The lights went down. “This is not a rodeo … this is the one and only PBR!” roared the announcer, drawing a distinction between the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association, which features bull riding alongside other rodeo events like barrel racing and the controversial calf roping), and the PBR, which has loftier, more mainstream aspirations, and has since its 1992 founding tried to position itself as an extreme sport, “the toughest sport on dirt.” (And, like other mainstream sports, bull riding has juicing rumors to contend with. The PBR tested the weekend’s top performing bull, Big Bucks, for steroids as part of a new program it plans to grow in response to concerns of independent stock contractors who raise and care for the bulls on tour and stand to profit from their success.) A raucous, Vegas-esque opening featured smoke, laser lights, fireworks and a strangely compelling video of the cowboys hailing cabs, exiting the 2-3 train, napping on park benches, talking on cells in Grand Central Station and riding the bull statue on Wall Street, all set to KISS’s “Back in the New York Groove.”
Then, one by one, the men burst out of the chutes aboard the bulls, which weigh anywhere from 1,200 to 2,200 pounds. Most bucked furiously, spastically and in a tight circle. Once they’d dispensed with their flapping human cargo, they bucked a few more times for good measure and occasionally lunged at the “bullfighters,” whose job it was to distract them while the cowboys scurried out of the ring. Few bulls looked interested enough to actually pursue their tormenters. They glanced around the arena, agitated and shellshocked, before hastening back into the chutes. If one had to guess, they were perhaps thinking: “This again? Screw them.”
Mr. Mauney, aboard a bull called Patsey’s Pride, was one of the las
t cowboys to ride. He wore silver-fringed chaps, his free hand tracing sharp, quick, choreographed patterns in the air, and his body seeming to move less than others’ had. His red helmet gave him the appearance of a high-tech rodeo cowboy for the YouTube generation (the helmets, worn mostly by the younger guys, say “extreme sport” better than any of the press materials trying to position bull riding as a sexier Nascar or a more dangerous skateboarding). “That was the best one we’ve seen all night,” said a man sitting in front of The Observer, somewhat reverentially, to his two friends.
A cowboys’ score consisted of 50 points for the bull’s performance and 50 for the cowboy himself. No one had ever scored 100. If a bull didn’t buck enthusiastically enough, the judges would offer a re-ride on a different animal.
“This is my imitation of somebody going to work in New York City and meeting a cowboy on the sidewalk!” cried Flint, the rodeo clown, keeping the crowd’s attention between riders. He strode purposefully across the arena, head down, and then stopped dead in his tracks and mock-gaped at an imaginary cowboy. The crowd laughed heartily.
Saturday Morning, Hawaiian Tropic Zone, Times Square
“In order to have any credibility, you have to be able to be successful in New York,” said Mr. Bernard on Saturday morning at the PBR’s first-ever bull draft, held at Hawaiian Tropic Zone. (“We liked the TV screens,” he said, by way of explanation.) “Our sponsors want us here, our PR/marketing folks want us here, so that’s why we come [to the city],” he continued.
Jeff Kent, the PBR’s vice president of marketing, said Friday that ticket sales were up 20 percent over last year’s event. (The Saturday night event sold out, and ticket sales for the weekend were about 30,000, a PBR rep later said.) “We sign year by year,” Mr. Kent said of the partnership with Madison Square Garden, adding that they’re contracted through 2009. The PBR is lately ubiquitous on television, with what Mr. Bernard estimates to be 500 hours of programming on VERSUS, Fox and NBC. “Our No. 1 national marketing vehicle is our television broadcasts,” Mr. Hunt had said. “We try to build our viewing audience in these kinds of markets.”
Mr. Bernard wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a vague Southern accent, but he could be an accountant as easily as a bull-riding CEO. He has kind eyes and a friendly manner. He was never a bull rider himself, but he seems genuinely hurt by his sport’s critics, who are naturally more prevalent in a market like New York than Tulsa. “I’d like to educate ’em,” he said. “I welcome and invite anyone who wants to come down and see how we take care of our bulls. I think that it’s unfair to make accusations … when you haven’t even spent a minute behind the chutes.”
The night before, a group called Friends of Animals had staged a protest outside the Garden. Edita Birnkrant, the group’s New York City campaign coordinator, called bull riding “animal abuse portrayed as sport.” Reached by phone Saturday, she estimated that two dozen people had showed up to join the previous night’s “vigil.” “The entire concept and reality of bull riding is just a farce,” she said. “It’s all about these wild beasts being dominated by these tough guys, and nothing could be further from the truth. They’re domestic animals who are tormented in order to buck so the riders can make a competition out of it.” Ms. Birnkrant pointed specifically to the flank straps tied around bulls’ bellies, the riders’ spurs and electric prods that she said are used in the bucking chutes to shock the bulls into more hysterical bucking.
She said her group has not tried to engage the PBR on any of their complaints. “What we’re saying is not that we’re trying to impose some sort of regulation, or that there’s a more humane way to do this. We’re saying that this kind of event shouldn’t exist at all.”
Mr. Bernard, for his part, denied that the flank straps are painful to the bulls: “The biggest fallacy out there is that we tie up the testicles. We put a rope on the flank, and we do that because when [the bulls are] young, it agitates them to try to take it off. It’s not hurting him. He just wants it off.” (“A bull will buck without one, but it just won’t kick up and out,” Mr. Mauney had said.) Mr. Bernard vehemently denied the use of electric prods. “Everything the stock contractors do is positive reinforcement,” he said. “We will always have prods that our guys will carry for their defense, but if anyone’s caught using it for any purpose besides to defend themselves, we’ll fine ’em or kick them off the tour.”
All around Mr. Bernard, cowboys mingled with the stock contractors over a spread of cold cuts and pasta salad, selecting the evening’s rides one at a time as tape of the bucking animals played on large screens behind them. PBR president and co-founder Ty Murray, a legendary cowboy in his own right, sat down to eat with the singer Jewel, his longtime girlfriend, at the next table, and Mr. Bernard called out his greetings.