Bulls and Big Bucks
The foresight of PBR’s founders has made it one of the most popular events for both competitors and spectators.
By Ed Knocke
The Professional Bull Riders has become a unique sports entity that has experienced remarkable growth through the past 20 years, turning the organization into a global sports phenomenon. The idea of the PBR was spawned in April 1992, in a cramped motel room in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a group of bull riders held a meeting to break away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and start a tour only for bull riders.
The success of PBR has led it to venues across the country. Madison Square Garden was the setting for the New York City Built Ford Tough Series event in January, when Douglas Duncan attempted to ride Robinson’s Delco during the championship round. Photo by ANDY WATSON/BULLSTOCKMEDIA
Twenty bull riders stepped forward at the time, and each took a serious gamble and invested $1,000 to form what has become the world’s premier bull riding organization. It was a huge risk that paid big dividends.
This season marks the 20th anniversary of the PBR, and the organization plans to stage a reunion of those early founders at its World Finals in Las Vegas, October 23-27. The PBR world champion will be crowned at the event, and receive the coveted championship buckle valued at more than $10,000, as well as a $1 million bonus.
In just two decades, the organization has reached more than half a billion households in 50 nations and territories worldwide, making it one of the most-watched sports on television. The elite Built Ford Tough Series is televised every week on CBS, CBS Sports Network and other networks around the world.
Randy Bernard, who was hired as the chief executive officer of the organization in 1995, became the driving force that made the PBR one of the fastest growing sports properties, all while providing opportunities for bull riders that had previously existed only in the imagination of the founding members.
A year after Bernard was hired, the PBR awarded a total purse of $1 million at its 1996 Finals. When he left the PBR in 2010, the organization had solid, established events, a successful sponsorship program, and more than 100 million viewers watching approximately 400 hours of prime-time programming.
“We wanted to create a better product for the fans, a sport so when they tuned in they were seeing the best of the best every time,” says PBR co-founder and nine-time PRCA world champion Ty Murray. “Expectations have been exceeded immensely, and the fact that this sport continues to grow is a gratifying notion, one that supports all the hard work and dedication of every member of the PBR.”
In 2006, PBR began operating international tours in Brazil, Canada, Australia and Mexico, each of which has significant expansion plans in the future. More than 1,200 bull riders from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Australia hold PBR memberships and compete in more than 300 PBR-owned and -sanctioned bull riding competitions domestically and abroad.
The North American operations are composed of two primary tours: the leading Built Ford Tough Series, featuring 27 stops in 18 states, and the Touring Pro Division.
Today, the PBR’s multi-tiered event structure attracts more than 2.5 million attendees each year, providing a strong indication that the organization is making an indelible impression on mainstream America.
This is an incredible development because, historically speaking, bull riders were initially thought of as unskilled cowboys. When rodeo was first launched, bull riders were cowboys who didn’t have the skills to rope and handle a horse.
It was not until 1920 that bull riding first became part of the rodeo structure when producer Verne Elliott decided to spice up the sport by adding Brahma bull riding at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show & Rodeo.
Bull riding became a hit, and later rodeo stars such as Jim Shoulders (in the 1950s) and Larry Mahan (in the 1960s and ’70s) drew attention to the sport. That eventually led to the golden age of the 1980s, when the 20 PBR founders were all in their prime.
Cody Lambert, one of the founders, recalls the first meeting of the organization in the Arizona motel room with a bit of amusement. According to Lambert, about 15 of the 20 founding members were present at that meeting. You might say it was hardly a formal gathering.
“It was just a regular double motel room, where everybody was sitting on the beds or standing by the wall,” he remembers, “and whoever was speaking would be standing up between the two beds in front of the TV. It definitely was not a conference room or anything like that.”
He recalls that the riders took turns discussing their feelings about organizing the new group that would include only bull riders.
Tuff Hedeman, one of the leaders of the group, invited Brian McDonald, a former bull rider and PRCA administrator at the time, to the meeting. McDonald, in turn, decided to bring along Sam Applebaum, a businessman who was a fan of the sport and interested in hearing about its advancement.
In fact, Applebaum was named the CEO of the newly formed group that afternoon, and he opened the first bank account for the organization. He was so interested in the goal of the group that he invested $1,000 of his own money just so he could be part of it.
Some of the new members had trouble coming up with the initial $1,000. Jerome Davis, for instance, didn’t have the total amount handy, so he wrote Applebaum a check for $500 with a promise of paying the remaining $500 a week later.
Michael Gaffney wrote a check for $1,000, but later discovered he didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover it. However, he ended up winning the Scottsdale bull riding that night and his winnings more than made up the difference.
Dan Lowry was near the end of his career, and eventually decided not to join because he felt he wasn’t going to be an active rider for much longer.
Later that December the new members had jackets made up with “Professional Bull Riders” emblazoned on them and wore them to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas—to the chagrin of many PRCA members.
By that time, the organization had moved up in stature. The founders were able to rent a conference room at the old Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, where they held their first official press conference, which I attended. Applebaum, Lambert and Hedeman all spoke, outlining the agenda of the newly formed organization. I remember talking to Aaron Semas after the press conference, and he told me how all of the members had complete faith that the PBR would succeed. In the 20 years since, the organization, true to Semas’ prediction, zoomed to a new level in sports. It was formed with the goal of making it better for future generations, and it remains that way today.
“We’ve been working on it and building it ever since Day One,” Lambert says, “and we’re still busy with that. It’s amazing to think that the third generation is retiring now.”
Not a single rider competing on the Built Ford Tough Series today was of age in 1992, and in fact, Chase Outlaw one of today’s top PBR contestants— wasn’t even born until two months after the meeting took place.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years already,’’ Lambert says. “Trying to build and look to the future, we just haven’t had that much time to stop and pay tribute to the past.”
A lot has changed since those early days. PBR has since staged events in places like Madison Square Garden in New York City and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, bringing bull riding in line with other major sports.
Some of the founders hoped that their $1,000 investment would someday allow a professional bull rider to earn $1 million in their career. That dream has long since become a reality, with PBR awarding more than $120 million in prize money. To date, 25 riders have earned $1 million or more, and 13 others have earned $800,000 or more.
“It has gone way beyond our expectations,” says Lambert. “A lot of bull riders rode for 10 to 15 years and didn’t win $250,000 in their entire career. We now give that out in one night.” In early 2007, Spire Capital Partners finalized a deal with the PBR board of directors to acquire the interests of many of the retired founding members and invest in the growth of the organization. Those first 20 bull riders turned their $1,000 investments into millions.
Owned today by 44 cowboys, management and Spire Capital, the PBR continues to establish milestones in organizational revenue, bull rider earnings, record-breaking performances and media attention. And it still relishes the title of being one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
Texas-based writer Ed Knocke has covered rodeo for 40 years, and was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2007.