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Bull Riding Catches On

Data research shows it is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the U.S. from 2003 to 2005.

October 21, 2006|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Randy Bernard is sitting pretty behind his modest desk, which, 11 years ago, was nothing more than a card table and a folding chair.

That was when Bernard took over as Professional Bull Riders Inc.'s chief executive and only employee. There were debts of $140,000 and only $8,000 in the bank.

Today, the part-time Woodland Hills resident says the PBR is worth "somewhere between $90 [million] and $125 million."

The 20 cowboys who in 1992 put up $1,000 apiece to incorporate PBR -- a renegade offshoot of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. -- have realized a pretty profit.

Bernard says, "We might still be a niche sport, but within three years, the sports world will have to give us credit as a mainstream sport."

Whoa, boy. Has someone been thrown into the air one too many times by a 2,000-pound bull named Fat Chance?

Bernard's optimism is based on PBR's momentum, though.

According to Scarborough Data Research, bull riding was the fastest-growing spectator sport in America from 2003 to 2005 with a 48.3% increase, and also the fastest growing sport from 2004 to 2005 at 11.8%.

With 18.2 million who either watched a PBR telecast or attended an event, the organization had slightly less than half the fans of NASCAR but ranked ahead of the Indy Racing League, extreme sports and "professional wrestling."

On the same cable television network that shows NHL games, Versus, bull riding has consistently attracted more viewers than the hockey, with an average 0.4 rating to the NHL's 0.3.

"PBR is one of the cornerstones of the network," said Marc Fein, senior vice president of programming and production for Versus. "And there's still upside for potential as they start to go more mainstream."

PBR events have appeared on the Fox network twice after NFL telecasts, and drawn 2.3 and 1.6, respectively. Their final Fox telecast is Oct. 29, and could be shown between an NFL game and Game 7 of the World Series.

"I'll be very disappointed if we don't do a 2.5 at the World Finals," Bernard said.

Last summer, PBR announced it would begin its 2007 season at Madison Square Garden, and the 3,600 premium seats, priced at $125, sold out within hours.

Other developments:

* Monday, the PBR announced a new $1-million, seven-day event in February at Oklahoma City that will bump annual prize money to more than $12 million.

* Thursday, the PBR aligned itself with one of NASCAR's biggest stars, announcing the Dale Earnhardt Jr. PBR Clash in January at Charlotte, N.C.

* With New York and Atlanta on the schedule for '07, Bernard's next target is Chicago in '08.

* Staples Center has expressed interest, and there is a likelihood an event there will be added to the schedule in 2008, in addition to the existing Anaheim event. Anaheim will be expanded to three days in 2007.

* The premier Built Ford Tough Series made its first international visit, to Chihuahua, Mexico, on Aug. 26-27. It sold out, and 25,000 showed up for a PBR parade.

* PBR plans a World Cup event beginning in 2007 in Australia, followed in successive years in Brazil, the United States, Mexico and, in 2011, Canada.

* The organization is moving from its Colorado Springs headquarters, building a 44,000-square-foot office complex in Pueblo, Colo., for its 96 employees.

* PBR opened offices earlier this year in Canada, which will hold 43 second-tier events. "Randy Bernard should give himself far more credit," said Tim Ryan, who serves a dual role as CEO of the Honda Center in Anaheim and executive vice president of the NHL Anaheim Ducks. "I don't know how you define a niche sport. Every sport, and every piece of entertainment has its own niche. That can be NFL, golf or PBR.

"Randy's sport is taken seriously by millions of viewers and people in the arena business. It's a sport that has its own audience. They'll continue to grow."

Corporate America has taken notice too. In 1995, corporate sponsorship of the series was $395,000.

Today, according to Bernard, it's $23 million.


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