Monday, February 7, 2011

Introducing: Pearl de Vere

My dear friends, please gather round and join me in welcoming a new hand at the Stockyard, the lovely Ms. Pearl de Vere. Like me (and as you've undoubtedly noticed, unlike Montana Barn Cat), she will be posting here when the mood strikes her. Ms. de Vere, a self-employed business woman, is a long-time fan of the Professional Bull Riders. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for the Divine Pearl de Vere!

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time there was an organization called the PBR (our hero!), which started with a little cash and a whole lot of dreams. Through hard work and luck, the PBR grew and grew. Eventually the PBR grew so big that some problems (horrible monsters!) rose up to challenge the success of the organization. They were: the television production changed, including the removal of a beloved commentator; the event format was changed to "create more excitement"; and there was great hue and cry about chute time, soaking and Brazilian bull ropes (and Brazilians, for that matter) from the stock contractors and some fans. Things became so bad that the PBR was forced to shut down fan comments on their website.

But wait, you are thinking, that last thing hasn't happened this year! Which is totally true, because in this case, "once upon a time" was the year 2004. History seems to be repeating itself. This all struck me as I reread of Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders, a snappy little book by Josh Peter that takes one through the trials and tribulations of the 2004 PBR season (and if you haven't checked out, you really ought to do so).

Sure, there are a few variants to keep us on our toes:

It's not that the PBR got its rights back and cut ties with TNN to move to OLN, as it did circa 2004, but the ushering in of the era of David Neal Productions and his "improvements" this year. It's not Donnie Gay who was given the boot from the broadcast booth because he wasn't interested in commenting live (not to mention Tuff Hedeman quitting the board/being removed as a commentator amidst much drama), it was Justin McKee being removed for whatever undisclosed reasons, as we are all so painfully aware. It's not that the Finals have added round points for 2004, it's the addition of the new Bonus Round. Sadly, the soaking/rope situation has apparently not been altered by the passage of time, and fortunately or unfortunately, the PBR is showing absolutely no signs of shutting down fan comments (formerly a message board).

But outside of the spooky similarities, what really stands out is: Why are we stuck in this Groundhog Day?

One could speculate that the loss of institutional memory with the departure of Randy Bernard is a large factor in the 2004 redux. While Bernard was around, a lot of fans loudly blamed his lack of Western background for anything questionable with the PBR, but now that he is gone, many seem to be lamenting losing his hard-earned knowledge of the sport, his canny business sense, and his relatively soft touch. It doesn't help that Jeffrey Pollack, after his initial flurry of press presence and invitation to the fans to email him, has been extremely quiet. In fact, the whole PBR has been exceedingly quiet on almost all of the issues, in what one can only suppose is a very questionable PR strategy--if we don't talk about it, maybe it will go away.

This only serves to highlight the passivity of the PBR overall. I don't know if this is part of some stubborn cowboy code of never admitting to weakness, or part of a PR campaign of "ignore and conquer," or due to an unease between the cowboy side and the business side of the PBR, but the stoic silence in the face of legitimate questions doesn't help matters. While in situations like "Where in the World is Justin McKee?" there are obvious HR implications that could be a factor, some basics regarding the who, where, when, and why of many decisions remain shrouded in mystery. This makes it difficult to say with any certainty that the PBR still doesn't have effective systems in place (as we saw with the judging fiasco), but it certainly leads to speculation.

Which leads us to, if in 2004, the soaking/Brazilian bull rope/chute time question was a burning one, why has so little of any substance apparently been done since? Yes, the PBR put in new rules as far as chute time and as far as how many people can pull a rope, and obviously the PBR must be incredibly reluctant to publicize any issues that might lead to the attention of animal rights groups. Not to mention the minefield of rider nationality is extremely daunting. But what about the allegation that the Brazilian rope can be pulled tighter than an American one? Especially considering the number of cowboys from all countries who use the Brazilian style rope, surely some sort of testing could be done to settle the issue and, if needed, decide upon a standardized rope style or three, much as was done with the rowels for the spurs. Yes, Ty Murray seems set on de-mystifying the Brazilian rope, and I thank him for that, but I'm not sure he's making much headway, and the problem is far larger than that. Letting this sometimes xenophobic-tinged issue simmer since 2004 has only made it worse, and while the issues here are not easy ones, it is apparent that they are not going to magically disappear.

While the PBR appears to carefully avoid some issues, when it comes to others it just can't seem to stop tinkering. The ceaseless urge to mess with the format is completely mystifying, considering that the sport, at its heart, is very simple. In 2004, the PBR wanted to make the finals more of a draw, so it put more points on the table. This way, one cowboy couldn't really cement a win over the course of the season--a good finals performance was nearly mandatory. This in theory would lead to more fan interest, which would lead to more viewership, more advertising dollars, more sponsors, and the like. But while the urge to tinker has remained constant, the goal seems to have changed, from potentially broadening the field to potentially streamlining the field. The bonus round and the Final Five Chase seem designed to narrow down the number of cowboys in the spotlight. In these economic times, one can understand the desire to ramp up the excitement, but it seems like David Neal Productions doubts that the average fan (or perhaps the new fans that he hopes to attract) has the attention span to keep track of 40+ cowboys and even more bulls. So instead of seeing all the rides, we get a song focusing on the top 10 or so, and a bonus round perhaps designed to narrow the field of interest to those who consistently do well enough to make the special new round. It remains to be seen how this will play out.

Sure, times have changed and the PBR has changed--stagnation wouldn't have served anyone. The PBR did and does and probably always will face the issue that it is a niche sport, and there isn't a whole lot anyone can do to change that. Having only two commentators in the booth is not going to magically turn the sport into something that someone who likes a mainstream sport will want to watch. Wiring the riders won't make the sport into something people magically want to watch, either (and honestly, listening to people grunt, or worse, be hurt, is just not appealing). Ridiculous commercial voice-overs and a Truth Booth also don't add much appeal.

But in the end, the format issues, while annoying, are not critical. Format issues can be fixed. We are back to the real issue: Why does the PBR never seem to learn? Why is there still is very little transparency, sudden and poorly explained moves made, and such bumbling PR attempts to cover it all? The fact that McKee has been asked back, on however limited a fashion, does give one hope that the PBR does recognize there have been misfires and they are trying to correct their course, and of course, only those there know what happens behind the closed boardroom doors.

To end on a slightly more optimistic note, it seems like for this weekend's event, some of the format issues were indeed tweaked for the better: the awful siren seems to have gone away in favor of the familiar buzzer, the scrolling sports scores that were screwing with the aspect ratio of our TV sets are gone, and there seemed to be less of the robotic female commercial voice-overs. Now if we can just get more Leah Garcia and more Justin McKee, we might be talking. After all, the PBR has a great product, and it's really hard to ruin bull riding. In the end, this sport is simple--one cowboy, one bull, eight (or less) seconds. That's what I want to see, whether it's a top 10 cowboy or a TPD alternate, a bull of the year or a debut bull. As long as there are great bulls and great rides, we should all survive the fight to escape this cycling back through the issues of 2004 and get back to some great bull riding.

Now that's what we hopefully will call, "living happily ever after."


shannon said...

The link to this post should be posted on every PBR comment section, every PBR blog out there and even sent to the PBR headquarters.


Jean said...

Wasn't it the practice to pay the PBR riders a small check if they rode in an event, even if they bucked off? I seem to remember my husband mentioning that several years ago. Whatever it was it wasn't much, 100.00 or less I think. I was thinking that might be a reason the PBR wanted to cut the field back.

I never had an issue with Randy Bernard. Anyone that can make NASCAR's 5 hour merry-go-round popular could stay in bed all day with a cell phone and still do a good job building up the PBR.

Excellent points Pearl. Enjoyed the article!

Stockyard Queen said...

I don't recall having seen anything indicating the PBR paid the riders just for showing up, but I have a feeling they cut the field because they decided 40 rides was too much for the broadcast.

Pearl de Vere said...

I do believe, but am not entirely sure (and I just re-read the book, so that is kind of dumb on my part) that in "Fried Twinkies," it was said somewhere that the riders get some small amount for attending regular season BFTS events.

However, I don't think the PBR is too worried about that. I think they are underestimating the attention span of their fans, and trying to narrow the field of interest to 10 or so guys, with the occasional surprise rookie or comeback fairy tale to keep us on our toes. While this might make things simpler for the supposed new fans, it is pretty frustrating for the established ones, and they don't seem to be walking that line with much grace.

And thanks for the welcome and kind comments! And of course, thanks to SQ.

nancy said...

Welcome Miz Pearl!

I'm unhappy about the ever-shrinking number of rides shown on the broadcasts. Someone on the PBR message board added up the number of seconds the new segments are taking up--and it wasn't even a double digit number--but it feels like these segments are chewing up much, much more time. I want to see more bulls. Is that too much to ask?

KrisD said...

SO many pearls of wisdom here! I'll post a link to this column on my blog. Thanks for bringing her in, S.Q.!