Professional Bull Riders (PBR) is a sport to watch. Hold onto your seat 'cause this ain't no rodeo.
At the Savvis Center in St. Louis, MO, PBR Chief Operating Officer Sean Gleason introduces me to the many PBR bucking bulls—which come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and weigh in at an average of 1,700 to 1,800 pounds (on the high end, a bull could weigh 2,000 to 2,200 pounds). They appear harmless (cute, to some extent). As I am escorted to my front row seat behind the announcers, the first rider is released on his bucking bull, and I quickly find myself gripping my chair (maybe I shouldn't be sitting so close). As the bull begins to buck, I feel the need to duck. Assured that the bull and its rider will not be paying me a visit, I find myself wanting more PBR when the event is clearly over.
Gleason got the same bullish fever well before joining PBR in 2000 as its COO. With a marketing background, as well as music recording and video experience, Gleason eventually moved into the computer software arena at Sierra Sports, a game development company for many varied sports (hunting and fishing, as examples) and sports leagues. While at Sierra, Gleason began to do some research on a variety of other sports and happened upon PBR, eventually signing a license for video games. Gleason's enthusiasm for the sport lured him to his present position in which he manages marketing, licensing, event merchandise, sponsors, media services, catalog, and Website, among other responsibilities.
And alluring a sport it has become, when you consider that PBR entered the scene in 1992, when 20 bull riders decided to come together and put bull riding on the map at a rodeo event. The buck didn't stop there. Today, PBR is a national televised sport, and its geographical, demographical split has changed with recognition. "We have as many fans east of the Mississippi as west. It's really a 50/50 split. PBR is strong from North to South, Northwest to Northeast, and Southwest to Southeast. Our events are evenly distributed nationally, as is our TV coverage," explains Gleason, adding that assumptions about PBR's demographical and territorial coverage is something PBR "continually must fight." There are three levels of PBR competition: The Built Ford Tough Series presented by Wrangler travels to 29 different U.S. cities each season and features the top 45 bull riders in the world (according to Gleason, there are more than 700 registered bull riders vying for one of the 45 spots); the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. Challenger Tour allows up-and-coming bull riders the opportunity to compete in PBR-sanctioned events while earning money to qualify for the Built Ford Tough Series; and the Humps 'N Horns Tour, which aims to cultivate the skills of young PBR permit holders.
PBR demographics are quite impressive, and somewhat can be compared with those of NASCAR, which over the years has challenged similar assumptions about its sport. According to Gleason, TV viewership skews 61 percent male and 39 percent female, while event attendance skews 51 percent male and 49 percent female. From 2003 to 2004 year-to-date, PBR has experienced an 18.3 percent spike in network household ratings (NBC Sports, from a 2.1 rating in 2003 to 2.3 in 2004). In addition, for the same time period and the same network, PBR network household delivery and viewership increased 19.9 percent and 28.4 percent, respectively. Similar increases occurred in 2003-2004 for PBR on Outdoor Living Network: a year-to-date 19.2 percent household rating increase, a 31.3 percent increase in household delivery, and a 23.6 percent increase in viewers. Further, the average age of PBR television viewers dropped from 43 in 2002 to 41 in 2003 (the average age of an event attendee is 37). PBR experienced a 19.9 percent gain in persons ages 18 to 34 from 2002 to 2003 (11.7 percent gain in men ages 18 to 34; 35.1 percent gain in women ages 18 to 34). While 74 percent of the PBR audience is defined as "white," PBR's Hispanic audience increased 16.3 percent from 2002 to 2003. PBR has TV placement on Estudios Telemundo.
As PBR grows in ratings and viewership, it must be asked what the likelihood is of increasing the number of PBR events. "In 2005, there is a possibility of increasing the number of PBR events, particularly in the minor league. However, the sport is extremely hard on athletes, and we must keep close tabs on their physical well-being," says Gleason. A tough eight-second ride it is. Judges can be found on either side of the arena, as well as a back judge who keeps track of time. As Gleason explains, bull riding is based on a 100-point system: Fifty percent of the points are awarded to the bull (the more the bull bucks determines its sense of difficulty) and 50 percent to the rider (who must remain in control and in position, as well as spur the bull). Safety men and other professional bull riders/fighters are always on hand in the arena as "lifesavers" should the need arise. Be assured the bulls are professional, too, as they are raised and trained by stock contractors to excel at the sport.
Not unlike other sports, active and inactive riders serve PBR as spokespeople and in various promotions. And PBR has an impressive list of sponsors that includes title sponsor Ford, Wrangler, Jack Daniel's, Bud Light (Anheuser Busch), U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., Carhartt, the city of Las Vegas, Lucchese, Mandalay Bay Las Vegas, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, B&W Hitches, Kraft, BowTech, Mossy Oak, Resistol Hats, Carquest Auto Parts, Caterpillar, Resistol Relief Fun Gleason.d, Cripple Creek, and HealthSouth. "Sponsorships are important to the health of our sport," says
In November 2003, PBR signed with licensing agency Brand Sense Marketing to further leverage the sport and its trademark. Gleason explains that to make licensing easier for licensees and the agency, it has secured the rights to the bulls and the bull riders. "One easy-to-execute package for licensees," says Gleason. The first category out of the pen was with Wrangler for a line of men's, women's, and children's T-shirts, jeans, and other apparel items. In 2003, Reeves International (Breyer) created collectible bull plush (in the first months of release, Breyer sold $233,000 in collectible bulls). Since then, PBR has amassed an additional 35 licensees in products ranging from toys, gift and novelty items, home décor, fashion accessories and footwear, Western apparel and accessories, and consumer electronics, among others. Categories such as auto accessories are still available for licensing. A PBR Website, a twice-yearly catalog, and event merchandise serve PBR as testing grounds for product. "The PBR logo is what drives sales. The riders and the bulls have identities and consumer following," says Gleason. To the future of PBR and its licensing initiatives, Gleason says, "PBR should be viewed as a legitimate sport. It is not staged. It is a professional sport, and we should get the credit we've earned."