the meanest bulls alive.

"Bull riding is a great television event because it's dangerous and unpredictable, and there's a pause in the action for analysis and replay," said Tommy Roy, NBC's executive producer for PBR telecasts. "That format always plays well to American audiences."

It also can be tailored to big-city audiences, said Steve Hatchell, commissioner of the 67-year-old Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn., which stages rodeos and started a smaller bull-riding tour this year called Xtreme Bulls.

"The way you do that is to go to indoor facilities so you confine the environment, like with basketball or hockey; you get a great sound system and splash-and-dash pyrotechnics; and get a good screen to show replays," Hatchell said.

On the PBR tour, each ride is worth 100 points, as many as 50 for the rider's control and body position, and the rest based on how difficult a ride the bull offers. Even riders who last eight seconds must end their rides by leaping off, avoiding the horns.

"The cowboys talk about the bulls in reverential tones," Roy said. "And once you humanize the bulls a little, you can't help but really care about them."

Among their preparations, riders create scouting reports on the bulls' bucking tendencies.

"There are ignorant ones and smart ones and ornery ones and friendly ones," said Don Kish, who supplies animals to the tour from his 400-bull ranch in Red Bluff, Calif. "Like people, it's important to know who you are dealing with."

Chris Shivers, 24, the PBR's current point leader and champion in 2000, has suffered numerous injuries in his career, said Dr. Tandy Freeman, a Dallas orthopedic surgeon who serves as the PBR's doctor.

"The main thing a rider has to do is keep his confidence," Shivers said. "Once you begin to fear the bull and what he can do to you, you're in trouble."

With respectable television ratings and revenue projected to grow 20% annually for the next three years, according to Bernard, the PBR has become the object of buyout offers.

In 1998, Southwest Sports Group Inc., Clear Channel and a third company negotiated separately to buy the PBR, Bernard said. The tour's owners rejected the bid.

As co-founder Gaffney explains it, the shareholders believed that "if we put our heads together and worked a little harder, maybe we could get 10 times that."

"We also didn't like the idea of losing control," he said. "The business was still in its infancy, and we wanted to make sure it kept going in the right direction."

The tour's owners set aside 10% of the shares so that each year they can give some to riders who finish in the top 10.

Though financial risks seem to have dissipated for now, the physical risks of bull riding are considerable.

Freeman said he treats a new injury -- from groin strains and concussions to shoulder dislocations and ligament tears -- about every 15 rides.

"There is a saying among riders that goes: 'Cowboy up,' " Freeman said. "It means don't whine and complain. It's part of the culture and lifestyle."

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