A couple of hours before they threw their weight around (1,800 pounds or so), kicking, leaping and bucking in hopes of hurling a 160-pound cowboy into the upper deck at Madison Square Garden last Friday, the bulls looked anything but mad. They napped, despite the deafening music. Or they stared toward the 700 tons of rented dirt covering the arena floor. They didn’t even bother looking up when you leaned over a railing several feet above them and peered into the holding pen that served as their locker room. But the beasts, with names like Bad Action and Chicken on a Chain, were deceptively passive. It was like being at a Nascar race and seeing the cars up close, before the drivers rev the engines and you feel it in your chest.
Professional Bull Riders Inc. would love to emulate Nascar’s success in turning a popular niche sport into the big time. That’s why PBR is teaming up with the marketing arm of the Boston Red Sox. Yes, those Sox.
As we reported last year in “The Red Sox Secret Line-up,” Boston’s baseball franchise has become a model of innovation and creativity throughout sports. They’ve branched out and developed new sources of revenue beyond skybox fees and ticket sales. Fenway Sports Group, a subsidiary of the team’s parent company New England Sports Ventures, owns half of a Nascar team; sells online ads for other baseball teams; runs a fan photo business at NBA games; and consults with Dunkin Donuts and other companies on sports marketing. That’s in addition to the sales and marketing and other things it does for the Sox.
Bull riding may sound like a stretch, but it’s a logical next step, Brian Corcoran tells me. He’s an executive vice president at FSG who came to the Garden for the FSG/PBR announcement before Friday’s event. The sport, started by a group of enterprising riders in 1992, has a larger than expected and growing audience. About 1.7 million fans attend PBR events each year, and an estimated 100 million watch them on TV now that Fox, NBC and Versus broadcast some of the events. Sponsorship has grown to around $26 million. FSG wants to do for PBR what it’s done for clients like Boston College, where it’s tapped its network of Sox advertisers to quadruple BC sponsorships in recent years.
It’s easy to see the appeal of PBR events. The two-hour competition evokes both the Wild West and the X Games. It has loud music, pyrotechnics, and point standings, for the cowboys as well as the bulls (there’s even a new online fantasy league). Of course, the sport itself is the definition of extreme: ride a monster bull for eight seconds, and live to do it again. As PBR CEO Randy Bernard says, “You want to have the showmanship of WWF but with credibility.” Real bulls. Real injuries, which occur on average in one out of every 15 rides. Broken bones. Gored limps. Concussions. No fake blood necessary.
“You need to sponsor 15 guys to have five riding at the end,” says Steve Smith, chief marketing officer for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which introduced the Nascar-like team sponsorship to PBR. Matching shirts. Shared winnings.
When Enterprise researched what its customers care about, PBR ranked near the top, along with things like Nascar and family reunions. In fact, the passion for bull riding was three times greater than it was for Nascar.
Considering its roots in Red Sox Nation, FSG knows a thing or two about nurturing and capitalizing on passionate sports fans. It’s planning to add new partners beyond Wrangler, Copenhagen and the expected sponsors. It aims to make PBR a bigger presence when the bull riders come to town. “When the U.S. Open comes to Flushing, it takes over Rockefeller Plaza. How can we create experiences like that?” says Corcoran. “We’re looking to grow the sport in its entirety. This has only scratched the surface.”