"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.