Professional Bull Riders (PBR) will open its 2020 season this evening in NYC with the Monster Energy Buckoff at the Garden. Now in its 26th year, the pro bull riding league is beginning to “realize the fruits of [its] labor”; corporate sponsorship sales are up +25% YoY. While on the surface the dramatic rise in revenues may appear to be an overnight success story, CEO Sean Gleason says that the results are really the product of all the work that’s been done since Endeavor took over control of the organization in 2015. “Corporate sponsorship sales were really the last piece [of the business] to catch up in terms of growth. Nearly every other metric used to measure the business’ success has risen over the last four years.” Ticket sales are up +17%, viewership [on CBS] has increased +2% to an average of 1.2 million viewers per telecast and the league’s social following has climbed a remarkable +850% (from 105,000 to 1.06M followers).
Howie Long-Short: It’s certainly not a coincidence that PBR’s sales growth comes on the heels of the organization’s H2 ’19 hiring of former Cleveland Cavaliers executive Josh Baker. Baker, the new SVP of corporate partnerships, has brought a fresh approach to the organization – one that combines the cowboy mindset with some big four sports principles. Gleason explained that “bull riding is hard to sell to sponsors because it’s misunderstood. To sell [the sport’s inventory effectively], one must to understand the nuances, the values and the lifestyle associated with the western culture and Josh, who grew up in a small town in Oregon, does.” That authenticity combined with Baker’s “big boy business experience” made him a perfect fit for the role and has quickly resulted in returns for the league.
PBR added five new partners this season to the eight corporate sponsors that return from last year. Wrangler is among those that are back after agreeing to a new five-year deal that will keep the company as the bull riding circuit’s official jeans and shirt provider through the ’24 season. The American denim manufacturer is PBR’s longest tenured sponsor (the last year of the the new deal will be their 31st as a PBR partner). Gleason says that the relationship between the brands has managed to withstand the test of time because of the “connective tissue that exists in terms of who we are, what we do and how we market ourselves to the consumer.” PBR and Wrangler are considered by western enthusiasts as “the two most recognizable names” in the space.
How PBR markets itself and the types of brands they’re willing to align with is most certainly a differentiator for the league. While the desire to appeal to the masses keeps the big four conservative in their approach to sponsorship (think: NFL and Papa John’s), Gleason recognizes that his sport is “never going to appeal to 100% of the American population” and so they don’t try to (see: partnerships with the United States Concealed and Carry Association and U.S. Border Patrol). While some see PBR’s relationship with the USCCA as controversial, Gleason considers it logical. “[Selling sports sponsorships] is about knowing and understanding your audience and leaning into that demographic; and we know our fan base is [a collective] of second amendment supporters.”
PBR’s successful relationship with CBS (the network just signed on for another decade) must also be acknowledged when discussing the “increase in ticket sales and the overall growth of the sport” over the last four years. This season PBR will have eighteen broadcasts on network television, making the league “one of the more prolific in terms of national broadcast coverage.” As we’ve seen with NBA ratings this season, reach matters.
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