The Professional Bull Riders, an organization that held its first event of the 2011 season at Madison Square Garden this past weekend, is a bit like an adolescent boy. Not the riders themselves, although there are a few baby faces amidst their ranks, but the organization as a whole.
Founded in 1992, the Professional Bull Riders are in their adolescence, in comparison to the four major sports leagues. But when you come face to face with the strained bombast and unprovoked petulance of the PBR, it’s unmistakably clear that it’s still working its way through its troublesome teenage years.
The origin of much of this puerility is Flint Rasmussen, a P.T. Barnum–like figure who serves as the roving subconscious of the PBR. Decked out in clown makeup, a cowboy hat, and corporate advertising, Rasmussen scrambles around the ring dancing to eighties music, dismissing the NFL’s recently heightened concern for head injuries (“In bull riding, we say, ‘Great news, it’s only a concussion.’”) and insulting everyone from the New York Giants to the fans in the seats (“Y’all don’t know a bull from an elephant”).
It’s not just Rasmussen who assumes the fans have no idea what’s going on. The organization as a whole clearly believes — rightfully so — that the fans in New York don’t have a good grip on the sport. That’s why they had ride-by-ride and color commentators narrating the entire event over the loudspeakers.
It felt a bit like a bunch of red staters, armed with firecrackers and a bullhorn, ran amok in Madison Square Garden for a few hours after pounding a case of Four Loko. I’ll tell you one thing: It’s the first time I’ve been to MSG in quite some time and didn’t hear “Empire State of Mind.”
In PBR’s defense, the fireworks, jock jams, and celebrated sadism are no more in-your-face than at any other pro sporting event. Because I grew up watching an understated rodeo at the Travis County Exposition Center outside of Austin, Texas, it may just appear that way to me. I can imagine someone who spent his entire life watching only high-school football feeling similarly overwhelmed — and bored (commercial breaks are always an unwelcome addition to any live event) — at his first NFL game.
The senseless spectacle undermines the sport, but not entirely: Watching an ornery 2,000-pound animal rip out of the chute and do everything within its substantial power to toss the man on his back to the dirt is thrilling no matter the amount of distractions. Everyone comprehends the fact that bulls are big animals, but it sinks to a deeper level when the bull is snorting, bucking, and twirling a mere twenty yards away from your seat.
The bulls command a degree of respect. They’re sophisticated. They’ll spin violently one way, only to stop dead in their tracks and twist the opposite direction just as quickly. They’ll plant their front two feet, buck their back legs, and toss their head back with the full intention of smashing your face into the top of their skull. It’s easy to think that all it takes to be a successful bull rider is a distinct lack of common sense and a thinly veiled wish for death, but in actuality it takes quite a bit of balance and composure to stay atop a bull for eight seconds, the amount of time necessary to get a score. (Riders are given a score out of 100; 50 points for the rider and 50 points for the difficulty of the bull.)
Even if you stripped away the distractions, the sport suffers from an inherent handicap: There is no realistic way to extend the action. Only a little more than half of the riders manage to last eight seconds, often very narrowly. After spending two and a half hours at Madison Square Garden, the peculiar combination of hipsters, upstaters, and southern ex-pats in the crowd had only seen a few minutes of actual bull riding.
The same could be said of the NFL, where a surprisingly small amount of the 60 minutes allotted are spent on live action. But there is a narrative cohesion to the NFL, and nearly every other sport, that bull riding lacks. After a football play, the same two teams line up to run the next play. Even if you have a favorite rider, which not many of the fans appeared to, you’ll see him for eight seconds at most on any given night. Maybe the PBR will figure out how to make that more interesting. Remember: They’re still young.