As any team, league or brand looks to grow audience, it is sometimes pretty easy to forget about the core; the supporters that got you to a certain level. Sustain you through the hard times and most importantly, stay brand loyal and engaged virtually 24/7. Chasing the shiny toy, the new social platform, or the latest trend is buzzworthy and sometimes sexy and can and should be done to stay relevant, but making sure your base is covered is critical in what remains a pretty volatile and fluid marketplace.
One brand that stays true to that core as well as any property has to be the PBR, and that brand loyalty, combined with the outreach to a larger, casual audience was in full view the first weekend of January in New York, as the tour opened its 25th season.
We got a chance to take in the PBR in a nearly full house on the first night of the event, and the reasons for PBR success were pretty clear, along with the potential for where it can still go. Some thoughts.
Know Your Audience: There is no doubt that the PBR understands who its core is, and that was clear in everything from pregame meet and greets with global partner Monster Energy, to the red, white and blue opening ceremonies and everything in between. Every brand on display throughout the Garden doing activations…from Monster Energy, Cooper Tires and Wrangler Jeans to Jack Daniels and Dewalt Tools …easily resonated with the audience. There was no ambiguity as to why brands were in the house, and little doubt as to what the ROI would be? Were there some unusual partnerships rarely seen in Gotham; like the U.S. Border Patrol Recruitment Stand or a firearms sponsor or two? Sure. But taken in context of the event and the messages the PBR brings forth for their fans, all made great sense.
Taking A Knee: While having a bullrider take a knee to stir up controversy ala the NFL certainly would be a brand departure, taking a knee in prayer during the pre-event ceremonies, while a prayer was taking place, again fit with the larger audience and the messages of the PBR. Would a pregame prayer fit for a Knicks game to a crowd? No way. But the PBR the knee in prayer, along with the prayer itself, wasn’t a departure again from the message.
All Patriotic, All The Time: The theme of the night, and of all PBR events, is overtly and clearly about Patriotism and belief in mainstream values. It is front and center for sure, from the call to “Remove Cover” for all in the building prior to the prayer and The National Anthem, to the myriad of tributes to those who serve throughout the event. It is “Military Appreciation” all event and every event, and while most professional teams now honor a military member during play, the nonstop call to action around every piece of Americana again delivers the clear message that the PBR, maybe even more than a property like NASCAR, is American born and bred, even with a host of the riders being from Brazil and Canada.
Accessible Athletes: From the minute you arrived to through any point of engagement, the athletes of the PBR fully understand their role, appreciate the support and are 100 percent fan and brand loyal. The tour has also done a great job in the last two years of messaging and storytelling around their athletes, whether it is Jess Lockwood kicking off the season with a visit to the New York Stock Exchange or J.B. Mauney ending up featured on Colbert. The PBR has also done a great job of cross pollinating the other assets of owner WME/IMG has, whether that is getting interaction with properties like Miss USA or the UFC or any other high level celebrities. The riders show up, engage and know how to play the endorsement game, and that continues to pay off in the loyalty department pretty consistently.
Location, Location: One of the keys for any event to find success in the crowded New York sports and entertainment calendar is to find an annual hole that is unencumbered by competing events and stick with it, thus building brand equity and casual fan interest over time. The US Open is just as successful because of its time on the calendar as it is because of its quality tennis… it is the only major event, at the same time, in the same place in New York that marketers and brands can point to without question every year. The New York City Marathon grabs the first Sunday in November.
The PBR has found a home in January at MSG. Why MSG in January? From Ford to Wrangler to Cooper Tires, the circuit has Madison Avenue ties, and there is a big need to garner the major media and partner exposure that only New York can bring. Early January is very much a transition time in New York sports… football is a goner this year, baseball’s Hot Stove is taking a respite, the Knicks and Rangers are in midseason, the Olympics and NBA All-Star game are just far enough away on the calendar, and college hoops in the area are not what it once was. Families may be looking for a post-holiday event, as well as scores of PBR faithful from across the country wanting to sample The Apple, can find the PBR to attend that is both affordable and a bit different, while the casual sports fan gets a live event that is not of the norm and is a ways away from a normal trip to “The World’s Most famous Arena.” Then, add in the spectacle and drama of the bulls and a little celebrity…… and you have an event that can draw attention and pull in a strong weekend crowd in a very fickle environment.
All that works because of the consistency of the calendar, and a willing partner in Madison Square Garden. If the event moved from time to time, or if it had to go up against better weather or any host of other events in the crowded New York schedule, the event would be nowhere near as successful. Casual fans would not seek it out, or be able to circle the date with consistency. Even diehard fans would have to adjust from the rigors of daily life, and any stretch from annual consistency could spell doom.
All those pieces of the formula remain the best way to spell success for niche touring sports like the PBR. Consistent and effective year in, year out branding, storytelling, activation and timing leads to a good churn of the casual fan and builds brand loyalty for the core follower, which translates into three days of an enthused, supportive and engaged fan, which is what all events strive to deliver in these challenging times, especially in the largest media market in the country.
So is the PBR season opener a model for branding success for niche events? It probably has a ways to go still in terms of consistent in-arena storytelling of its athletes, better educating casual fans with rules and nuances of the sport and continuing to grow a larger mobile and social , but my most measuring sticks for events… consistency, fan engagement, ticket sales, buzz… it would seem so. And that type of success in 2017 is certainly not bull and one that can be studied and emulated for all looking to grow and build market share in an ultra competitive global sports and entertainment environment. Casual fans got a feel, diehards got their due, and most everyone left with a positive and entertaining experience.