KAI RYSSDAL: If you were watching football last Sunday and saw the Rams take on the Chargers, you might have caught a glimpse of something unfamiliar after the game. Professional bull riding. You might think of it as one event at a rodeo more than a stand-alone sport. But it's been lassoing in some pretty impressive audiences. Some pretty impressive dollar figures as well. Not too surprising, perhaps. It's a little bit like car racing. There's always that small chance there'll be a big crash. The Professional Bull Riders World Finals finish up this weekend. We sent Marketplace's Jane Lindholm into the ring.
JANE LINDHOLM: Bull riding is not for the feint of heart. Or the feint of body. Hanging on to 1,800 pounds of bucking and kicking bull with one hand takes not only bravery, but a high tolerance for pain. Even those who last the full eight seconds still have to hurl themselves off the beast.
GREG POTTER: I've blown out both my knees, I've broken my jaw, cracked a couple of ribs, broke an ankle, that's about it I think.
That would be about enough for most people. But at 35, Greg Potter is one of the oldest men on the professional bull riders circuit, and he's showing no signs of stopping.
Neither is the circuit itself. Bull riding is the fastest growing sport in America. The past five years have shown it far exceeding the growth of any of the country's more traditional moneymakers.
Sean Gleason is the chief operating officer of Professional Bull Riders Inc. The PBR runs and manages the tour circuit and Gleason says it's rising popularity is obvious.
SEAN GLEASON: We've seen a huge increase in attendance at off-site autograph signings and just the general recognition of our riders. In fact, we've almost doubled from 10 million fans that watched or attended about four years ago, to nearly 20 million today.
Bull riding was always the most popular of the traditional rodeo events, but riders struggled to make a living.
So, in 1992 20 riders decided it was time to break away. They invested a thousand dollars each and formed the PBR.
It was a risky move: Imagine if track and field splintered from the Olympics. But it paid off. The PBR is now worth a reported 90 to $125 million.
And with major TV contracts at NBC and Fox, those in the industry see the rise continuing.
Agent Mark Nestlen represents many of the top riders.
MARK NESTLEN: We are ranked as the number 7 sport in North America in network television ratings. So you can say that where bull riding and the PBR have come to is either at the bottom of the top-tier sports or the top of the second-tier sports.
The live events have certainly taken their cues from the top-tier sports. The start of the World Finals in Las Vegas last weekend was a raucous mix of pyrotechnics and high-decibel rock music punctuated by eight seconds, or less, of extreme adrenaline. Oh, and plenty of product placement.
But as the strobe lights swept through the crowd, not everyone was wearing a cowboy hat.
NESTLEN: You would be very surprised by the demographics of the sport of bull riding.
Cowboy agent Mark Nestlen.
NESTLEN: You go to the events and you see people and you think, Wow, these aren't cowboys, these aren't rodeo people.
In fact, PBR's Sean Gleason says the new breed of bull riding fan has a better comparison.
GLEASON: We appeal to a younger, slightly more affluent demographic. In fact, we have more crossover with NASCAR and with the NFL than we do with rodeo.
And Mark Nestlen says that's translating into packed arenas in places you don't typically see chaps and spurs.
NESTLEN: We sell out Worcester, Massachusetts; Tampa, Florida; Unkasville, Connecticut. We sell out Reading, Pennsylvania. Put a cowboy hat on and walk through New York City and you actually get treated better than you get treated in other parts of the country.
Part of the reason mainstream sports fans may be drawn to the sport is its old-fashioned image.
Bull riding has yet to have any Barry Bonds or Kobe Bryants. Riders sign autographs after every event, and you'll hear a lot of howdy ma'am's and yes sir's in the arena.
But PBR's Sean Gleason knows that increased fame poses a challenge to the cowboy way of life.
GLEASON: One of our struggles in the long term will be to keep our athletes humble as they start to make millions upon millions of dollars, as we hope they do. But it certainly is an advantage that we have a western lifestyle heritage that's known for a great folksy attitude and down to earth people.
Whatever the reasons for the sport's growth, it's all good news for the riders.
Two top riders, Chris Shivers and Justin McBride, have reached the $3 million mark in prize earnings. And that's not counting endorsements. Agent Mark Nestlen says that's a far cry from the past.
NESTLEN: Bull riders of 20 years ago, when they were done riding bulls got to go sell used cars because they were broke and broke down. These guys that are now coming along in the sport today, with the money the way it is, the sponsorships and endorsements the way they are, when they retire from bull riding, they will not have to have another job.
But that $3 million man, Chris Shivers, says it's not about the money, and it never has been.
CHRIS SHIVERS: You can't just want to ride bulls because you want to make some money. You got to love what you do and this is my life. It's what I've done for so many years and it's gotten me what I've got, and I want to be out there and I want to win every week.
In Las Vegas, I'm Jane Lindholm, for Marketplace.