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When the Emmy-winning producer charged with repackaging the Professional Bull Riders tour for television went to his first event in San Antonio six months ago, he was struck by how a night among snorting, stomping animals and the larger-than-life cowboys who ride them differed from what he had seen of the sport from his couch.
He doesn't think it should.
"People say it's just like hockey: Great in person but it doesn't come across on TV," said David Neal, a 30-time Emmy winner who produced nine Olympics, four NBA Finals and two World Series during 30 years with NBC Sports. "I completely disagree with that. It's one ride at a time. It's a very compact area. There's no restriction on where you can put cameras and microphones.
"This sport is impactful, it's visually arresting and it's actually very well suited for television. It's just that nobody has ever really taken advantage of what's out there. That's something I think I can do."
The PBR hired Neal and his small L.A.-based production company in September, shortly after it took over responsibility for its own TV production as part of a one-year extension with Versus, which has aired PBR events since 2002. Beginning with the 2011 season-opening event at Madison Square Garden this weekend, Neal will place microphones closer to the action, tweak camera angles and try to find more room to tell the stories of the riders and the sport, all tactics eerily reminiscent of those that Fox incorporated a decade ago when it dove into NASCAR.
PBR executives say they see that shift as a crucial piece of a relaunch that will come during the next two years, as the circuit attempts to tailor itself to better suit its core fans while inviting in newcomers.
The reset comes at the behest of Jeffrey Pollack, formerly of the NBA, NASCAR and World Series of Poker, who in May joined the PBR's board of directors as executive chairman, replacing CEO Randy Bernard, who left to run the Indy Racing League. Often hailed for its growth under Bernard, who started in 1994 with 20 cowboys and $20,000, the PBR is on sound footing, Pollack said. The PBR reported attendance of 655,891, or 8,199 per event date, last year, an increase of 3 percent. It said revenue was up 10 percent.
Still, the PBR is far from mainstream. Even as the tour footprint has grown, it remains mostly a regional phenomenon, with a strong following west of the Mississippi in markets such as Oklahoma City, Spokane, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City, as well as across Texas, but niche levels of interest to the East and in more urban areas.
"It's gone from zero to 60 in the last two decades," Pollack said. "Randy … built a great startup organization and put the PBR on the map. The new opportunity is to lift it up to the next level.
"The PBR today feels very much like NASCAR did in 1999 and 2000, just as it consolidated its national media rights for the first time and started presenting itself to the world. We're poised to do exactly that."
Dockery Clark was running sports marketing for Miller when she went to her first PBR event. She was in Las Vegas working on unrelated business when she saw that the PBR was in town. The tour had been calling her with pitches going back to her days running sports sponsorship at Bank of America in the 1990s.
"I might not have taken the meeting at the bank," Clark said. "But I got paid to take the wackiest meetings I could possibly take in the beer business. So I went.
"The minute you see it, you get it and you're kind of hooked."
The property impressed her enough that when Pollack asked whether she'd be interested in joining the PBR tour as its chief marketing officer late last summer, she bit. Her first charge will be to learn more about who the PBR's fans are, why they are fans, and how they follow the sport. From there, the tour will work to tailor a brand strategy aimed to attract new fans without alienating the core.
"This product has so much potential and has been so off the radar screen in terms of telling the story the right way," Clark said, "that if we can just do the basics right it will be off the charts."
Outlining headlines from a business plan titled PBR 2.0, Pollack identified a handful of initiatives the organization will take on in 2011. It will:
• Embark upon a deep consumer study that examines who the PBR fans are and how they follow the sport. It will re-examine every aspect of the way its events are staged, scheduled and sold.
• Attempt to better integrate event production with its media production — both on TV and online — and marry all of them more closely to its marketing efforts.
• Relaunch its website, building it around improved multimedia content that it will distribute similarly to its counterparts at the more established properties.
• Overhaul its consumer products business, creating and distributing more apparel beyond traditional western wear.
Setting up a stampede in Manhattan
The PBR invades New York City Friday through Sunday in one of the most high-profile events on its schedule. Getting the bulls and competition ring set up in the heart of Manhattan at Madison Square Garden poses a huge logistical challenge. For starters, you just don't drive a line of trucks into the city and get to work.
"Getting trucks in there during business hours is a bit tricky," said Dan Hickman, the PBR's senior manager of tour operations. "Most of the time, we have to bring them in there late at night, like midnight or 1 a.m."
Then there's the whole issue of the arena surface being on the building's fifth floor, compared with ground level at most venues. As a result, the PBR will use 10 to 15 forklifts to haul materials up the winding loading ramp to the arena. Dirt is placed along a portion of the ramp as well, so the bulls can walk up part of the way.
With such limited space around MSG, the bulls are kept at the nearby New Jersey fairgrounds and trucked in each day for the competition.
Here are some other highlights of what it takes to put on the show:
Dirt: 600 tons
Set-up time: More than 1,000 hours of labor
Set-up crew: About 30 with the PBR, plus 20 to 25 local hires
Vehicles: Six semi-tractor trailers, two pickup trucks, a gooseneck trailer and 10-15 forklifts
Fencing: 300-400 panels of fencing for on-site and off-site bull housing
Speakers: More than 100 individual speaker cabinets
Lights: Approximately 40 moving-light fixtures and dozens of small LED "bricks"
Pyrotechnics: 30-35 devices (fire marshal permit required)
"The PBR is a brand on the move," Pollack said. "The movement isn't going to all happen at once. But we've got a plan. We've got a vision. We're going to have a better definition around our positioning in the sports and entertainment marketplace. That's coming. My message to the industry is stay tuned. Because for as great as you may think the PBR is, the business is about to start moving in some new and exciting ways."
The challenge will be to move while staying true to an authenticity that PBR marketers long hailed as a strength.
Clark likes to tell a story about Cord McCoy, the PBR rider who in 2010 finished second on CBS's "Amazing Race." On a day when the show wasn't taping, McCoy ran into one of the producers. He was surprised to see McCoy wearing his cowboy hat, boots and jeans. "This isn't some kind of costume," McCoy told him. "This is who I am."
That, Clark said, is at the heart of what fans find appealing about the sport.
"It doesn't matter how many fireworks we set off or what the music is, that's who they are," Clark said. "We don't want to change that at all. There's a realness to them that doesn't exist in other sports."
A Bigger Lasso
Another area of emphasis is a push to attract sponsors from outside of the circles endemic to bull riding: blue jeans, boots, pickup trucks and ranch equipment.
Last year brought the addition of Stanley tools, which signed on, in part, because of the PBR's place outside the U.S. Along with the 29-stop Built Ford Tough Series that hits arenas across the country and a lower-level touring pro division in the U.S., the PBR operates tours in Mexico, Canada, Australia and Brazil. Riders on the top series come from all of those countries. None have been more successful than the Brazilians, who have won six of the PBR's 13 world championships.
To land Stanley, the PBR had to sell the brand on the idea that it could activate globally, and especially in Brazil. After hosting the company's executives at several events, the PBR's top sponsorship executive, Kevin Camper, took a representative of the brand with him to an event in Brazil, where they were joined by a Stanley rep from Sao Paolo.
Camper began to worry when he learned the man would be driving five hours to get to the event. When he showed up wearing a Brazilian national futbol jersey, Camper feared his deal was cooked. But then they made their way into the venue, where about 19,000 fans were packed into grandstands meant to hold 14,000. When Camper introduced him to commentator Adriano Moraes, a former PBR champ, they were surrounded by fans waiting for autographs.
Stanley signed on.
"When you get those brands, you've broken out of the western lifestyle mode," said Camper, who joined the PBR last year after running sales and marketing for Texas Motor Speedway. "At that point, it's about the cowboy within us all."
That's the phrase Pollack uses when he discusses the ways in which he thinks the PBR can speak to both its current fans and those it wants to attract. He says he isn't married to it, because they've only begun collecting data on what appeals to their fans. But it sounds like it has legs.
"Our mission, as I see it today, is to celebrate the best bull riders in the world, the fiercest bucking bulls in the world, and to celebrate the cowboy in all of us," Pollack said. "If that ends up being what our long-term positioning is based in, I think that gives us a license to deepen our engagement with our core and also gives us a license to talk to a whole field of new people we want to bring in to the sport."
The toughest, most ornery bulls on the PBR circuit? Here are the five selected in voting by the top 40 bull riders on the Built Ford Tough Series:
Contractors: Julio Moreno/Richard Oliveira, Orangevale, Calif.
Highlights: Bushwacker went through 2010 without being ridden in 11 outs, and now has bucked off 12 consecutive riders.
Contractors: Robinson/Beutler/McNeely, Mars Hill, N.C.
Highlights: Voodoo once bucked off 28 consecutive riders. He went without being ridden in 11 outs at the World Finals, and was ridden only twice in 2010.
Contractor: Teague Bucking Bulls, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Highlights: The World Champion Bull in 2008 and 2010 was ridden only twice in 12 outs last year. He posted notice early into his career that he’d be a tough ride as his first 13 outs went without being ridden to the buzzer.
Contractors: Robinson/Katich/Pinnacle Bull Group, Mars Hill, N.C.
Highlights: Major Payne has bucked off 25 consecutive riders to improve to 48-2 all time. He bucked off the first 23 riders in his career.
Contractors: Jeff Robinson/Cappello/Teague, Mars Hill, N.C.
Highlights: Also tough to stay on, Uncle Buck has been ridden only three times in 41 outs. The bull was renamed in honor of Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris and his uncle, Buck.
When the head of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association announced last month that the sanctioning body's Super Bowl, the Wrangler National Finals, would be leaving ESPN for a network seen in about two-thirds as many homes, it raised eyebrows in western business circles.
"I don't want to lose ESPN," said Jeff Chadwick, director of special events, rodeo and equine for Wrangler Specialty Apparel, the sport's leading sponsor. "But that's not our decision. It's the PRCA's decision."
And therein lies one of the great hurdles for the PRCA, one of the larger, better-kept secrets in U.S. sports. While it sanctions hundreds of events across the country, including a 10-day finals event in Las Vegas that paid out $5.875 million last year and annually stands as one of the tougher tickets in sports, the PRCA struggles to operate as a typical pro sports property would. It is a member organization that services about 2,500 cowboys and cowgirls, most of whom compete as an avocation rather than a vocation.
So when the commissioner of the PRCA, Karl Stressman, reviewed the sport's television options last year along with the body's board of directors, he landed on the decision to leave ESPN, even though it was where the circuit would find the broadest exposure.
The PRCA's deal with ESPN was a time buy, and Stressman said he no longer could abide spending his members' money to drive exposure for the handful who compete at the highest level — especially when the network bounced the rodeo around its schedule like a cowboy atop a bucking bronc.
Beginning next year, the top PRCA events will air on Great American Country, a channel that reaches about 60 million homes. The channel will air all 10 days of the National Finals, bracketed by a pre- and post-rodeo studio show each day. It also will air four other major PRCA tour events during the year, as well as the nine events on the PRCA's Xtreme Bulls Tour.
The PRCA is gambling that it will get back more in consistency and overall coverage than it loses in mainstream exposure.
"Do you utilize the members' dollars to create new things, or do you use members' dollars to access and reward your current fans?" Stressman asked, explaining the PRCA's decision to switch networks. "It's not that we don't want to create new fans. But what's the value? We used to say that for us to be a professional sport we have to push this button. Well, I don't think we do."
No other sport is structured as rodeo is. The PRCA sanctions more than 600 rodeos across the country each year. In 2000, in an attempt to create a more marketable and organized product, it created the Wrangler Pro Tour, with larger purses meant to attract the top competitors. Now known as the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour, it will grow to 26 events for 2011. Last year, it paid out more than $6 million during the regular season and another $1.25 million in two postseason events sponsored by Justin Boots.
Still, those larger tour events and the Finals account for less than 5 percent of the rodeos that the PRCA sanctions each year. While sponsors such as Wrangler and Justin enjoyed the broad brand exposure afforded by ESPN, their decision to sponsor the PRCA is rooted in the breadth of that vast menu of events.
"The strength of rodeo is that it really is a grassroots opportunity to engage consumers at a local level," said Louis Russo, brand manager for Justin Boots, an official-status sponsor that activates at almost all of the PRCA events. "Hanging banners in the arena is fine and reinforces brand positioning. Rodeo is the iconic sport for our industry. But the trick to it is to leverage the events before they happen."
Justin does it through a promotion that offers rebates to customers at participating retailers in the two weeks leading up to an event. Three months out, Justin sales representatives contact retailers, offering point-of-sale materials, ads promoting the rodeo and Justin boots, and the rebate program. The company launched the program last year in about 100 markets. This year, it plans to expand to every PRCA event. Like the sport's iconic sponsor, Wrangler, Justin knows that fans see the rodeo as a social event — one that merits a new pair of boots or a western shirt.
At western-oriented retailers in many markets, the two weeks leading up to a rodeo can rival Christmas as the busiest sales week of the year.
"If you go to a rodeo you're going to see people wearing cowboy hats, cowboy boots, western jeans and a snap shirt," Chadwick said. "On the grassroots level, that's an ideal situation for us. You see people wearing jerseys to an NFL game. Well, when people go to rodeo, they want to buy a new outfit every time. They buy their tickets and they buy their cowboy hat. You see them and you can see it's new. Sometimes it's on backwards. But that's OK."
Sponsoring rodeo is similar to sponsoring auto racing, in that a deal with the sanctioning body doesn't guarantee the on-site rights that sponsors often want. To make the most of the sponsorship, brands must work with individual rodeo operators and engage retailers across the PRCA's vast map of events.
"If you think you can leverage it as a broad national program, you're not going to not maximize the opportunities it offers," Russo said. "You have to recognize what it is and then put together programs that are effective. You can leverage it in print, in store, online and through social media. It's got to be multifaceted. You can't just say you're going to hang banners in the arena. That doesn't necessarily sell product."
Wrangler is the most visible and longest-standing sponsor in the western lifestyle world, playing major roles with both the PRCA and its more mainstream competitor, the PBR. While Chadwick said Wrangler activates at almost all PRCA-sanctioned events, it focuses its most robust program around 120 of them. At those, consumers who spend $50 on Wrangler western wear receive a free ticket to the rodeo. That promotion can spur a retailer to double its stock in the weeks leading up to an event, Chadwick said, and then have to reorder when it's over.
"[For] our consumer base … rodeo is a common denominator to almost all of them," Chadwick said. "If they don't participate, they enjoy watching it. They can all relate to a good horse or a good cowboy."
Structured as it has been, with sparse national coverage around anything other than the National Finals, exposing that "good cowboy" has been difficult for the PRCA. Stressman said he believes the new TV deal will help address that, likening it to the boost the sport got from consistent carriage on TNN a decade ago.
"The sport has tried hard to make stars of its athletes and make them better-known personalities," said Rick French, chairman of Raleigh-based communications agency French/West/Vaughn, which represents Wrangler, Justin and several other western properties. "That being said, there are not a lot of those. There are guys like Ty Murray who was the greatest all-around cowboy in history. He's married to Jewel. That certainly helps.
"Ty has been on 'Dancing With The Stars.' But how much of that is related to his wife's clout and how much was that he was the Michael Jordan of the sport of rodeo?"
According to Scarborough Sports Marketing, pro rodeo’s fan base is far more gender equitable than other major pro sports properties. Gender U.S. population MLB MLS NASCAR NBA NFL NHL Pro rodeo Men 48.6% 58.8% 60.5% 63.1% 60.2% 58.7% 63.6% 54.8% Women 51.4% 41.2% 39.5% 36.9% 39.8% 41.3% 36.4% 45.2% Nearly 52 percent of pro rodeo’s fan base is over the age of 45. Among the other major U.S. pro sports properties, only MLB has a higher rate. Age U.S. population MLB MLS NASCAR NBA NFL NHL Pro Rodeo 18-24 12.2% 10.8% 16.3% 11.8% 13.1% 11.9% 13.1% 12.4% 25-34 17.8% 17.3% 21.5% 17.6% 18.8% 17.7% 20.3% 17.3% 35-44 18.5% 19.1% 22.5% 20.2% 19.7% 19.6% 22.1% 18.5% 45-54 19.2% 20.6% 19.1% 20.9% 19.6% 20.1% 20.6% 20.7% 55-64 15.0% 15.6% 11.2% 15.0% 14.3% 15.1% 13.0% 15.0% 65+ 17.2% 16.7% 9.3% 14.5% 14.5% 15.6% 10.9% 16.1% Eight percent of U.S. residents say they are “very” or “somewhat” interested in rodeo. Here are the most avid markets: Market 2011 major scheduled event(s) % of market that is a pro rodeo fan Oklahoma City PBR Oklahoma City Invitational 18.9% Tulsa PBR Tulsa Invitational; PRCA Tulsa State Fair 16.5% Spokane Spokane County Interstate Fair & Rodeo 15.2% Albuquerque/Santa Fe, N.M. PBR Sandia Resort and Casino Presents the Ty Murray Invitational 14.7% Salt Lake City PRCA The Days of ‘47 Rodeo 14.5% Las Vegas PBR Las Vegas Invitational, PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals; PRCA Elks Helldorado, PRCA Benny Binion’s WNFR Bucking Horse and Bull Sale 13.3% Bakersfield, Calif. PRCA Kern County Fair Rodeo 12.6% Denver PRCA National Western Stock Show 11.9% Little Rock/Pine Bluff, Ark. Southeast Arkansas District Fair & Rodeo 11.6% Houston Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo 10.80% San Antonio PBR Bass Pro Shops Shootout; PRCA San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo 10.60% Source: Scarborough Sports Marketing
Paul Andrews spent his childhood summers working on his grandfather's 6,000-acre ranch in Golden, Colo., but he didn't choose to build a career for himself on the farm. Instead, he went on to become executive vice president of Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which counts the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Denver's Pepsi Center among its holdings.
Yet Andrews now has found a way to put his marketing savvy to work on the passion he's kept on the sidelines since his youth. He decided last fall to leave his post at Kroenke and to take over as president and CEO of the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Like those summers with his grandfather, this is an event Andrews has attended since being a youngster.
"In recent years, I didn't look at it with an eye as president and CEO," said Andrews, who joined National Western on Nov. 1. "I was just walking through with my kids. It's a chance to use some of my past skill set."
A mainstay in the West, livestock shows such as the National Western have grown into monthlong affairs that can attract more than 2 million visitors. Numerous sponsors have come on board to reach ticket buyers, who attend to see the traditional livestock exhibitions but also rodeos, concerts, vendor booths and other attractions.
It's a raucous good time that also carries a do-good distinction. Typically operating as 501(c)3 educational nonprofits, the shows generate millions of dollars for scholarships and to support agricultural education.
Andrews will run his first National Western when the 105th edition gets under way Saturday. Some of his tried-and-true marketing techniques from team sports will be played out for fans of the western tradition. Among them:
• Ranking rodeo events from most attractive (A) to harder to sell (C), and marketing the latter category more aggressively.
• Instituting "family nights," with a price of $68 to $80 for four tickets, four soft drinks, four bags of chips and four hot dogs.
• "Boots Night Out," where $29-$49 gets you two tickets and two beers.
• Themed admission events, such as USO Night and National Guard Night.
Andrews expects the 2011 event to draw more than 100 sponsors, including such stalwarts as Cinch Jeans, Toyota, Dodge, John Deere, 9News, US Bank and Pepsi. He cites energy and investments as two more categories he'd like to land in future years.
The National Western is big business, but even with 633,000 attendees in 2010, it pales in comparison with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which drew 2.14 million visitors in 2010, and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, with 1.35 million.
Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer of the Houston show, rattles off the numbers behind operating revenue of $90.8 million, generated by:
• $44 million in ticket sales.
• $17 million from a category that includes junior livestock sales, scholarship donations of $2.5 million, a wine show/auction that generates more than $1 million, and $11.1 million from membership dues and fees.
• $11 million from sponsorships.
• $2.2 million from commercial exhibit rental spaces.
• $1.5 million from the event's share of food and beverage sales inside Reliant Stadium, whose main tenant is the NFL's Houston Texans.
A "heritage" partnership is the highest level at Houston, and Ford, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, BP and Reliant Energy make up the 2011 list. Banks, insurance, phone and service companies are among the other sponsors. Show executives declined to reveal sponsorship costs.
"It's a very sophisticated world today in the sponsorship business," Shafer said. "… We didn't have exclusive sponsorships until the early 1980s. Back then, it was pretty easy to sit down with somebody, 'you'll get our signage, our logo marks, you'll be an official partner.'
"Today it is a Madison Avenue-driven business, a very sophisticated business of buying and selling sponsorships. You'll have to sit down with your partner, see what they want, what impression value they're going to get out of it. If you're talking exclusivity, then it becomes a negotiation and a bidding process."
Houston's demographic study shows that 71.4 percent of ticket buyers come from the market's eight-county area, plus Galveston and Texas City. And though it doesn't track attendees by race or ethnicity, Shafer knows that Houston must create strategies to appeal to younger groups as well as to a very diverse city where Anglos have become a minority. Major 2011 concert acts — a sampling includes Kenny Chesney, Mary J. Blige, Alan Jackson, the Jonas Brothers, Tim McGraw, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber — are one strategy to draw youth and minorities.
Head about 200 miles west of Houston and you'll find the huge San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, which re-signs most of its sponsors each year and which drew more than 1.3 million attendees in 2010.
"We're very fortunate," said Glen Alan Phillips, assistant executive director. "Over 90 percent of our sponsors return every year, and we're very thankful for that."
One big change for the 2010 show was a switch in the vehicle dealer sponsorship from GMC to Ford. GMC, a longtime sponsor, had a reduced role at the 2010 show, and is gone this year.
Still, sponsorships account for about 10 percent of show revenue. San Antonio's 2010 sales were about $27 million, with 40 percent coming from ticket purchases — and 57 percent of the attendees were women.
Trying to broaden its appeal, San Antonio is adding a wildlife and natural resources exhibit this year. "It should be both educational and entertaining," Phillips said. "We're trying to hit all demographics. We continue to try to become more diverse in our general attendance."
They won't hesitate to tell you everything's bigger in Texas, and the San Antonio show, like Houston's, reflects that: 5,000 volunteers, numerous rodeos and concerts, a large junior livestock show, and $8.5 million given to youth education in the form of auctions, show premiums, scholarships and more each year — totaling more than $105 million since the scholarship program began in 1984.
"Many of our volunteers are former scholarship winners; that's awfully rewarding that they believe in what we're doing," Phillips said.
The Houston show allotted more than $9 million to pay for 562 scholarships from the 2010 show. Overall, it's funding 2,004 scholarships in Texas college and universities.
"We are a charity, but we're also a big business," Shafer said.
Bruce Goldberg writes for the Denver Business Journal, an affiliated publication.
Paul Andrews stepped down in October as executive vice president at Kroenke Sports Enterprises, owner of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, to take the reins of the National Western Stock Show in Denver. He fielded questions from correspondent Bruce Goldberg about the move and how he is adjusting to his new position.
Why did you seek out this job?
ANDREWS: It was one in which I truly had a passion from my youth, No. 1. No. 2, it's a tremendously impressive board, led by Jerry McMorris. Also, it allows me to spend more family time than when I was at Kroenke Sports Enterprises. I was gone from my home at least 150 nights a year. That includes some travel, and getting home 10:30 or 11 at night after [home] games. That schedule starts to take a pretty big toll on you.
What are the main similarities between what you did at Kroenke Sports Enterprises and what you're doing at the National Western?
ANDREWS: The main similarities: We own venues (the National Western Events Center). No 2, there are lots of similarities in how you market tickets and how you market sponsorships. I've had little time in the first month to do too much. I'll be much more focused after a year, create a strategy from February on. And it's live entertainment. I'll be looking at rodeos and other things, see if any of my sports ideas would translate to arena entertainment. As a patron in past years, I would come to one or two of those. I need to see all the events.
How big is your learning curve for the National Western?
Andrews: Learning the actual details of how the events are put on, how the stock show itself works — those are things I'm still grasping, even after the first month. How people move in and out the cattle, the bison, the alpacas, the many animals that come through the stock show. I think I have a pretty good grasp of how the rodeo works. We basically need to sell tickets, and everything will be fine. The learning curve has been one of exactly how the operation works. I've had a lot of information thrown at me.
Bruce Goldberg writes for the Denver Business Journal, an affiliated publication.