While sports media has been rightfully obsessed with Super Bowl 50, and the NBA All-Star weekend one story has slipped under the radar: the very fast start of Professional Bull Riding (PBR).
More than a few eyebrows were raised when the Hollywood agency known for building stars like Oprah, Adele, Serena Williams, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as well as events like Fashion Week and the Miami Open acquired PBR. What’s the fit? What could WME bring to the party, or better yet, the western-inspired, boot-stomping hootenanny?
Turns out WME | IMG bosses Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell had a pretty clear vision in bringing to the fold the world’s toughest cowboys and bone-crunching bulls. PBR has busted from the chute red hot in the league’s first full season under new ownership.
While it’s still early in a season ending in early November, PBR ratings on CBS are up 20% over 2015. The Monster Energy Buck off at the Garden a month ago drew more viewers than every sport except the NFL. With pro football taking its long hiatus, it will be interesting to see if PBR can keep the momentum going with three CBS broadcasts coming up over the next three weekends, Sunday, Feb. 14 at noon ET; Sunday, Feb. 21 at noon ET; and Sunday, Feb. 28 from 12:30 p.m. ET.
Live PBR attendance has been very strong as well. PBR packed Madison Square Garden with 35,000 fans (Jan 15-17) and then Anaheim’s Honda Center with 25,000 fans (Jan. 29-31). The sport went on to a record-breaking weekend in Sacramento (Feb. 5-6) with more than 20,000 fans over two days.
PBR has gotten a lift from wide season-launch media coverage, including current World Champion J.B. Mauney on the Colbert and Rachel Ray shows and penning a Players’ Tribune photo essay along with a New York Times section cover on up-and-comer Cooper Davis. While PBR didn’t court this week’s Sports Illustrated story, seven-pages of prime real estate on the tragic life of Kent Cox, the “bull whisperer” for PBR’s most famous bovine athlete, Bushwacker, shows a sport taking leaps in popularity and mainstream appeal.
Billing itself as “the toughest 8 seconds in sports,” PBR visited St. Louis this weekend. Fans can head across from the Scottrade Center into one of eight nationwide PBR-branded bars, one of the most successful entertainment concepts in recent years. PBR Bar, a collaboration with The Cordish Company, is an anchor concept for leading entertainment districts in the U.S. including Xfinity Live! at the Philadelphia Stadium district, Ballpark Village at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and the Power & Light District in Kansas City. The PBR bar in St. Louis features a mechanical bull and ebullient “Buckle Bunnies” serving drink specialties from Jack Daniel’s, a PBR official sponsor. The cowboy bar in St. Louis alone grossed a hefty $5 million last year, according to industry sources.
In many ways, PBR is similar to “traveling circus” sports like NASCAR which feature weekly all-star events but without home teams. Like NASCAR, which for years has fought the perception its drivers are not “real” athletes, PBR is trying to show the athletic prowess 160-pound cowboys must have to conquer ornery 1,800-pound bulls bred to buck. Similar to NASCAR, PBR is a once-niche sport going mainstream, determined to not lose core fans while newcomers flood into the tent. And like NASCAR, PBR is keen to grow sponsor support and activation. You can bet PBR’s sales team is waving around a recent Forbes story which outlined the sport’s “massive crossover appeal…off-the-chart sponsorship metrics,” and concluded, “No other platform provides a more bona-fide fan experience than PBR.”
While PBR has 22 corporate partners including Ford, Stanley, Dickies, Monster, Wrangler, and Caterpillar, the league is attempting to turn such accolades into new business in several sponsorship areas such as beer, airline, insurance, and hotel. And with one in 15 rides ending in injury, add pain relief to that category list.
PBR live events drew 3 million fans last year. Yet WME | IMG leadership made the acquisition for the sport’s future potential. The new parent company is ramping up storytelling to create emotional bonds with bull riders, developing new league branding, and putting significant resources into social media, according to spokesperson Andrew Giangola. “This sport is based on relentless eight-second bursts of excitement – ideal for the vine generation. It follows that PBR is the fastest-growing major sport on social media,” Giangola said.
WME | IMG Chief Content officer Mark Shapiro who led the creation of shows like Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn when he was at ESPN, has said WME | IMG “wants to own the cowboy.” With IMG Models’ chief Ivan Bart scouting PBR cowboys, according to the New York Post, and IMG-owned New York Fashion Week under way, cowboys on the catwalk are likely coming.
As the so-called “Western lifestyle” grows in popularity, the possibilities for what marketing folks call “synergistic integration” are only bound by the imagination. PBR CEO Sean Gleason, even before he had the backing of a mega-Hollywood agency, pulled a rabbit – or would that be bucking bull – out of hat in injecting PBR into the 2015 Nicholas Sparks film The Longest Ride. Now Gleason only needs to punch up the company directory for an army of agents. As part of an entertainment behemoth whose clients have 22 Oscar nominations, and was behind the tear jerking Sundance darling film Gleason, another Gleason is hot on the trail of PBR’s next talent hook and brand extension. Cowboy up, indeed.