THE NEXT NASCAR?

Ford, Amp'd, hang on as Professional Bull Riders breaks out of the gate

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Suburban Detroit's Palace in Auburn Hills is the home of the NBA's Pistons, but on a recent April weekend it was home to what promoters call "the toughest sport on dirt."

A few dozen top cowboys tried to ride big, bad bucking bulls one-handed for eight seconds in the dirt-filled arena. The spectacle included indoor pyrotechnics and a giant, remote-controlled bull that floated around the arena. Flint, the clown who entertained the crowd to fill time between riders, insisted several times "this is not a rodeo."

No it's not. This is the Professional Bull Riders, and it's becoming one of the nation's fastest-growing sports among not just fans, but advertisers such as Amp'd Mobile, which believes that PBR will be to the current decade what the National Basketball Association was to the '80s and Nascar was to the '90s. "The fans are hard core and support sponsors," said Seth Cummings, senior VP-content and Internet at Amp'd. "We were looking for a heartland, red-state sport."

But it's not all heartland, as the extreme man-vs.-bull sport bucks conventional thinking. Bull riding is almost as popular with fans living east of the Mississippi River as it is with those on the other side, said Randy Bernard, CEO of the rider-owned group founded in 1994.

U.S. attendance at PBR's major and minor events will top 1.1 million this year, compared to some 80,000 in its inaugural year. It's expanding globally-into Mexico, Canada, Brazil and Australia-and will run a total of 140 events in those countries in 2006.

Ad time during weekend broadcasts on cable's OLN is sold out for the season, Mr. Bernard said. NBC has carried some PBR broadcasts since 2003. Fox Sports is set to begin 90-minute, tape-delayed programs on three Sundays this fall after National Football League games.

With Amp'd, it's also expanding to smaller screens. A few weeks ago, it announced a new partnership with the broadband wireless service to simulcast live events two or three nights per week, and the broadband wireless service will be a presenting sponsor at several marquee events. Amp'd will have its own bull at events, where fans can have their photo shot to send over mobile phones.

But the Amp'd association is only one result of the rider-owner organization's taking the bull by the horns to reach advertisers.

Mr. Bernard said its sponsorship and ad revenue will reach more than $23.5 million this year from $365,000 in 1994. Those annual prices range from $450,000 to $5 million, with TV advertising now part of the packages. The ranks of the largest sponsors include Ford Motor Co., Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Wrangler, Jack Daniels, clothing maker Dickies and Las Vegas.

Ford is in its fifth year as a sponsor. Since 2003, the automaker's Ford brand has been title sponsor of the top circuit, the Built Ford Tough Series, which culminates in Las Vegas this fall with one cowboy winning $1 million and a big gold belt buckle.

This season for the first time, Ford is sponsoring a bull, Super Duty, as part of an online promotion at battleforthebull.com. Five finalists will win a VIP trip for two to the finals in Las Vegas. The grand prize winner receives part ownership of Super Duty for a year with a three-day trip to the bull's ranch. Also this season, the PBR helped Ford develop a demonstration on the tour for Ford's Super Duty pickup, pulling a section of seats in the venues.

sponsoring bulls

It's a ready-made audience for Ford. The automaker is able to track opt-ins on the promotion site to vehicle sales, said Ford Division's Robert Keller, truck marketing manager. The advertiser has surveyed attendees and learned half of them own pickups, and roughly 40% of those are Ford pickups. Moreover, he said, half of F-Series pickup truck owners watch or attend these events. The PBR allows the brand "to get to customers in a way we couldn't do with mass media."

JWT, Detroit, Ford brand's agency, creates dedicated in-arena video ads for events, although the advertiser airs general-market truck commercials during PBR broadcasts.

A few years ago, Enterprise Rent-A-Car wanted to partner with a national sports organization in hopes of linking with fans. It picked the PBR because of its growth, passionate fans, national scope, events and TV broadcasts, said Barry Dvoracek, director-consumer marketing. Now in its fourth year as a sponsor, the marketer recently inked a new multi-year deal with PBR.

This season, Enterprise started sponsoring eight top riders, plus arena clown Flint Rasmussen, who wears branded Enterprise gear, and color commentator Michael Gaffney, PBR's 1997 World Champion. Mr. Gaffney appears in Enterprise's dedicated TV ads by independent Avrett, Free and Ginsberg, New York.

Enterprise conducts phone surveys with select customers about the brand and PBR. "We know if fans have increased awareness, they have a higher inclination to rent from us," said Mr. Dvoracek. He credited the PBR alliance to helping the company improve its business.

PBR's Mr. Bernard expects to keep cracking the bullwhip. He's targeting a total of 14 broadcasts annually on NBC and Fox, up from nine this season, and hopes to expand the PBR market to more mainstream audiences. "Chicago is a really good market," he says, adding, "I'd like to be at Madison Square Garden next year."

contributing: alice z. cuneo
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