Why Hollywood Is Bullish on Bull Riding

8 minute read

Inside a tight steel chute on a late-September night, Sunshine–1,450 lb. of ironically named aggression–is thrashing and fuming with everything he’s got. He rams his thick horns against the gate, desperate to get out into the ring. Finally it opens, and Sunshine darts into the dirt arena. The bull bucks and heaves while the 165-lb. cowboy on his back tries desperately to hold on. Douglas Duncan needs to stick it out for just eight seconds to score points, but Sunshine won’t cooperate: he ditches Duncan in three and then bounces around the ring in a dirt-kicking victory lap.

The crowd erupts, hooting and hollering like seasoned fans. Yet this scene was playing out not in Oklahoma, Texas or any of rodeo’s other traditional hotbeds but inside a hockey arena in Allentown, Pa., some 50 miles north of Philadelphia. At this stop on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) Built Ford Tough Series, the seats were filled not only with machinists in cowboy hats but also soccer moms, suit-wearing businessmen and 20-somethings dressed for a night on the town. “It’s the toughest sport out there,” says Anastasia Sheppard, a fan from Philly whose young son says he wants to be a bull rider.

If you haven’t yet encountered this twist on the old rodeo, expect to soon. Crowds like the one in Allentown are the reason that one of Hollywood’s most influential companies recently placed a big bet on the bulls. In April, WME/IMG, a sports-and-entertainment agency known for marketing stars like Oprah Winfrey and Ben Affleck, purchased PBR from a private-equity firm for around $120 million–more than 5,000 times what it cost to launch the tour less than 25 years ago. And they believe they may have gotten a deal.

Moves like this are increasingly common as sports leagues try to leverage their strengths in a world where everything from cat videos to celebrity tweets are competing for consumers’ attention. Attendance and viewership for traditional powerhouses like the NFL and NBA remain robust. But the rise of extreme sports and mixed martial arts has shown that there’s an appetite for live events that put fans closer to the action.

Bull riding is becoming the latest example. What began as a regional circuit, meant as approachable entertainment for rural Americans, has evolved into a global media player. PBR now stages events at arenas in urban centers like New York City, Chicago and Seattle and in countries including Australia, Brazil and Mexico. On Oct. 21, the 2015 World Finals will begin in Las Vegas–the capital city of spectacle–and all five days of the event will air live on CBS Sports Network. After that? WME/IMG plans to take the show to China in an attempt to hook that increasingly important market.

For the Hollywood heavyweights, the appeal of the PBR deal is simple: sports and live events are considered some of the last DVR-proof programming. Who would put off watching a game or a big awards show if you’ll just learn the results from social media? And the larger the audience, the more money you can make from advertising, rights fees and the like.

But that plan works only if enough people tune in. PBR has been growing steadily, earning fans and money in equal measure (PBR, being privately owned, doesn’t disclose its financial results). To make WME/IMG’s nine-figure bet pay off, bull riding will have to push even further into the mainstream–without alienating the longtime fans who have supported it from the start. Is the world ready to rally behind Sunshine and riders like Chase Outlaw and Ryan Dirteater? “They need a little more juice,” says Mark Shapiro, the chief content officer of WME/IMG, who pushed the deal to buy PBR.

The road to Hollywood never seemed longer than on the night of April 15, 1992, when a bunch of disgruntled bull riders met in a dank motel room in Scottsdale, Ariz. They felt underpaid and underappreciated while competing on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour. Bull riding is one of several rodeo disciplines, like steer wrestling and calf roping. But it’s easily the most exciting. So the riders decided to try to make it into a stand-alone sport. The dissident group swelled to 21, with each member staking $1,000–no small amount for some of the faithful. One rider, Michael Gaffney, recalls his wife, who was about to start medical school, railing at him for blowing their savings on the lark: “She said, ‘Are you out of your stinkin’ mind? You wrote a check for what?'”

After a few touch-and-go years, PBR began two decades of growth. The first break came in 1994, when Bud Light signed on as a sponsor. The Nashville Network, home of the Grand Ole Opry, started broadcasting events the next year.

Now those roots are a dusty relic. This year Ford renewed its naming-rights deal with PBR’s flagship series for more than $10 million, and top riders have earned over $5 million in prize money–and more from plastering corporate logos on their protective leather vests. The New York event often sells out Madison Square Garden, and the tour is broadcast nationally on CBS and streamed around the world. The romance publisher Harlequin has even used PBR riders as cover models for a line of themed books. When Gaffney sold his share of PBR in 2007, his $1,000 investment was worth $5 million.

Part of PBR’s appeal is its simplicity. If a rider can hold on to a bull for eight seconds, judges award him a score of up to 100. Half of that tally is based on the difficulty of the bull’s performance, the other half on how well the rider keeps up with the bull’s moves. The highest score in PBR history is 96.5.

The sport’s other selling point is its danger. Every attempted ride–and many events have 85 per weekend–is a potential eight-second car wreck. Riders are bucked off more often than not–1 out of 15 rides ends in injury–and the split-second drama makes for appealing theater, ideal for a short-attention-span, viral-sharing age. “It’s addicting,” says Nancy Hockenberry, who became a fan after seeing it on TV. Andrew Horning went to the Allentown event after noticing a PBR ad while watching college football. His verdict? “It’s badass.”

The seeds of the PBR deal were planted in late 2013, when William Morris Endeavor, a talent agency co-run by the hard-driving Ari Emanuel (the inspiration for brash überagent Ari Gold on the HBO series Entourage), acquired IMG, a sports-and-marketing powerhouse. IMG represents athletes like Novak Djokovic and Lindsey Vonn, but it is also a major force in producing programming, brokering media rights and putting on live sporting events.

Since the deal, the combined firm has been aggressively hunting for ways to profit from the crowded entertainment marketplace. Earlier this year, the company bought an e-sports talent agency–competitive video gaming is now a nearly $500 million industry–and on Sept 24 it announced a partnership with Turner to launch a pro e-sports league that will air in prime time on TBS.

That sort of synergy is how WME/IMG plans to bring PBR into living rooms from Boston to Beijing. “It’s not a matter of devising a strategy,” says Shapiro. “It’s a matter of already having a strategy and plugging into our army that can immediately execute.”

Translation: Sunshine may be coming to a grocery store near you. WME/IMG licenses merchandise for some 200 colleges around the country. Rather than handling it itself, PBR can now outsource that work to a company with nearly 5,000 employees in more than 25 countries. “You’ll see a pretty aggressive expansion of licensed products that carry the PBR brand,” says PBR CEO Sean Gleason.

The company also sees room to make the show better. When you’re in the stands, just feet from a rowdy bull, the intensity is immediate. On TV, the sheer force of the animal–and the skill and strength it takes to hang on to one–aren’t as apparent. Shapiro, who was formerly the head of programming at ESPN, wants to bridge that gap. “In the future you can see us putting sensors on our bulls or sensors on our riders so that when you’re watching at home, you can see their blood pressure, you can see the amount of strength that a bull is using,” he says.

Yet for all of PBR’s ambition, the sport still has what Gleason gently terms a “perception problem.” Or as rider Reese Cates more bluntly puts it, “People think we’re hillbillies from small towns holding on to animals.”

There is now $120 million invested in changing that impression. But the push into the mainstream carries the risk of collateral damage. After the event in Allentown, nearly a dozen riders dropped by a bar next to the arena and mingled with fans. Hockenberry was among them–and she worried that such moments may become scarce as PBR grows. “It would really be sad if they didn’t come out and talk to us,” Hockenberry says from the corner of the bar. “I want them to succeed and grow. But I don’t want them to lose where they came from.”

Shapiro considers those concerns a good problem to have. Besides, he’s too busy figuring out how to give those bulls and the “hillbillies” who ride them a shot of his juice. “I’m not going to rest,” he says, “until we get one of the bulls out on the red carpet.” Just stay away from Sunshine.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com