"You haven't lived," a friend's father once told me, "until you've been to a rodeo." This was a man who had lived, in that sense, because he had spent much of his life in Utah and Idaho, and had been to any number of such events. I had not lived, in that sense, because I have lived in California, New Jersey, and in New York City, and so on narrower and louder streets, and under smaller skies, and within comparatively short subway-riding distance from places and things like the old, flaking-brutalist Shea Stadium and the flaky, brutal Mets that played there. You can live without having been to a Mets game. It may be better if you did that, actually. But that's not how I've lived.
If it matters, this was not some culture warring partisan saying this, and he wasn't saying it in hopes of scoring some sort of partisan point on behalf of Real America or the vast but not-so-populous part of America that has regular access to that particular entertainment. He was saying, as he always did in our limited interactions, just what he was saying: that there is something unique and worth-doing and wonderful about a rodeo. I have not, by his standards, quite lived yet—I got married and got older and did a bunch of other mostly goofy, feckless, city-folk things; I can now count among them spending some time very near the bulls and riders of the Professional Bull Riders' Built Ford Tough Tour when it visited New York's Madison Square Garden last weekend. PBR, it must be said, is not a rodeo; it is (to reiterate) professional bull riding, and as such just one component of rodeo, which is a bigger sport and bigger thing, if not nearly as big a business as PBR has become. I still have some living to do, in other words, but I have a better idea, maybe, of what my friend's father was talking about. I'm just not quite sure he was talking about Professional Bull Riding.
PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS IS fairly fond of its founding narrative, for obvious and totally reasonable reasons. It's a great story: during the last months of George H.W. Bush's presidency, 20 bull riders got together at a motel in Scottsdale, Arizona, and pledged $1,000 of their own money to start what is now a multimillion-dollar concern. The PBR season now includes 29 events in 23 states and pays out over $10 million in prize money; riders are not just from Texas and Oklahoma but Brazil, Australia, and Canada. Events are televised on NBC, CBS, and the CBS Sports Network in the United States, and PBR events sell out arenas and stadiums. It's a success story.
PBR is also—not coincidentally and probably inevitably—almost excruciatingly synergized, leveraged, and sponsored at every level and in every facet. The struggle at the center of the sport is simple, thrilling, violent, and brief. A man on a bucking bull holds onto a rope with one hand and one hand only for as long as he can; the bull, which has been bred to do so and is in no physical or spiritual discomfort—the bucking "has nothing to do with the genitals as some uneducated detractors would attest," the PBR's glossy pamphlet on Animal Welfare rather huffily explains—does its snorting and its instinctive and oddly calm-eyed best to throw him off. A judge assigns a score based on style and the relative rage of the bull. There are fine points, but no real need to know them in order to appreciate what's happening. It's potent stuff. The question, for PBR, is how best to sell it to the largest number of people. The answer, at least in terms of the Monster Energy Invitational, is "relentlessly, and loudly."
If every big sporting event is at least a little bit like this—all those T-shirt cannons, halftime entertainments, dance teams, and in-game statistics are unfailingly Brought To You By—PBR seems exceptionally like this. This isn't to say that the New York Yankees wouldn't be Goldman Sachs Presents The New York Yankees Brought To You By Sprite if they could be, but they fundamentally can't be: the team is too sacred—or at any rate, too established—an institution to bear the brand of another. Something as new as PBR does not have that problem. It has, in fact, the opposite problem. And so it can't afford to be sentimental, or really anything other than giddily promiscuous, in its pursuit of partners.
In the near term, this leads to things like the VIP event that preceded the first night of the Monster Energy Invitational, in which various men in large hats thanked each other and discussed exciting new partnership opportunities. "We're about good music, good-looking girls, and great athletes," Monster Energy CEO Mitch Covington announced, by way of explaining how his company wound up partnering with PBR. The bar at the event was stocked with sponsor beverages, and various VIP Reception Event Types drank tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, suspiciously copper-colored Monster Energy Drink, Jack Daniel's, or, most riskily, a cocktail that combined the latter two, and which brought some hugely predictable bad vibes to the fore. ("Then just watch al-Jazeera," a Cheetos-complected young woman in a cowboy hat snapped at a former conversation partner. "Seriously.") Two types of ravioli were available. Tiny Lister, the ill-tempered giant from the Friday movies, who also has some sort of promotional relationship with Monster Energy, stalked through the room, posing for pictures. This is all par for a certain type of course, admittedly, and something that—give or take the stocky, solemn, hat-clad Brazilian riders and little pods of smiling Monster Energy Girls—goes on in suites at every sports venue. It's how business gets done.
And yet PBR has not quite mastered the difficult task of keeping all this queasy synergizing off the actual product for sale. The monetization is on everything, and it is loud. Sponsor names are appended to the riders' vests and shirts and hats, and to the chutes from which the riders and their respective unhappy-seeming bulls emerge. The platform from which announcers Clint Adkins and Brandon Bates hold forth and further introduce synergies into the proceedings has been crafted to look like the grille on a Ford F-150. (A truck that, come to think of it, slowly circled the ring during a lull in the action, while Adkins and Bates hymned its EcoBoost engine.) The men tasked with protecting riders from those tremendous and blithely vengeful bulls are the Dickies Durabullfighters. Flint Rasmussen, the former schoolteacher who wears clown makeup and picks up the between-bull slack through a combination of dance moves and arena-scale crowd work, does so in a red-white-and-blue outfit bearing the logos of Cooper Tires and Wrangler. The league's promotional material is tattooed with little ®'s and ™'s, and for nearly 20 minutes in the middle of the evening, things simply stopped as Adkins and Bates introduced commercials that played on the Garden's giant video screens.
This was followed by an implausibly lengthy KissCam interlude—oddly unsponsored, it felt like a time-killing endeavor—that spanned the entire length of Todd Rundgren's "I Don't Wanna Work" and then some, and segue'd into a dance party of similar length. The command "DANCE" flashed on the screen, and people danced. This part, as much as those flinty bullfighters taking a chance on themselves and their sport in an Arizona motel, is also an American story. It's how a sport becomes a sports league in 2013, or at least a big part of that. It's the process, visible in real time, of a dusty western pursuit—dangerous, strange and violent and fascinating and weirdly powerful to watch up close—cleaning up and coming indoors. It isn't necessarily much fun to watch, because of course it isn't.
BUT THAT IS NOT all there is, here. If all that selling is wearying and ceaseless, and it is indeed wearying and totally fucking ceaseless, then there is also the thing itself. And it's here, at the simple center of all those howling synergies, that there's something worth celebrating.
The media contingent for the event was placed not in a suite or a distant press box but in a small corridor directly adjacent to the chutes. From those chutes, one after another, came the bulls and the riders. Dirt was flung into the press pen; riders sprung up on the fence to avoid seething, circling bulls; a man with the gingerbread complexion of someone who spends a great deal of time outdoors and the look of a beefier Steve Spurrier, paced in front of us in a black leather coat and a pressed white shirt with a red mock turtleneck underneath, issuing orders into a headset. Late in the night, he took off his black cowboy hat and handed it carefully and wordlessly through the rails to a woman I can only presume was his wife. The assembled press recoiled—even the photographers in their army jackets—as the bulls burst from the chutes.
The bulls were impossible, awe-inspiring things: triumphs of applied eugenics that had been bred—a pair of bulls, Adkins and Bates explained, were literal clones, hailing from the same ranch and claiming near-identical DNA—to explode in sudden thrashing fury when the chute was opened but which were otherwise as docile and gentle-eyed as any of their brethren. And so they leapt and whipped and raged, and the riders hung on or they didn't, and then the bull bucked for another moment or so—frightening moments, in many cases, as the pitched riders scrambled to get out of the way—before seemingly awakening to their other nature and trotting happily out a larger chute to somewhere backstage. When the event was over, I looked in on the bulls in their stalls, where they stood around doing the usual slow, sweet-natured bovine thing. "That's a lot of meat!" a photographer barked happily, at me or at the cow or both, as he headed back to the interview room where the night's winning rider, a 23-year-old Texan named Stormy Wing, would answer a few questions.
If the bulls were impossible creatures, the riders were, at the very least, unlikely ones. The Brazilian riders who dominate the tour were short, cloudy-faced, and stupendously focused; the American riders emoted in ways alternately overstated—Jory Markiss, after a vicious involuntary dismount, defiantly fired his mouthpiece in his bull's direction—and exuberantly understated. There were a number of competitors whose names courted implausibility—Ryan Dirteater, Chase Outlaw, the aforementioned Stormy Wing. But these are real athletes, and these are their real names: Dirteater is Cherokee, Outlaw's parents Greg and Charlotte evidently have a sense of humor, Wing was born during a storm. The riders mostly have the slightly absent look of the obsessive and inhabit unusual physiques—they're roughly gymnast-sized, but lack the gymnast’s peculiarly triangular proportions—and they do this wildly risky and difficult thing for a living, which is to say that they seem much like any other professional athlete.
Wing, when he made his way back to the media room, was polite, scrupulously yes-sir/no-sir and blithely at a loss when asked to explain the very good evening he had atop an animal more than a hundred times his size. "It's a reaction," he told me when I asked him what he thought up there, in there, back there. "It's your mind, your subconscious mind. We think about this all the time: when we're at home, eating lunch, with our families. So when it happens, we're prepared, we just react. You think too much about it, that's when you lose." In the center of Madison Square Garden—under the noise and pyro effects and sudden Beyonce-blurts over the PA, in that chaos of commerce, on some implacable giant that wanted him off—Stormy Wing found eight seconds of quiet and held on. That is not quite what PBR is selling, but it seems like the valuable part.
David Roth is a writer for and co-founder and editor of The Classical. He is a columnist at Vice and Sports On Earth, co-writes The Daily Fix blog-column for The Wall Street Journal, and writes for other places when he has time. When he doesn't have time, he writes things on Twitter, @david_j_roth.