East meets West in fervor for bull riding

TV airtime, and a regular-guy culture, help propel bull riding from a rodeo feature to a million-dollar industry.

A bull charges through the gates, snorting and bucking. In seconds, a cowboy is thrown from its back and nearly trampled. A sea of faces - many topped with ten-gallon hats - gasp. For an instant, one almost believes that wind whistles through tumbleweed outside this arena.

Instead, it's snowing here in Worcester, Mass., an old industrial city west of Boston that the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) has chosen for its first 2005 event. The DCU Center here, where American revolutionary Isaiah Thomas once ran his presses, may seem an odd choice of venue for the spurred set. Yet it underscores the growing appeal of professional bull riding east of the Mississippi. Indeed, last year the PBR's TV fan base in this half of the country surpassed the one back West.

Part of the allure is obvious: a 150-pound cowboy competing against a 2,000-pound bull is more thrilling than the goriest of reality TV shows. Nostalgia plays its part, too. The rodeo, the cowboy, the bull: all recall the days of the American frontier, when the nation was flush with patriotism and hard work.

If many once dismissed bull riding and the rodeo as rural or provincial, fans today say they appreciate the "regular guy" qualities cowboys effuse - ones that seem increasingly rare in sports stars with their million-dollar contracts.

"They aren't hung up on themselves, there is no glorifying themselves," says Frank LeBlanc, a fan of rodeo who, as a lifelong resident of Plymouth, Mass., is attending his first live, professional bull riding show.

Across the country, afficionados - or at least the curious - are growing. In 1999, some 51 million viewers tuned into PBR coverage; that number swelled to 104 million in 2004. Last year, PBR events drew slightly more household viewers on average than regular NBA season games .

That more viewers tune in from the East, some say, may simply be a matter of novelty and access. As one man in the bull riding business put it: "Out [West], we can watch it just about every day." But its growing popularity nationwide also patterns the expanding American appetite for all extreme sports.

NBC first carried one event in 2001. This season, NBC will carry eight events and Outdoor Life Network (OLN), the same network that carries the Tour de France, will carry 31. In fact, bull riding consistently ranks as one of OLN's highest-rated programming.

It was the danger factor that first drew Mr. LeBlanc to watch rodeos as a college student at Colorado State University, where some of this native New Englander's dormmates were part of the university's rodeo team. "At first I was in awe of how nuts people were to do it," says LeBlanc.

"We say that rodeo is the original extreme sport," says Ann Bleiker, a spokeswoman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Colorado. "You wanna see a guy ride well, but you are also there to see what might happen. It's an adrenaline rush."

Origins of rodeo can be traced back to the late 1800s, says Richard Rattenbury, curator of rodeo at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma. Cowboys held casual contests of steer roping or saddle bronc riding to show off skills mastered on the job - except bull riding, which was added later as a spectator sport. "Bull riding has no cultural roots in the romantic West, cowboys never did that," says Mr. Rattenbury.

Yet the sight of men in chaps straddling a raging beast has always been among the biggest draws. And in the past 15 years, it has rapidly outgrown the bounds of a featured event at the rodeo. So much so that in 1992, 20 of the nation's top bull riders decided to turn their sport into a solo event, investing $1,000 each to form the PBR - a fund significant enough for some of the riders that they had to borrow to make the investment, says PBR chief executive officer Randy Bernard.

The investment turned out to be well worth it. In 1994, the total annual prize winnings were $660,000. By 2003, the total pot winnings had climbed to $9.5 million.

When the organization tried to move East with an event at New York City's Madison Square Garden in the late 1990s, "they laughed at us," says Mr. Bernard. "Our sponsors told us, '[Easterners] are not our type of fan.' "

Now as they fill arenas from Connecticut to Columbus, Ohio, there is still an effort to tailor events for audiences who may not be nostalgic for country music and feel more comfortable in the confines of the urban jungle rather than the farm. Rock music and pyrotechnic shows are as much a part of the atmosphere as the dank smell of manure.

Saturday night, the letters U-S-A burst into flames on the arena's dirt floor to kick off the show. Some call it the right kind of family fun. Says LeBlanc's wife, Jennifer: "Cowboys are wholesome, down-to-earth, regular guys. Most probably do it because of their families, who were doing it 100 years ago."

Since professional bull rider Lee Akin joined the PBR nearly a decade ago, the sport has changed dramatically. "It's become mainstream, so that everyone from an executive to a farmer can enjoy it," says Mr. Akin, who has become a spokesman for prostate cancer awareness and was chosen as Oklahoma's most eligible bachelor in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. "It's family fun, it's real, it's exciting."

"And it keeps growing," adds Bernard, dressed in cowboy boots and a hat. It's the "appeal of the West," he says. "[The cowboys] say 'Yes ma'am, no ma'am.' And they are out there, every time, trying their hardest."

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