Sports Nut

Eight Seconds in Heaven

Learning to love rock ’n’ roll bull riding.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

The lights dim as the show begins. Lasers, fire, and fog fill the arena. Your ears ring as guitars start to wail. Amid the collective roar of thousands of fans comes the unmistakable high pitch of female hysteria. The demigods, ripped wildmen with lots of strut and swagger and leather and fringe, emerge from darkness one by one. For a minute, you’re disoriented. Is this a Van Halen reunion tour? A Whitesnake concert? Then your nostrils prickle with the ripe, repurposed-grass scent of cattle dookie. This isn’t a 1980s hair band. These are professional bull riders.

Bull riding has traditionally been the money shot at a conventional rodeo, the snot-and-guts finale after three or so hours of more sedate events—bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc, calf roping, team roping, and barrel racing. Professional Bull Riders, Inc., founded in 1992 *, turned the climax into the whole show. Unlike conventional rodeo organizations like the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, which sanctions about 700 rodeos a year, the PBR has concentrated its best riders and rough stock into the 29-city Built Ford Tough Series. And unlike the old-school rodeo associations, the PBR is actively courting younger fans with a concerted effort to Get Hip.

A live PBR event turns traditional rodeo theatrics inside out. Instead of the classic Americana entry with rodeo queens bearing flags ahorseback and a stage-struck local girl warbling out “The Star Spangled Banner,” you get the blaring rock introduction, the background of strobes and flame. The statement is obvious: Cowboys have brass nuts! Bulls are dangerous! Grrr grrr! Such pyrotechnics may amuse novice fans checking out bull riding as an alternative to NASCAR or a Franz Ferdinand show, but for a die-hard bull-riding enthusiast, the flashy style can grate. In promoting itself as “the original extreme sport,” the PBR has stepped away from its Western roots, suggesting that the spectacle is as important as the competition.

For those wishing to avoid the gaudy showmanship, watching the PBR on television is a better option. The weekend broadcasts on the Outdoor Life Network are excellent—all of the action and none of the jive. Bull riding is a visually arresting sport: A man lowers himself into a bucking chute, mounts the back of a bull, wraps one gloved hand in a braided rope, and with a nod of his head flies into the dirt-filled arena. If the rider hangs on for eight seconds without slapping the bull with his free hand, he gets a score. Half the point total comes from the prowess of the rider, the other half from the performance of the bull (with 100 total points possible). Once you grasp the basics, bull riding looks less like a 150-pound lunatic matching wits with a pissed-off pot roast than a TiVo-worthy gladiator ballet.

The PBR bolsters the flash-pot rock ’n’ roll fluff by promoting its cowboys as legitimate athletes. The organization still hasn’t produced an Elway, A-Rod, Jordan, or Earnhardt Jr., though. The closest PBR has come to a breakout star is now-retired Ty Murray, who, despite his stellar bull-riding performances, was more widely known for being the on-again, off-again beau of bosomy folk-pop singer Jewel.

It’s possible that the PBR’s breakout star won’t be human. An animal-rights activist might raise a skeptical eyebrow, but the bred-to-buck bulls are billed as loving the game, eager to engage in an eight-second battle of will and skill. The more men a bull bucks off, the higher the bull’s profile. Two-time Bucking Bull of the Year  Little Yellow Jacket was the big rock star this year. Known for his unpredictability—and his 70 buck-offs in a five-year career—he was the one to watch, until 1997 PBR World Champion Michael Gaffney got the best of him in April by tying the all-time high score of 96.5 in Nampa, Idaho. Fans follow the performances of Cash, Sling Blade, Ugly, Hammer, and Mossy Oak Mudslinger, learning their quirks and idiosyncrasies (fights in the chute, spins hard to the left, likes to hook a cowboy when he’s down, etc.), as well as their stats. Reigning world champion Chris Shivers no doubt wishes he got that much attention.

Some riders from the old-fashioned PRCA say joining the PBR is like a country singer going to Branson—a low-stress, low-prestige money gig for those who don’t have the cojones to be relentless road warriors. Still, the PRCA knows which way the hay is blowing: In 2003, the austere organization launched Xtreme Bulls, a bull-riding-only tour that piggybacks on some of its regular rodeos.

How far might the PBR and PRCA go in their quest for broader appeal? An athletic organization has every right to expand its fan base. The possibilities for courting the young-n-hip are endless: Kid Rock doing color commentary. A hybrid Chippendales/PBR tour. A Stetson trucker hat. But hopefully the cowboy way won’t extend too far beyond cock rock. Even the most open-minded early adopter might not be ready to see her favorite cowboy bucking out of the chute on the back of A Heartbreaking Bull of Staggering Genius.

Correction, May 28, 2004:This article originally misstated the date when Professional Bull Riders, Inc. was founded. It was 1992, not 1994.(Return to corrected sentence.)