NEW ORLEANS — Rockets scream from the rafters, fireballs rise into the darkness and tremendous explosions rattle the New Orleans Arena. Brent Vincent sits on a railing wearing a bulletproof vest.
He's paying no attention to the thunder and flames. The vest is not to protect him from fireworks. He's watching a 2,000-pound bull named High Tide smash its horned head into the corral below.
Another bull about the same size left Vincent, 26, with a broken ankle just two months before. Another one left him with a dislocated shoulder, another with a separated shoulder, two others knocked him unconscious and yet another gave him that scar beneath his blond hair.
Several other bulls, however, helped him earn $64,277 in prize money last year, with sponsors paying him thousands more.
"High Tide, he's a rank bull," Vincent says with a grin. "Rank."
That means wild, nasty, hard to hang on to. A rank bull is precisely what every cowboy hopes to draw when he competes in this new, fast-growing quirk of an age-old sport.
The sport is not rodeo. There's no calf-roping, no steer-wrestling or barrel racing. There is not even broncobusting. "No sissy events," as one rider put it. The sport is bull riding, all bull riding, all mayhem all the time.
As soon as one rider is helped from the New Orleans Arena a short time later, blood trickling from behind his ear after a bull gored him in the head, the next bursts from the chute atop another bull, only to be thrown in 4.3 seconds, head-butted and left in the dirt clutching ribs that have been broken before and feel like they are again.
The rider picks up his hat and hurries out of the arena. Another launches from a different chute.
"Ride that bull!" the announcer cries.
Six thousand fans howl. It will continue like this for 2 1/2 hours
Ten years ago, a small group of professional bull riders gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz. They had the most dangerous job in the rodeo business, lured the bulk of every crowd, but were not being fairly paid, they felt.
They decided to break away from the rodeo circuit, trade in its country-fair feel for explosions, spotlights and sponsors, and see if they couldn't drag bull riding into the present. Twenty riders put up $1,000 apiece in seed money.
The first season, 1994, consisted of eight events with $250,000 in prize money from sponsors. An average of just 1.5 million watched each of the events on cable television. No one expected the tour to last.
Eight years later, there are 29 events, most held in urban centers from Anaheim to Baltimore, and $9.5 million up for grabs. Last season the Professional Bull Riders tour, or PBR, drew 90 million cable viewers, enough to prompt the networks to tap in. CBS, NBC and Spanish-language Telemundo are all broadcasting events this season, some slated to follow NFL games or NASCAR events.
The first network broadcast in one market drew more viewers than several other sports that weekend, including a PGA tournament, an NHL match and a college basketball game. The market: New York City.
Along the way, a new type of celebrity has emerged, niche stars for certain, but ones whose fans know if they ride right-handed or left, who know the names and bucking styles of the bulls, and how their favorite rider scored last weekend.
"Chris Shivers rode Hammer, right?" said attorney and bull riding fan Greg Balmer, who had watched on television at home in Chicago. "Well, actually he didn't ride Hammer. Nobody has. That's a nasty bull."
With very few exceptions, the riders are young cowboys from tiny towns who neither dreamed of nor sought celebrity. They grew up hopping on, and getting bucked off, goats and calves around the farm, graduating to steers, then big bulls.
This year the top rider will earn more than $1 million, and tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars more from sponsors such as U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, Ford trucks, Resistol hats. If you don't stay on, though, you don't get paid, and many riders will spend more on airfare and meals than they win.
But everyone gets to watch himself on network television. Many are semi-famous. To make a living having such giddy, dangerous fun is more than most ever hoped for.
"You know, I ain't never had a job," says 20-year-old rookie Craig Sasse of St. Peter, Ill.
"I made $10,000 riding bulls when I was 14. Made about $67,000 in the PBR. I never wanted to do anything else, but I thought I'd have to. This is great."
Vincent thinks so too. When he made a promotional appearance at a Bourbon Street bar, the disc jockey announced that the first woman to remove her top would receive his intimately placed autograph. The tops flew. The next day the cowboy from Sulphur, La., was the star attraction at a children's hospital. That night, at another watering hole, he was clearly happy to be the center of attention again.
"Hi, ladies," he called as three women and a man strode in. He ignored the man.
"Hello," the women said in unison.