Hang on tight
Published January 3, 2011
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."