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This Professional Sport Is No Easy Ride

September 16, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN

Is bull riding really a sport? Ask Chris Shivers, who lost six teeth when a bull gored him in the mouth.

"I see it as a sport," Shivers said. "It's probably the toughest sport going. Basketball players get hurt, and they sit out for two or three months."

Is bull riding really big business? The Professional Bull Riders tour stops tonight at the Arrowhead Pond, with real bulls and real athletes.

Scoff if you must, but the PBR tour meets just about any standard by which Americans judge professional sports.

First-class venues? These events aren't at the Circle B Ranch. The PBR tour visits many arenas with NBA and NHL tenants, including the Pond, America West Arena in Phoenix and the Rose Garden in Portland.

National television contract? The Nashville Network, signed through 2002, broadcasts each of the 29 events on this year's tour and estimates a cumulative viewership of 80 million.

Corporate sponsorship? PBR attracted more than $8.5 million this year from a stable of corporate heavyweights, including Bud Light and Dodge.

Millionaire athletes? The PBR tour anticipates its first this year, with 21-year-old phenom Shivers on pace to pass $1 million in career earnings. Shivers, of course, has his own Web site, where he sells posters for $10, T-shirts for $20 and limited-edition prints for $275.

Celebrity following? Rick Fox of the Lakers may be married to singer-actress Vanessa Williams, but Hall of Fame bull rider Ty Murray dates singer-actress-poet Jewel.

Degree of difficulty? "Most people think we're crazy to get on the bull at all," Shivers said.

The concept is simple: Riders must hang atop a one-ton bucking bull for eight seconds, never letting their free hand touch the bull or the ground. The better the rider handles the bull--and the tougher the bull is to ride--the better the score.

Bull owner Sammy Andrews once compared the surprisingly artistic interaction between bull and rider to the famous footwork between legendary dance partners Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

"True enough," Andrews said, "if you allow for the fact that Ginger's trying to kill you."

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