SBD/Issue 111/Sports Industrialists

That's No Bull: One-On-One With PBR CEO Randy Bernard

PBR CEO Randy Bernard
When RANDY BERNARD joined the Professional Bull Riders as its 28-year-old CEO in '95, the three-year-old organization staged eight events. Today, the ever-growing sports property features more than 350 events in and outside the U.S. The PBR has TV contracts with NBC, Fox and Versus, which amount to more than 250 hours of air time in the U.S., as well as with int'l networks. The worldwide viewing audience reaches more than 100 million people in 85 countries. Annual sponsorship revenue is around $24M, according to Bernard, who helped execute a new ownership structure last year with a partnership with private equity firm Squire Capital Partners. Bernard spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal N.Y. bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.

Favorite musicians: GEORGE STRAIT to ELTON JOHN to JEWEL.
Favorite vacation spot: Costa Rica and Cabo.
Favorite author: NORMAN VINCENT PEALE. I love motivational books and autobiographies.
Last movie seen: "The Bucket List."
Pet peeve: I don't like the word "can't."
Basic management philosophy: It takes a lot of hard work, which means you have to have a great team backing you. RICK PITINO wrote that he only hired people with a PHD, which stands for passion, hunger and drive. We want people who want to work hard and love what they do.
Best professional advice you received: BARRY FRANK is one of my biggest mentors in the sports world, and he has always said just do it right. Do it with honesty and integrity and you will always benefit.
Most influential person: So many, starting with my dad. You hang around champs, you become a champ. I've had so many great champions I've been able to hang out with. It's a key reason why I don't like to take no for an answer.
What do you know now that would have been most helpful to you earlier in your life or career? Don't take shortcuts. Every time you do, it comes back and bites you. Work hard. Do it right the first time. And make sure you're prepared.

Q: How did you come to be in this job?

Bernard: I produced one of [the PBR's] very first events in 1994 and I fell in love with the sport. They asked me to be the CEO in 1995. I was 28 and said I believe in it and think it has a lot of potential.

Q: Bull riding is not synonymous with rodeo, but it is a part of rodeo.

Bernard: It's been a part of rodeo since the 1890s. The difference in bull riding and rodeo is like comparing NASCAR to Formula 1 racing. They're both in the racing industry, yet they have different names and demographics and appeal. And we have so many people who are offended with animal rights issues in rodeo that we don't want to be in that same genre or term with them.

Q: LARRY MCMURTRY wrote, "Many of the men who survive as cowboys now spend their lives being nostalgic for an experience -- the trail drives -- that even their grandfathers missed. Rodeo, the only part of that experience that is accessible to the public, is a kind of caricature of cowboying."

Bernard: I love that and have never heard that quote from him. Yeah, I agree with that. I think there is a very small percentage of people who will want to actually get on bulls.

Q: McMurtry also wrote, "Rodeo remains a marginal sport. ... It produces few stars potent enough to sell a line of boots or a variant on the ever-popular Levi's."

Bernard: Yes, that's something rodeo has never been able to do: create superstars. When people go to a rodeo -- when it comes to their hometown or to their closest city -- it's a grandpa taking his grandkids to show them a tradition that's died, unfortunately. It's made up of seven events, and those seven events are all having a difficult time trying to reach mainstream. And I don't believe they will reach mainstream. I think they'd do a better job if they focused on being a regional and a niche sport.

Q: Would you say that bull riding is more than just a regional or niche sport?

Bernard: I definitely think it is. Today we are broadcast in 85 countries around the world. And in one country alone, we'll get a six-digit rights fee this year. So, it is growing. It's something that's going to take a long time. But we do feel that we continue to pick momentum up, not only here in the U.S. but around the world. Our biggest areas of growth won't be in Europe, because it's going to be too difficult to have live events there. But it will be in Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Canada.

Q: Can bull riding reach mainstream?

Bernard: I believe it can because we are building stars just as NASCAR or anyone else. If you look at some of the sponsorship deals that are in place for some of these cowboys, and look at some of the media we're getting, look at the amount of hours alone that we're on television. We're on NBC right before the Super Bowl, which I think is a great time slot.

McBride (r) Top-Earning Cowboy Last Year
With Over $2M In Winnings, Endorsements  
Q: How much does the typical cowboy make annually on the tour?

Bernard: The 45th guy is going to make $75,000-100,000, and that's with endorsements. And when you get up to your No. 1 bull rider in the world, like JUSTIN MCBRIDE, last year alone, just in prize money he made $1.9M. Put another $500,000-1M in endorsements.

Q: During the course of its season (December 29-November 9), the PBR will compete against the Super Bowl, the Final Four, The Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the NBA Finals, MLB, etc. With so many sports options available for fans, how does the PBR break through?

Bernard: As a young sport it's very important for us to understand what fans interact with us as well as other sports. We try to focus the time slot that we bought on network television around key events that could help bring new fans into our sport. What's really important is learning the crossover of what our fans want to watch. In our research we see NFL and NASCAR are two big areas that our fans watch. We used to follow behind NASCAR and on Fox I think we had three events this year when we followed the NFL. We're using the big events in certain sports to help us grow.

Q: Are your demographics similar to NASCAR's and the NFL's?

Bernard: They're almost identical to NASCAR and similar to the NFL.

Q: What is the attraction of the PBR for fans and for advertisers and sponsors?

Bernard: I think the biggest attraction is it's easy to follow. There's a lot of great danger in it. To some, it's the Western appeal. When we go to New York City, it's more about the danger, the drama, the excitement. It's truly a two-and-a-half hour show of entertainment. When you get there, from the lasers to the pyro to the rock 'n' roll music, you're going to be entertained. If you come in for your very first time, within four or five rides, you can understand the sport. By the end of it, when you walk out, hopefully you're a fan and you're going to go home and watch it on Versus.

Q: You have steroid testing in your sport.

Bernard: Exactly.

Q: We're not talking about the athletes.

Bernard: No, we're not. We thought it was very important. The bulls continue to get better and better. The genetics programs are just spectacular. In '95 we bought the No. 1 bull in the world, Red Wolf, for $25,000, and they told us that we were crazy bull riders. We had a partner with him. And we sold our share of him for $25,000 two years later. Today, there are bulls that have been offered upwards of $1M. So it's grown tremendously.

Q: What's the point?

Bernard: My point on this is that we want to make sure that we implement rules right from the beginning so that stock contractors realize the dangers of steroids with their bulls. And we felt that it was very important that we got out in front of it before we start hearing rumors about it. We just wanted to make sure that we were ahead of the game.

Q: None of those bulls will be testifying before Congress. A lot of bull, perhaps, but no bulls.

Bernard: A lot of bull at Congress (laughing).

Q: What's new and exciting this season for the PBR?

Bernard: We've got a lot of changes this year. First and foremost, the biggest thing we saw in the last two or three years is the genetics have gotten so much better on these bulls. And they've been bucking so much harder that our riding percentage of our cowboys has been going down. Last year, our riding average was 37%. We created a draft. The cowboy that wins the round gets to pick his bull at three-day events and the guy who gets bucked off the fastest gets the 45th pick. This has brought the riding percentage of our cowboys back to 56%. It has created new excitement for our fans and has actually started to make draft strategy. The cowboys have to know everything about that bull before they go in there and pick him: whether he spins to the right or the left and his riding style. And now the fans are getting into that.

Q: The fans are into the draft?

Bernard: We'll see fans at the draft yelling up to their favorite cowboys which bull they should pick. It's been fun to see how many fans are really getting into that and how much better everybody is riding. That has been a big step with one of our rules.

Q: Do you have a MEL KIPER of bull drafting?

Bernard: Not yet, but we're needing one. ESPN is very interested in starting to put that on their Web site. I would love to see someone like that, and I think it's only a matter of time before we do.

Pennington One Of Several
Celebrities To Own Bull
Q: You said, "There are two great athletes in every eight-second ride: the bull and the cowboy. Everybody knew the cowboy was an athlete. But it was not known that the bull was. What we wanted to do was bring attention to them and create them as a superstar just as much as the cowboy." It's almost like you are trying to create personalities for the bulls.

Bernard: Yeah. To us it's very important that we humanize the bull and make him a much bigger part. He is 50% of that ride. And we're starting to see it really paying off with three bulls that are getting a lot of attention: Big Bucks, Scene of the Crash and Chicken on a Chain. And you have people like CHAD PENNINGTON as well as the comedians RON WHITE and LARRY THE CABLE GUY buying bulls now.

Q: Bull merchandise outsells cowboy merchandise?

Bernard: I believe that we can continue to build [the bulls] as superstars. Most people love animals, and these animals are taken such good care of and are a very big part of our sport. It's been fun and gratifying to watch what big stars they're becoming. Their merchandise is outselling the cowboy merchandise two to one.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing the PBR?

Bernard: We need to continue to develop a stronger fan base as well as more television and create better drama, better competition. When we went from eight events to 225 events, there are so many events they can sometimes look the same. So what we're trying to do now is develop different kinds of formats which we hope, when they turn on the TV will create more urgency for our fans to come back week after week. That has been one of my biggest hurdles: We've created too many of our events so fast that I don't want the sport to become monotonous. It has to be fresh and entertain and excite every single week. And so creating new formats is going to be very important for the additional growth of the PBR.

Q: What's the biggest misperception about the PBR?

Bernard: In the 1970s and '80s, PETA did a pretty good job of informing people that bull riding hurt bulls in all kinds of different ways. All those are completely false. We encourage and welcome any animal rights groups to come in and look at how we treat our animals. It's very important to the sport and to the industry that our animals are taken good care of. The other thing is, people are so surprised when they come to an event and see the type of fan base that's there. It's so much more than a Western sport.

Q: Any sports business stories you are following closely these days?

Bernard: I follow a lot of them. HD backing out of the NHRA deal. I think that's a big story. [NFL] Commissioner [ROGER] GOODELL and the state of the union. And the overall ratings on TV and the competition of media today, especially new media.

Q: Any regrets?

Bernard: There have been many along the way, but none today. One of the best things about the sport are the cowboys, some of the greatest guys in the world. They are so accessible and so caring.

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