In 1992, bull riding officially separated from the national rodeo circuits to create its own show. Cody Lambert, one of the founding members of Professional Bull Riders Inc., explains, "We felt like we carried the rodeo, and were paid exactly the same as every other event. Our careers were shorter and obviously more dangerous. We said, 'If we could just stick together, we could elevate this sport.' "
They turned PBR into a spectacle. Rodeo tends to be more a showcase for Western livestock culture than a pure athletic event. PBR, however, is a one-sport phenomenon. There are no hog-tied calves, no horses racing around barrels. Everything is pared down to this: a metal gate banging open as bull and man explode into the arena.
More than a thousand riders now compete at about 300 events every year, coast to coast in the U.S. and in four other countries. Top riders come out of Canada, Australia, Brazil, and, of course, the U.S. The seven-day World Finals in Las Vegas tends to pull a live audience of 90,000, while a PBR season will see a television audience of 100 million.
Headquartered in Pueblo, Colo., PBR began with a World Finals purse of $275,000. In 2007, top rider Justin McBride walked away with a total of $5.1 million. The original shareholders who formed PBR -- bull riders every one -- did so with initial investments of around $1,000 each. Last year, they sold the organization to a multinational company, and those initial antes were upped to around $4 million each. This is one way for down-home Western rednecks to strike it rich.
PBR's style mirrors that of NASCAR, producing larger-than-life events, beginning each with pyrotechnic extravaganzas and bone-quaking rock music. The announcer booms about God and country and American forces serving overseas. At some championships, Special Forces soldiers rappel into the arena. The target of this star-spangled extravaganza is Middle America, from white-collar self-proclaimed rednecks to the exurban masses to the trailer-park crowd. The livestock aspect of the sport draws scattered but ample rural demographics. Spire Capital Inc., the company that bought PBR, is well poised to access these markets, pulling people out of the woodwork and dosing them with sponsors that range from Copenhagen to Ford trucks to a trailer-hitch manufacturer.
What PBR sells is a magnificent display of maleness. Riders enter the arena through a hoop of fire and tip their hats to a frenzied audience. The champions rise above the rest on hydraulic lifts, standing proudly with feet spread apart, fists planted on their hips. They look like gladiators. Even the bulls get their moment, trotting into the arena for introduction, heads tossing and snorting in a bath of artificial smoke, testicles big as yams swaying to and fro. Within minutes the arena is cleared and the first ride bursts into a dome of camera flashes.
Marketing aside, this is what ultimately draws a crowd. For a handful of seconds all pretense is stripped away, leaving just jeans, hide, and a rope.
Backstage, press agents, investors, rider-buddies and photographers mill about. PBR girls stand around like backup singers in half-shirts, leather chaps and pierced navels. The green room is a whirlwind of Cokes and chicken wings -- the veneer laid over the eight-second free-fall. Down a fluorescent-lit hallway, the roar of the crowd dims, and riders come in and out of open doorways, fists wrapped in tape, bull ropes over their shoulders. The air smells of chew-spit and leather. If testosterone has a scent, this must be it.
The doors lead into big prep rooms full of riders bullshitting and rubbing rosin on their ropes, preparing for the ring. Veterans chide rookies, sometime slinging insults at them, while senior riders -- in their 30s -- generally keep to themselves, set off from the others by a moat of respect.