Invitation to a Stomping

First thing to go wrong was the patriotic opening. The flag-waving DVD wouldn't fire up on the projection screen above the arena; then the Hollywood Police Department's Honor Guard came in too soon, plodding in through the wrong gate. Of course, it wasn't like anyone would notice among the folks gathered in the Seminole Hard Rock Live arena on a Friday night earlier this month to see some bull riding. But you had to love public-address announcer Mike Barkley going into flag-saluting, hoo-ah, damage-control mode, setting a tone for the entire weekend.

"Folks, we apologize," Barkley intoned to the scattered spectators. "Our program has been real messed-up here tonight. We're going to roll right on through it. You know why we're going to roll right on through it? Because we're Americans. We can screw up. We can admit it. We're not going to stop. I'll tell you what we're going to do. We're going to think about all our friends and family over there fighting in dark foxholes of war; we're going to think about all of the veterans. Do we have any veterans in the house tonight? Let me hear you — come on." People cheered. "All I've got to say, for all you Saddam Husseins, for all you Bin Ladens out there — don't mess with the U.S.A.!" Then Barkley publicly prayed to the Lord to protect the livestock, the bull riders, the spectators, and American troops overseas and to compel world leaders to make wise decisions. He added that Army recruiters were ready and waiting in the concourse, should any young onlookers be hit especially hard by the martial spirit.

In short, the kickoff was just about everything you could have hoped for, because this is bull riding, a sport impervious to hyperbole. The bigger-than-life aura goes for the initial conceit too: Young men climb aboard animals a dozen times their size and try to hang on for eight seconds while other young men cajole the bull to buck, pitch, and spin. Somehow, it's not as dangerous as it sounds, because people routinely survive this process, and about a dozen riders can expect to earn six figures a year. The sport's televised pro league, Professional Bull Riders, last year handed out about $11 million in prizes in 31 events, up from a mere quarter-mil when it began 12 years earlier. Since 2003, its annual winner has received a $1 million bonus.

The PBR tour consists of only 45 riders, who earn a spot in that rotation by earning money in four lower leagues of the PBR. One of the last riders not to make the most recent cut was a skinny, modest 18-year-old from Vero Beach named Buckshot Morrison, who is ranked 48th in the world and is the favorite at this event, and who says of bull riding's potential: "There's no stop to it. I see it getting bigger than football."

Clearly, that era remains a ways off, though the swelling PBR is trying to market bull riding in the United States and overseas to duplicate NASCAR's explosion from a regional curio to the second-largest televised sport in the land. Just as racers used to develop at anonymous dirt tracks in front of crowds giddy for loud noises and a good crackup, bull riders today come up through weekend events at rural rodeos anywhere within a day's drive, well outside the purview of the PBR. In these lower crannies of the sport, the riders —denim-and-Western-shirt-clad young men, generally wiry in build and likely to say "sir" with total earnestness — still risk their health for a check, a belt buckle, and a shot at riding the bulls. The quadruped participants in this arrangement are snorting, slobbering masses of mad muscle with bludgeons affixed to the ends of their legs and to either side of their skulls.

The three-day event here at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino culminates a year's worth of events on a smaller, non-PBR circuit called the Southeastern Bull Riding Association, which organizes events throughout Dixie during the year. Its championship is in Hollywood for the first time because, as the crowd is often reminded, the Seminole Tribe of Florida digs bull riding, a fact evident to anyone who has attended any of the smaller events held in Davie. Even though it is a championship in an indoor concert venue capable of seating about 5,000 spectators, it is still decidedly a small-time tilt. Friday draws a crowd of only a few hundred at $20 a head. (An organizer rued the fact that Dolphins Stadium was hosting a Monster Truck Jam the same night.) They were treated to, in the words of the announcers, "America's most extreme sport." Then again, those same emcees also referred to the "great state of Alabama," suggesting a not altogether clear-eyed perspective.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling