Ride a bull for a living, and you can be the richest rag doll on earth. All you have to do is last eight excruciating seconds on an agitated 1,800-lb. animal that would like nothing more than to smash you against the sideboards of the arena, fling you off its back and gore you with its horns. On the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour, concussions and broken bones are as common as Wranglers and brass-buckled belts. "Most bull riders are what you call gristleheads," says Mike Lee, 23, who has won $2 million in five years of riding. "If you're intelligent, you wouldn't do it." Win the PBR World Championship, though, and the payoff is sweet: a $1 million check that can go a long way toward easing the saddle sores (or worse) that you'll have the next day. Or week.
Bull riding has always been about macho cowboy culture. Now it has something else going for it: a burgeoning TV audience. On cable channel oln, bull riding is among the highest-rated shows, handily beating broadcasts of NHL hockey games. An nbc broadcast of the PBR finals last year drew more viewers than the average audience for the Stanley Cup finals. And now Fox is on board. After Sunday football games this fall, the network plans to show two PBR events, including a broadcast from the finals in Las Vegas on Oct. 29. "This is a pivotal moment for our sport," says PBR ceo Randy Bernard. "It's our chance to take it to another level."
The PBR began in 1992, when a group of 20 riders broke away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and formed their own tour (rodeo also includes events like steer wrestling). Today it's a $46 million business, and revenue has grown 150% over the past five years. From 2003 to '05, the tour's adult fan base soared 48%, to 18 million, far outpacing the growth of nascar or any other major sport, according to Scarborough Research. Sponsorship revenue has nearly tripled since 2000, to $22.5 million. Advertisers like Yamaha seem to be betting that bull riding will hit the big time. They like the demographics of the fans: the average household income is a healthy $66,000, and 40% are women.
If the sport does take off, it will be thanks in part to dumb luck. nbc decided in 2002 to stop paying huge fees for sports like NBA basketball and started stacking its lineup with niche events--bull riding, arena football, Champ Car racing. The PBR paid the network for airtime, guaranteeing that nbc wouldn't lose money if no one tuned in. As it turned out, audiences liked watching corn-fed young dudes cling to enraged animals for dear life. "People want to see a big bad som'bitch hoof the s___ out of somebody," says Jerry Nelson, a top bull owner. "They want to see a little blood and guts." They're usually not disappointed: 1 in 15 rides results in an injury to the rider. In 2000, one rider died in the ring.