With the Kentucky Derby running this weekend, and the NBA and NHL playoffs in full swing, one sports story has quietly also been gaining ground. and finding its niche through a growing list of creative partnerships worth nothing.
The Professional Bull riders, or PBR, off to the best in its history, is now producing major western lifestyle festivals. The sport is partnering with major cities like Las Vegas and Edmonton to create community bashes which become that highly desired “destination event” discussed in every sports symposium today.
This might not mean much to those new to the sport, but PBR was founded in 1992 when 20 cowboys broke away from the rodeo, realizing most people were paying to witness their daring do. With next weekend’s Las Vegas Helldorado Days Presented by Monster Energy (May 13-15), PBR has come full circle — producing a major rodeo headlined by its unique brand of sports entertainment, which, for the uninitiated, includes lighting the dirt on fire, blasting rock and roll, then unleashing fearsome snot-slinging 1,800-pound bulls slamming 150-pound cowboys to the dirt like rag dolls. Throw in a carnival, classic country music, the requisite Elvis and Rat Pack impersonators, tangy BBQ, and cold beer in an authentic western saloon – all right on the famous Las Vegas Strip, and you see PBR’s business plan unfolding in living color. (CBS Sports will devote two hours to the “Last Cowboy Standing” bull riding contest on Sunday afternoon, May 15.)
Something similar is amiss in Edmonton. Last Thursday, Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) dropped word that PBR will headline a 10-day festival in November, 2017, adding music, culinary and fashion events to a bull riding invitational for the world’s top athletes. There’s even talk of a PBR-NHL mash up, including a Flames vs. Oilers matchup. PBR says event particulars are in the works, but Oilers Entertainment Group Vice-Chairman and CEO Bob Nicholson hinted at creating Canada’s biggest sports-music-food-festival.
What’s going on here? It’s the execution of a vision Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell articulated when WME purchased sports and fashion powerhouse IMG for $2.4 billion in May 2014.
Skeptics claimed the deal was too heavily leveraged; other analysts point to a smart investment to transform a 10 percent commission business into what the Hollywood Reporter calls a “global, pan-disciplinary entertainment superpower that importantly, owns a significant chunk of content as well as represents its creators.”
Enter PBR and its 300 annual bull riding events in five countries. The sport has blasted out of the gate in 2016 with eight local event attendance records and TV viewership on CBS rocketing +33 percent. Those are stout numbers in a fragmenting media landscape; by comparison, MLB’s ratings are down 10 percent overall across all national broadcast partners for the first month of the season.
PBR is now part of a company with tentacles in just about every area of sports, fashion and entertainment. The challenge is also the opportunity – getting disparate businesses engaged in true collaboration where one plus one equals three. As big mergers like AOL-Time Warner proved, what looks good on paper can be a nightmare to accomplish seamlessly and profitably.
The Hollywood Reporter’s highly entertaining cover story on Emanuel and Whitesell reported that revenues and profits for WME | IMG are “up considerably from 2014.” Now, unlike others, the company can push for traditionally elusive synergies without requiring a tourniquet to stanch any flow of red ink.
It will be interesting to see which assets WME | IMG will wrangle up in the Edmonton cross-company play. WME | IMG is always strong in event production; owning, operating or commercially representing more than 800 events each year. You want country music? The Brad Paisley IMG College tour played to more than 110,000 students, charting for universities a new way to program the weekend. You like good food? PBR’s parent company owns or operates more than 20 global Taste Festivals in cities spanning from London to Hong Kong, Enjoy art? WME | IMG just hooked up with the venerable Frieze Art Fair.
Meantime, as PBR starts to plan for its second half (the sport takes a long summer break after Vegas and returns in Nashville for its third “Major” on August 19-20), the league’s newly integrated marketing, social and PR team is pushing new competition storylines, including a crop of smiling Young Guns taking on grizzled veterans like reigning World Champion J.B. Mauney who recently stood next to Jay Z on the cover of Parade and currently sits atop the PBR standings.
Among those young stars – four riders in the top 15 are 22 years old or younger – PBR senses its own Bryce Harper with 18-year old Jess Lockwood, a well-mannered Justin Beiber doppelganger. Lockwood has only competed in four Built Ford Tough Series (BFTS) events, but has won four rounds and the entire shebang in Billings last month. Two-time champ Mauney, already considered one of the sport’s all-time greatest riders, didn’t win at PBR’s elite level until his 16th try.
In a tough, grueling sport, where 1 in 15 rides ends in injury, it remains to be seen if Lockwood, who has yet to graduate high school, will have staying power…or the luck to avoid major injury. So far, cashing $40,000 checks after a weekend riding bulls hasn’t gone to the kid’s head. And he’s been in the limelight in western sports circles since taming rank bulls as a 14 year old.
The affable teenager is now living with Cody Lambert, PBR’s director of livestock, and getting coaching from two-time world champion Justin McBride. IMG Models has already signed one PBR rider to a global modeling contract so maybe their scouts heading to Vegas will see something special in Lockwood, too. The kid just got his own officially licensed T shirt…available for sale on the Strip at Helldorado Days. For a high school student, that’s nearly as big a kick as being presented a huge check in the center of the dirt flanked by the ever-lovely Monster Girls.
The budding star a rising sport salivates for, and the big cross-company business play – two PBR stories worth keeping an eye on.