PBR takes ‘toughest’ route to attract fans

Professional Bull Riding may get an argument from other sports, but for now it is forging ahead with its “toughest sport on Earth” marketing strategy as it aims to increase its business profile in the Las Vegas market.

It’s a marketing claim born out of its previous “toughest sport on dirt” slogan, four mere words that capture the essence of a wiry 150-pound cowboy trying to hang on for dear life atop a powerful bucking 1,800-pound bull that can easily inflict painful damage.

Randy Bernard, former CEO of the Pueblo, Colo.-based bull riding organization, said “toughest sport on Earth” is a great marketing slogan because Americans love contact sports and enjoy watching athletes mingle with danger. One of every 13 bull rides results in an injury to a PBR cowboy.

“People go to see wrecks. You you don’t go to a boxing match to see someone prance around the ring,” said Bernard, a member of Garth Brooks’ management team.

“Every sport has violence if there’s a chance of death — NASCAR, Indy car or UFC or bullriding or football,” Bernard said. “The last time I checked, not too many people go to watch ping pong or chess.”

Expect to see PBR’s “toughest sport” slogan around Las Vegas more.

PBR moved its season-ending world finals event from Thomas & Mack Center to T-Mobile Arena in November, decided to partner with Las Vegas and the Elks for Helldorado Days in May; and added three more days of bull riding action before the world finals with its developmental league finals.

The business strategy behind the “toughest” image is to reel in new fans, while cementing the respect that long-term bullriding fans have for the competitors, said Casey Lane, PBR senior vice president for marketing and sales.

“One of the first ways we get trial is the sheer spectacle of man versus beast in a tough environment. It’s a method over the years to gain trial,” Lane said.

The “toughest sport” phrase can entice sports fans to at least check out the eight-second bull rides to decide whether PBR’s claim is true, said Nancy Lough, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor in the higher education program who has been a sport management faculty member at several universities.

“The PBR campaign appears to be one more focused on getting people who do not watch to have a reason to watch, at least once. I say this because if I think my sport is the ‘toughest sport on Earth’ (e.g., UFC, football, Ironman) then I need to watch the PBR to evaluate (its) claim,” Lough said.

“I just might find it interesting and watch it again,” she said.

Like most sports that include the prospect of violence, contact and collisions, the PBR marketers have to be careful of repulsing its targeted audience with too much bovine mayhem.

“We don’t want to market it as a blood sport in any way,” Lane said. “We’ve taken every precaution that is available for what is probably the most dangerous sport there is.”

Kasey Coler, PBR senior vice president of corporate marketing, said the marketing will not “glamorize the mishaps.”

“It’s not if you are going to get hurt. It’s when you will get hurt. You will have bumps and bruises and you may have broken bones, but you will pick yourself up off the ground,” Coler said. “We don’t want to glamorize the mishaps, but the mishaps could happen. It’s a byproduct.”

The title sponsor of PBR’s January-to-October, 26-stop tour is Ford, which is why the circuit is named, “Built Ford Tough Series.” The wording literally fits the “toughest” theme.

Joe Phua, an assistant professor for advertising at the University of Georgia, saw the connection between the toughest image and other brands such as Ford.

The marketing “allows PBR to tie its image to various other American brands that also use ‘toughness’ as a selling point. Particularly, the image evokes ‘American-ness’ and an idea of ‘Americana’ and patriotism that other brands like NASCAR, automobile brands like Dodge, Ford trucks etc., country music artists, and so on, are trying to tap into,” Phua said.

“Essentially, these brands have the exact same target audience, and therefore by sponsoring PBR, they are able to reach the same audience that would also like the same type of brands, products, music, etc.,” he said.

Gregory Greenhalgh, director of student services and outreach at the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, has researched niche sport sponsorships and said the PBR “toughest sport” marketing approach is ideal for its target audience.

“What really attracts companies to non-mainstream sports is the fact these sports attract a very homogenous target market. For the sponsors, it makes perfect sense,” Greenhalgh said.

“For Ford, they know they can speak to people of this idea of being tough, strong, dependable and reliable,” he said.

Greenhalgh brought up the example of Subaru, which explored buying a TV spot during a Super Bowl but decided against it when it realized only 10 percent of the viewers were its core customers. Instead, Subaru sponsored mountain biking and cycling because 90 percent of cyclists were potential buyers, he said.

“You have to fish where the fish are,” Greenhalgh said.

A sport that once embraced its violence and toughness for marketing purposes with greatest hits videos was the National Football League. But the NFL hasn’t marketed the sport that way after the documented evidence of concussions from the brutal collisions was revealed to the public.

NFL players have a union and a collective bargaining agreement, while PBR’s competitors are independent contractors. But PBR’s contestants do sign an agreement to be evaluated by doctors for potential concussions and there is a concussion protocol, Lane said.

Plus, PBR competitors who were younger than 18 in 2013 are required to wear helmets, Lane said. Older bull riders are grandfathered in and are not required to don protective head gear, he said. Lane estimated that about 60 percent of the PBR top circuit’s 35 riders wear helmets.

Lough said the NFL does not have to showcase the sport’s dangers like PBR because its marketing goals are different.

“The NFL has no need to generate awareness or attempt to draw in new fans. Our culture and ESPN take care of that for them,” Lough said.

Selling “toughest” in bull riding is not a stretch from cowboy culture, Coler said. And PBR also uses the cowboy values to differentiate itself from stick-and-ball sports that tend to use athletes’ “look-at-me” images to sell the product, he said.

“We’re selling our sport’s aspects and the values of the sport. In stick-and-ball sports, there’s a ‘me first’ approach but when you look at cowboy culture and Western values, there’s family values, work, hard play,” Coler said. “The toughness that shows through in our sport resonates with our fan base or potential fans. These guys aren’t out there saying, ‘look at me.'”

Lough agreed there’s an authenticity to the toughest theme in the sales job.

“The toughness message is, in fact, authentic to the PBR. It is difficult and requires a unique sense of risk to attempt what these athletes excel at — riding a two-ton bull and surviving being thrown, just to get back on the bull again,” Lough said.

“Here, the PBR is marketing the competence of their athletes and the excitement (thrill) of the sport, which is precisely what sells to their target market,” she said.

“So in this case, the authenticity of the campaign will play well in that it will attract viewers and consumers who have a desire to see the best athletes in this sport excel, while also doing so by taking on an extreme risk to their own safety,” Lough said.

WME/IMG, a global sports and entertainment company, acquired PBR about a year ago. PBR plans to keep its “toughest sport on Earth” marketing campaign, but there will be some new wrinkles in the marketing approach later this year, Lane said.

PBR’s increased footprint in Las Vegas is no accident. It hopes to increase its brand awareness to locals by staging its spring bull riding event as part of the Helldorado Days, which pay homage to Las Vegas’ Western roots in May.

PBR is also extending its stay in November between the development league finals and its five-day world championship event to eight days — just two days shy of the National Finals Rodeo’s 10-day Super Bowl of rodeos in December.

“We think Las Vegas is the unofficial home of cowboys with what happens with PBR and NFR,” Coler said. “It’s a destination for all cowboys to come and the new arena gives us the perfect stage.”

Contact reporter Alan Snel at @asnel@reviewjournal.com Follow him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel

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