By Barry Janoff
November 3, 2016: There are cowboys roaming around Las Vegas this week, and there may be cowboys coming to your town, and they’re not the stereotypical characters envisioned by Hollywood.
These are the men (and women) of Professional Bull Riders, which traces its heritage to the Old West, but with a modern incarnation that began in 1992 when a group of bull riders, according to PBR, "sought mainstream attention for the sport."
The main focus here is athletes who resemble average Joes and Jills much more than seven-foot tall NBA players or 300 lb. NFL linemen, climbing on board bulls that tip the scales at 1,500 lbs. and more.
Although strong among hardcore fans, PBR took a major step in April 2015 when it was acquired from private equity firm Spire Capital Partners by WME | IMG, which owns, operates and/or represents sports and entertainment events and talents worldwide. Among its properties is UFC, acquired this past July for $4 billion.
This week, PBR launched what it called the “largest marketing effort” and the “first fully integrated, season-long brand campaign” in its history. The “Vs,” multi-media campaign was timed to coincide with the PBR World Finals, being held Nov. 2-6 in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (CBS Sports Network).
The “Vs” effort, which is fronted by music legend Steven Tyler (Aerosmith), includes TV, print, radio, OOH, Internet and social media, and is intended to “deepen PBR’s emotional resonance with current fans while stoking interest among new ones.” Creative was done in-house by WME | IMG’s team in New York.
The TV spot sees Tyler dressed in cowboy garb walking across a dry, dusty desert (filmed outside of Las Vegas). As he sings the theme song, we get shots of top riders and bulls preparing for competition.
The roster includes Guilherme Marchi, Jess Lockwood, Paulo Lima, Tanner Byrne, Robson Palermo, Shane Proctor, Derek Kolbaba, Ryan Dirteater, Kaique Pacheco, Fabiano Vieira, Silvano Alves, Joao Vieira and JB Maundy; and top bulls Cochise, Wicker and Asteroid.
It comes as PBR said it is experiencing “the most successful year in its history,” with viewership on CBS Sports, which airs more than 100 hours of competition as well as the World Finals, up 12% (1.3M average viewers per broadcast) and new attendance records during the 2016 tour.
That was aided in part by a reality-oriented documentary, Fearless, which debuted on Netflix in August and followed the lives of PBR riders in Brazil who, via the Netflix promo, “On a journey from Brazil to the Las Vegas championships, risk it all to earn money, respect and titles.”
PBR national marketing partners include Ford, Wrangler, Jack Daniel’s, Dickies, Sonic, Caterpillar, Peak, Heinz BBQ Sauce, Stanley, Cooper Tires, Bass Pro Shops, Kawasaki, Blue Def, Monster Energy and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Chad Blankenship has been VP-Marketing and Communications for PBR since June. He has more than 20 years of marketing and advertising experience, including nearly eight years as Senior Director-Brand Marketing and Partnerships for ESPN and two years as SVP/Head of Marketing and Communications for El Rey Network, owned by renowned director Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids, Sin City).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Blankenship during World Finals week about the growth of PBR, the new marketing campaign, Steven Tyler and the appeal of cowboys and bulls.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Pro Bull Riders was started in 1992, but it seems of late that there has been a concerted effort to broaden the appeal, to reach casual and even non-PBR fans — as well as non-endemic marketing partners — without compromising what attracts your core audience. That is a similar tactic to one taken by Nascar around 15 years ago, with great success. Do you see similarities?
Chad Blankenship: I do. When you look at our tour, we are in the places you would expect us to be: Albuquerque, Arlington (TX), Oklahoma City, Nashville, Sioux Falls (SD), Billings (MT). But we’re also in Chicago, Anaheim and Madison Square Garden in New York, where we have a very strong event (in January). So we definitely are building our fan base beyond the core. When I worked at ESPN, I was involved with the relaunch of Nascar. One of the pleasures of that role was seeing the emotional connection that the sport has with its fans, and the strong connection between the drivers and fans. I see that with PBR.
NYSJ: Nascar drivers are marketed as being athletes who also are not very different from your friends, neighbors or relatives, everyday guys who are very good at what they do but not because they are seven-feet tall or weigh 300 lbs. Do you see PBR riders that way?
CB: I think that people see our riders as being heroic, having strong values, being men of their word and, frankly, as sex symbols. As a marketer, you are charged with stoking the fire of the brand and building brand awareness. Part of what makes this fun is that, as Americans, we all have inside of us what would be called the Western dream. It is very much part of the fabric of what helped to build our country. The American Dream is very interwoven in PBR. What we represent is both the legacy of the American cowboy and the mission to honor the American cowboy. There certainly is a heroism aspect to what our vision of an American cowboy is. And there is a heroism to watching, when you are at a PBR event, a 150 lb. cowboy climb on the back of a 1,500 lb. or 2,000 lb. bucking bull.
NYSJ: You stage the World Finals in Las Vegas and have another major event here in May. Do you see Vegas as being a link between the Old West and the modern world of entertainment, with PBR rooted in both?
CB: We definitely see that. PBR, at its roots, is about the people who were a big part of building the country. We are about celebrating the dynamics of the Western lifestyle. That is something that people across the country can relate to because it is part of the heritage of our nation. But PBR, in focusing on great athletes — the athletes being the riders and the bulls — there also is a strong entertainment component. So when you look at Las Vegas, especially during Finals Week where we have events for fans to enjoy, great concerts and our World Finals, and now being in the T-Mobile Arena for the first time, Las Vegas is the perfect venue.
NYSJ: PBR was acquired by global sports and entertainment marketing and talent agency IMG | WME last year. What have they brought to PBR that you could not have done on your own?
CB: They have been a great catalyst for our business. They are fundamentally in the story-telling business, operating primarily in the sports and entertainment landscape. There have been strategic opportunities we have been unlocking, with UFC, for example, but other businesses, as well. They are well-positioned with global sports rights, which has helped us via packaged opportunities that are created across the company. Also, they have a lot of local market insights. So as we expand — we have tours in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and the U.S. — collaboration with IMG offices in international markets has helped to take our business to the next level. The expansion we are undertaking in Canada and Australia will be pretty significant next year and beyond. And I feel that is a direct result of our IMG | WME partnership.
NYSJ: What response did you get from Fearless that ran on Netflix over the summer?
CB: Fearless has not only been wonderful storytelling about PBR but an amazing look at our Brazilian riders and the bulls they ride. Netflix told the story about the lives of these iconic cowboys, who work extremely hard and perform at the very highest level, in a way that gave PBR globally appeal. We have anecdotal evidence from direct communications with fans that they have became enthusiastic about PBR by watching it through Netflix, and that they are now coming out to our events and buying tickets.
"People see our riders as being heroic, having strong values, being men of their word and, frankly, as sex symbols."
NYSJ: Steven Tyler is represented by WME, so did you approach them or did his agent approach you?
CB: He became a WME client at the beginning of 2015. Around that time he decided that for the first time he was going to strike out on his own and create a solo album. He was really passionate about creating an album with songs that had more of a country focus. Meanwhile, we had been interested in crafting a new PBR theme song. We commissioned a couple of song writers to create it for us. We really loved the song, 'Hold On (Won’t Let Go)'. WME connected us with him and he loved it. He said he absolutely wanted to perform it.
After he produced it, he liked it so much that he wanted to put the song on his album. The initial intention did not include that. It was going to be used in conjunction with PBR events as our theme song. It was a song we owned. But Steven loved it so much that he asked for the rights to put it on his album (the C&W-themed We’re All Somebody From Somewhere). So of course we said yes. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country music chart (this past July). He is very much aligned with PBR. Steven is performing here as part of World Finals. He will do the theme song as part of his concert in T-Mobile Arena.
NYSJ: PBR has its athletic and physical side, but how important is it to show people that you are serious about the entertainment as part of your strategy to attract more casual and even non-bull riding fans?
CB: We’ve had music at events in the past, but this is definitely the biggest lineup we’ve had. It’s a nice mix of rock ’n’ roll and country and pop. Steven Tyler, Warrant, George Thorogood, Rick Springfield, Lita Ford and country stars Dustin Lynch and Jerrod Niemann. Which covers the array of what our fans want to hear. We like it. And the fans like it. PBR is — and this is not just a line, this is the truth — an overall entertainment experience that encompasses not only bull riding but also also compelling, really broad entertainment. Fireworks. Laser light shows. It’s fun. And it makes for a great date night. Really compelling family entertainment. We spend lot of time walking through the stands, the concourses, listening to our fans, observing, to see who is buying tickets. It is a wide swarth of folks. People in their 60s who are retired, 20-somethings on date night, lot of families and a lot of kids.
NYSJ: Why did PBR decide to come out now with what you have called the 'largest and first fully-integrated, season-long brand effort' in its history?
CB: It felt like it was time for the league to take this step. We've had marketing efforts, but they were more focused on driving ticket sales rather than overall brand awareness, with CBS Sports doing some of the brand platforms. But it felt like the time to take advantage of the growth and momentum of the league to invest in a brand effort that truly reflects the modern PBR. So we partnered with WME | IMG’s creative team in New York to capture the action and attitude of the league. We did a shoot in the desert outside of Las Vegas, video and still elements. It’s rooted in one of the key elements of PBR that separates us from a lot of the other sports. We are pitting in direct competition a heavyweight against a lightweight: A 150 lb. cowboy sitting on the back of a 1,500 lb. bucking bull. You don’t see that in any other sport. And it is still an athlete versus an athlete.
What also is unique about our dynamic is that you’ll see other cowboys cheering for each other, because they want the other guys to have a great ride. And you’ll see some people in the arena cheering for the riders and some cheering for the bulls. So the campaign is about highlighting the competitive tension that exists between the cowboys and the bulls. Honoring and respecting that battle. And celebrating both of them.
NYSJ: How important have your marketing partners and sponsors been to the growth of the PBR?
CB: We have very strong alliances, some of them long-term. Ford does a lot of research every year to reinforce that the PBR association is growing their business and selling trucks. Monster Energy is not only one of our national sponsors but also the title sponsor for our Canadian and Brazilian circuits. They see terrific value in our product. Then there are some that might be considered more endemic: Wrangler, Dickies, Bass Pro Shops.
NYSJ: There is a lot of focus on the health and well-being of athletes, and here riders get thrown to the ground and could possibly be stepped on or gored by bulls. What is PBR doing in terms of preventing, or at least minimizing injuries, and also longer term regarding the health of riders and bulls?
CB: There is a great deal of time and energy spent on preventive issues and on keeping the athletes safe, and that includes the bovines as well as the riders. Like other pro sports, we have a medical team and staff, including a doctor and a veterinarian, at every one of our events. Athlete safety, both for the cowboys and bovine, is of utmost priority. We take it very seriously. A couple of years ago, we instituted a helmet policy, similar to hockey, where we require all of the cowboys to wear helmets. But there is a grandfather clause for riders who have been involved for a certain amount of time, where they have the option not to wear a helmet. But our vision over the next couple of years is for all of the riders to wear helmets. We also have protective face masks to cover the face and jaw.
We have vests that cowboys wear (developed in the mid 1990s by PBR Livestock Director and former bull rider Cody Lambert) designed to absorb shock, dissipate any blows to the body and protect the riders from direct contact with the bull's hooves and horns. We are working with a safety company to institute next year a new safety vest that is lighter in weight than the current safety vests but sturdier, so it will protect the bull riders from certain injuries even more than the current safety equipment. New helmet technology is also being developed.
NYSJ: Do your partners have presence on-site during Finals Week?
CB: They do. There is signage and we have built a FanFest outside of T-Mobile Arena. I looking right now at the Jack Daniels’ Old No. 7 trailer. They also have been a long-time sponsor. It’s a great way for fans to get a hands-on experience at the World Finals and for our partners to get to know PBR fans a little bit better.
NYSJ: Do any of your guys want to channel their inner Steven Tyler and join the entertainment as singers?
CB: They do, but we prefer that, for now, they stay focused on the competition. But everybody has the opportunity to sing the National Anthem together.
Bull Shot: Pro Bull Riders Go Big With Bulls, ‘Boys, Steven Tyler
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