Organizers infuse PBR event with spring-break twist

You typically don’t associate beach volleyball and dogs diving into water with the rough-and-tumble, country-and-western sport of big-time bull riding.

But the organization Professional Bull Riders, based in Pueblo, Colo., is pushing the marketing envelope for this weekend’s Last Cowboy Standing event in Las Vegas by giving it a spring break theme in hopes of driving new and young fans to the sport.

PBR holds a bull riding event in the spring here every year. But what makes this sport event different from previous PBR competitions in Las Vegas is that it’s being held outdoors for the first time at MGM Resorts International’s festival site across from Luxor, and it’s being surrounded by spring break-themed events such as volleyball and wakeboarding.

There’s even a competition for “dock dogs” where canines go flying into pools to retrieve objects while their jumping distances are measured. You don’t see flying, waterlogged dogs at too many bull riding events.

The marketing strategy is to appeal to fans outside of PBR’s core followers, said Jim Haworth, chairman and CEO of Professional Bull Riders.

Haworth acknowledged Wednesday, as crews prepared the festival site, that it’s a calculated risk to add nontraditional activities to a bull riding competition.

“I’d say it’s a test,” he said.

But in a market with many entertainment and sport options, it’s a worth a try.

“We know there’s an opportunity to expose more people to bull riding. We think we can gain new fans. We’re hoping to build this into an annual event. We always have to be trying new things,” Haworth said from Colorado before boarding a jet for Las Vegas.

PBR’s flagship event in Las Vegas is its annual World Finals staged at the Thomas &Mack Center in October. In previous years, the spring event in Las Vegas has been held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

Haworth said the group is projecting attendance of 10,000 for the Friday-Sunday spring break-themed bull riding competition, which will also offer country music concerts and shopping in a festival atmosphere.

“We’re definitely a Western lifestyle sport, but we’re broader than just Western lifestyle. We’re the original extreme sport and much younger than a traditional rodeo. But how do we broaden to a younger, female audience?” Haworth asked.

PBR has invited its 50 top-ranked riders to compete and has boosted the prize money from $170,000 to $250,000, with the winner drawing a $180,000 payday.

PBR is working with MGM Resorts on the event. Haworth declined to say how much PBR is spending above a normal bull riding event to add the spring break activities, but he described it as a “substantial investment for both of us but a calculated risk we’re willing to take.”

Chris Baldizan, an MGM Resorts International senior vice president who works on MGM’s festival sites, said there was no space at MGM’s two arenas on Memorial Day weekend, and the Village festival grounds with the spring break theme proved to be a good alternative.

PBR has a deal with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to hold two annual bull riding events in Las Vegas.

“We wanted to use the Memorial Day weekend to expose bull riding to people who otherwise might not go,” Baldizan said Wednesday.

One of the weekend’s biggest stars will be a retired bull making a cameo appearance. The famed bull, Bushwacker, will be enjoying a pool party at South Point on Saturday before having a meet-and-greet with fans at the festival site Sunday.

Country and western acts will include The Band Perry (9 p.m. Sunday) and Montgomery Gentry (10:30 p.m. Friday).

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273. Find him on Twitter: @BicycleManSnel

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