by: Marisa Lytle
From Celebrate Arkansas Magazine, October 2014
Professional Bull Riders is enjoying success as its ever-growing fan base brings in revenue and enthusiasm.
When you think of bull riding, you may recall the rodeos you went to at the county fair when you were a kid. Billed as the main event and taking place after the calfroping and barrel racing, undoubtedly, bull riding featured cowboys and cowgirls holding tightly onto bulls’ backs to see how long they could ride before being bucked off. However, in an effort to make bull riding a stand-alone event, 20 bull riders broke away from the traditional rodeo scene in 1992, and each invested $1,000 to create Professional Bull Riders, Inc. (PBR). Today, that initial investment has brought in millions of dollars.
According to an August 2013 article on Forbes. com, professional bull riding is America’s fastest growing sport. Compared to such sports franchises as the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco Giants and Miami Heat, as well as organizations such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), PBR has grown more quickly and gained more profit in a certain time period than any other U.S. sport. While UFC experienced a greater annualized return over eight years than PBR did in a similar time frame, UFC has reportedly ceased growing, while PBR’s revenue is still growing rapidly — to a record $70 million last year.
With more than 1,200 bull rider members in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, PBR is exploring opportunities in China and New Zealand, as well. In approximately 300 annual events worldwide, bull riders compete in either the Built Ford Tough Series, which is the elite tour; the Touring Pro Division, which is akin to the minor league in baseball; or the PBR International circuits. In fact, in China, PBR highlights shows are drawing around 30 million television viewers. In the U.S., that number would come second only to viewership numbers for the Super Bowl.
But what is driving this growth and interest?
Jim Haworth, chairman and chief executive officer of PBR, says the element of excitement in what he calls “America’s original extreme sport” is what draws fans.
“It’s this man vs. beast concept,” he explains. “It’s dangerous, but our riders are skillful enough that their ride is something fans can celebrate. When you get a chance to see it, you get hooked on it.”
Live PBR events, he says, are almost like rock concerts in regard to their pulsating atmosphere of music, fireworks and competitive adrenaline.
“I could grab five people off the street who know nothing about the sport and take them to a bull riding event,” he explains, “and they’ll come out saying, ‘I don’t know everything about how the scoring works, but that was the most exciting time I’ve ever had.’ We know we have the most passionate fans of any sport that’s out there.”
In addition to signing a long-term TV deal with leading network CBS, PBR’s popularity has reached Hollywood with Fox turning Nicholas Sparks’s bestselling novel The Longest Ride into a feature film that will open in April 2015 and will star Scott Eastwood, son of Clint Eastwood; Alan Alda; Oona Chapman (“Game of Thrones”); Britt Robertson (“Under the Dome”); and PBR World Champion Bull contender Rango. PBR will provide footage, riders and bulls for the film, as well as technical advice.
For Haworth, becoming the CEO of PBR in 2011 meant achieving his dream job. Having worked as a C-level executive for Sam’s Club, Walmart, Sears Holdings Corporation, and Chia Tai Enterprises International, Haworth now has the opportunity to combine his business acumen with his love of bull riding and the western lifestyle.
Originally from Jefferson City, Mo., Haworth grew up fascinated with the iconic cowboy figure. He enjoyed going to rodeos, of which he always thought that bull riding was the best part. He now owns a ranch near Jay, Okla., where he raises cattle and horses.
“When I think about the western lifestyle, this is something I have always enjoyed,” Haworth says.
Although an ardent fan of the sport, Haworth has never ridden a bull himself. “I’m too big,” he explains. “When you look at these athletes, they’re 150 pounds. Most bull riders are 5’7” to 5’9” on average. These guys are going against these 2,000-pound animals; I haven’t gotten the inkling that I’ve wanted to get on one.”
In fact, despite riders’ relatively small stature, their sport requires that they train to be in tip-top shape, just like any other professional athlete. Much of their focus is on building core strength, so they lift weights and participate in Pilates, yoga and martial arts, for instance.
“You cannot out-power that bull, and the riders know that,” Haworth says. “But, core strength, balance and flexibility are all critical to being a good bull rider.”
The riders, however, are not the only athletes in the PBR world. The bulls, too, are treated “like the rock stars they are,” Haworth says, and sometimes the bulls generate even more publicity for PBR than the human athletes do. In the case of a bull named Bushwacker, this seems to be true. Bushwacker was the first animal ever to be featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, a spot traditionally reserved for top athletes who pose nude. The magazine even touted Bushwacker as being “unridable” and possessing the “baddest body in sports.”
“Bushwacker is one of our star athletes,” Haworth says. “Our bull athletes are just as important as our riding athletes. We do a good job of selecting the top 35 bull riders versus the top 35 bulls.”
Because both species of athlete are highly valued by PBR, health and safety measures for both parties are of utmost importance. For example, bull riders wear protective vests that help prevent serious injuries to their torso, as well as helmets rather than the traditional cowboy hat. The bulls, for their part, are not made to buck by any external means; rather, they are bred to be prone to bucking. Bulls have strict feeding schedules, and while traveling can ride in a trailer no more than 10 hours at a time before being let out to rest and eat. During the events, specially designed chutes improve both rider and bull safety by eliminating leg injuries suffered by bulls in the bucking chutes.
“It is a dangerous sport, but we try to do everything we can to protect both types of athletes,” Haworth says.
Be it the sense of danger, the impressive strength of the bull, the hanging-on ability of the rider, or just the exciting Americana atmosphere that draws 1.5 million live event attendees each year, PBR is ever growing in popularity and viewership. Who knows, maybe 10 years from now the Super Bowl will take a back seat to the PBR World Finals, and we’ll all be donning cowboy hats and eating bucking-bull-shaped sugar cookies.