How Professional Bull Riders Successfully Introduces Its Culture to New Audiences

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Photo Credit: PBR

For Professional Bull Riders, the organization would label the last 25 years as an extended period of steady growth.

In the same breath, it would label the last four years, in particular, as nothing short of explosive. 

Despite its roots in the Western lifestyle, PBR CEO Sean Gleason said the sport is making major inroads in America’s suburban and urban markets. PBR recently finished up its a big weekend at Madison Square Garden in New York City and will make its first Los Angeles appearance at the Staples Center Feb. 22-23.

“I wouldn’t say it’s growing the Western lifestyle as much as taking an exciting sport with Western roots and introducing it to a new fan base,” he said. “Bull riding is an extra exciting sport, eight seconds of adrenaline-packed action 40 to 50 times a night, wrapped in with world-class production, and it’s an extremely entertaining product.

“People who give us a trial are surprised by what they experience. We struggle with the reality that a lot of people in suburban and urban areas in America have lost touch with dirt sports and what a cowboy is.”

Gleason said a struggle is breaking down those barriers, but it’s beginning to happen.

PBR experienced an attendance increase of 12 percent from 2015 to 2018, following the acquisition of the company by entertainment and fashion agency, Endeavor, formerly WME|IMG. Now a wholly-owned subsidiary, Gleason said PBR’s solid growth trajectory of the past two decades received a major boost from the firm’s expertise.

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“The PBR fits perfectly into Endeavor,” Endeavor Properties President Sam Zussman said. “It is a very special league in a very special sport with incredibly passionate fans who want to experience all aspects of the sport and the Western lifestyle. Endeavor’s breadth of capabilities — from events, to content creation and publishing, media, licensing, talent representation and more — makes it a perfect environment to continue to strengthen the PBR.”

According to an ESPN Sports Poll, PBR has 82.5 million U.S. fans, with an established presence on CBS Sports — with an average of one million viewers per telecast. 2018 set more than 20 local attendance records, including 46,000 people at Dallas’ AT&T Stadium in Feb. 2018 for the Iron Cowboy.

Bull riding is generally an individual sport, but PBR recently finished its third PBR Global Cup — a five-nation team competition and the richest PBR purse outside the PBR finals.

The Global Cup is based on the success of PBR’s growth outside of the U.S., as it continues to tap into the rich traditions of bull riding in Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Canada with tours in each territory. Gleason said rodeos have faded from the mainstream with cowboy lore, but the PBR product has the necessary elements to attract audiences.

“Their rich history and tradition is allowing us to do the same thing there,” he said. “It’s allowing us to introduce the cowboy hat and Western athlete to a new fanbase with shared values.”

Brazil’s PBR tour will include six cities this year and up to 10 next year.

Beyond the bull-riding events in arenas and stadiums across the U.S., PBR is now a multimedia company as well. PBR launched its own OTT network, RidePass, last February to “bring Western sports” to the digital media landscape. RidePass has aired more than 500 hours of programming since launch, including live bull riding, news, and highlights. PBR has also utilized Endeavor’s IMG Original Content to help produce several original shows, like the Brazilian bull rider Netflix docuseries “Fearless.” On Facebook Watch, the five-episode “Belles of the Bull” follows rider girlfriends and wives, and “I Got Wrecked” is a free streaming series on go90, showing some of the sport’s most insane injuries.

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“There’s a huge base of underserved fans out there,” Gleason said. “The digital platform is the right time, the right place and the perfect platform to bring it to the consumers. RidePass is having great success. We’re extremely excited and will continue to invest in the content and brands.”

Gleason is excited about the first quarter of 2019, which put PBR in several of the country’s largest markets including New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. Now, they’ll be investing heavily in the “Be Cowboy” campaign.

“It’s to invite more cowboys into the tent,” Gleason said. “We believe cowboy is how you live, not what you look like. It’s not about a boot and a hat. It’s the values you live by.”