Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Professionalism

It’s been nearly two weeks since that infamous night in Greenville when Renato Nunes had finally gotten his fill of inept judging and hit the challenge button, calling for a review of Ryan McConnel’s ride. Since then, I’ve watched with increasing amazement the gyrations that have gone on at PBR headquarters. On review, the judges confirmed what every single person who saw the ride already knew—McConnel slapped that bull nearly into next week.

A few days later, out came a terse press release announcing that the PBR was suspending all four judges who had worked the Greenville event. There followed a period of intense debate on the PBR comment boards about what had happened and how it all went down, about whether some of the judges had been fired outright, about who can suspend the judges, and on and on. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the PBR comments board, though, it’s that the remarks you see there strongly resemble free advice—it’s worth what you’re paying for it.

Incredibly, the judging this past weekend in Springfield was worse than it was in Greenville. Several of my readers have theorized that the new judges must have had the jitters. When the smoke cleared after that event, yet another judge was suspended.

I want to make it clear, straight up, that I have no inside information about what is happening at PBR headquarters. The PBR is a closed (I’d almost say airtight) system, as anybody who has ever tried to storm the gates or even get a straight answer knows. I know one person who has been trying to talk to someone in Pueblo about her concerns for months, and has yet to even get a phone call or an email acknowledging that they’ve received her messages.

But I am arrogant enough to believe that what I lack in information I make up in insight. So here goes: I believe we are watching an organization suffering through the growing pains associated with professionalization.

The PBR started out very small, targeted a specific niche audience, and has grown astronomically in a short period of time. In the beginning, it was run by a bunch of cowboys and, I daresay, their friends and relatives, and on their watch, it began to grow. But there comes a time in the life of any grassroots organization, be it a business or a church or a county museum, when it’s time to call in the professionals and send the good ol’ boys home.

The need for professionalizing the PBR has been masked by the organization’s success since its upstart beginnings, and, yes, by the hiring of Randy Bernard. Members of the board were always quick to point out that Bernard was not a “cowboy” and they were damned proud of the fact that they had had the courage to hire him anyway. Everyone who has ever stopped by here knows that I am Randy Bernard’s biggest fan. Without Bernard, the PBR would not be where it is today, but you have to wonder if it would not have made more progress if more genuine professionals had been brought in sooner to deal with other matters. The fact is that a whole lot of stuff besides marketing has long needed professional attention and hasn’t gotten it.

By all appearances, the PBR is an organization that, as one of my readers once observed, values loyalty above expertise. This is evident in the fact that the website is a mess, damned near as difficult to navigate as a labyrinth; that despite all the hollering about how great the writing is in the magazine and on the website, it is usually marginal if not outright bad, and the reporting, by any reasonable journalistic standard, is worse; that the opening ceremonies have not changed appreciably in at least five years, except to get louder and more pyrotechnic; that interactions between fans and the membership office are not always cordial; and that though fans and riders have been complaining for years about how bad the judging is, nothing was done until Nunes pushed the button and the shit hit the fan.

What is truly interesting about all this is that we are now running through one set of judges after another. Has there never been any training program developed for these folks? Or were they, as I strongly suspect, just guys who wandered over from the PRCA and took a seat behind the bucking chutes? That said, what the PBR board should be taking away from this experience is this: When people complain and see no action taken, they end up taking matters into their own hands. I applaud Renato for doing so within the system. I want him to shake off the guilt he evidently feels for having done the right thing and get back to riding like the future world champion he is.

Furthermore, all this shucking and jiving over judging makes me wonder what else has been falling by the wayside, and what it will take to fix it. Clearly, the PBR board believed early on that good marketing would be the answer to their prayers, and they did have the sense to recognize that none of them were marketing geniuses. So they hired Randy Bernard, and he took the marketing end of the business and ran with it. It’s obvious, though, that some critical infrastructure has long been neglected and is now suffering from dry rot.

Right now, today, the PBR is at a critical point. No matter how much Justin McKee insisted that JHQ Arena in Springfield was “packed” last Friday night, all you have to do is look around at a BFTS event to realize that ticket sales are down. Ticket prices are too high for a family to take in an event without giving the matter a lot of thought, and who can blame them if they opt for something less expensive, like a ballgame or the county fair? The board members have to face the fact that they have pretty much reached everybody who is likely to be a “core” fan, and to keep the sport growing, they need to widen their fan base. To do that, the PBR is going to have to look less like a small-town rodeo and more like an international sport. That means biting the bullet and coughing up the bucks to bring in people who know what they’re doing, and it means putting up with the shrieks of those who feel that any change is automatically a change for the worse.

The good news is that true professionals know they are going to take some waves over the bow when they take over the helm. They know it goes with the territory, and they have the experience and the judgment to see past the immediate turbulence.

The bad news is, the PBR board members may still not realize that they need help. The worst news would be that they recognize the need, but even for the ultimate good of the sport, they don’t have the fortitude to put up for a while with some rough water.


shannon said...

Wonderful write up, SQ.

I hope that the new guys they have hired, and whoever else is coming in, can turn it around and make it better. It will be interesting to see if the start of the new season brings on any real changes.

Anonymous said...

FROM shelia (FlashOBlue)-- my password doesn't work any more!

Bravo, my friend! I was about ready to throw in the towel and kiss my bulls good-bye! Hopefully there is still HOPE! You need to be on the Board of Directors!!!!! Your insight is amazing!

Stockyard Queen said...

Aw, shucks, Shelia. I'm pretty sure the boys on the board would take one look at me and show me the door, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.

Shawk said...

I utterly, heartily agree. The PBR seems to have gone through a huge expansion, but has been flailing with how to keep up with it. Things like the Iron Cowboy come across as an interesting idea that is executed really badly, and whether the PBR is learning from it remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see if the guy who made poker into something anyone would want to watch can bring the PBR up a level. I certainly hope so.

The judging situation is horrendous, and it's not something they can just use some Jedi mind tricks and we'll all forget it happened when they try to distract us with some shiny new change. The riders certainly aren't going to forget. Why they didn't seem to institute any sort of meaningful changes after the Sacramento judging fiasco, I really don't understand, but they really need to shape it up now, quickly and with clear purpose.

I think most of us here represent the "non-core" fan that the PBR seems desperate to attract. I hope someone in the PBR is paying attention to what will be good for all fans, no matter if they are typical core or atypical, and the sport as a whole. No credibility to judging means no credibility at all-- fix it, guys.

Thanks for the great post.

palmthejoker said...

(From: Formerly known as your_glasshouse; Actual name Sarah. Lots of "S" names representing here!)

I've been trying to think of a well-rounded intelligent response to this post since you put it up but, all I've been able to come up with is: I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've said.

P.S. You really should have a place on the Board of Directors. Maybe we should start a campaign :)

Black Boots said...

Shucking and jiving, ain't that the TRUTH! Totally accurate insight and comments. I concur with everyone here--SQ needs a spot on the Board. Or better yet, a judge.

Stockyard Queen said...

Thanks, BB, but my career as a judge would be even shorter than my career as a board member. Remember, I'd score the rider and the bull on degree of difficulty, not whether the bull ran out in front of the chute and spun in a nice little circle.