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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Black Boots Goes to Greenville

Folks, a lot has been going on with the PBR in the past week, as you all know, but I have been holding off commenting for the moment because the divine Black Boots made the trip to Greenville and offered to send me her observations on the experience. I think you are going to find this very enlightening. Thanks, Black Boots, for showing us what it was like on the ground.

The good, the bad, the bad, and the good of Greenville

First, a confession: I stole the title of my review straight from the adorable lips of Kiefer Sutherland in the movie Cowboy Up. In it, he plays Hank Braxton, a struggling stock contractor for the newly birthed PBR. Late in the film, he has a conversation with another character (played by Molly Ringwald in a less perky phase) who asks how he’s been doing since his no-count brother, a bull rider, ran off with Hank’s unrequited love, the barrel-racing hussy Celia Jones (played by fish-girl Darryl Hannah).

“Well,” Hank sighs. “Good. And bad. And bad. And good.”

That’s how I feel about Greenville.

Let me set the scene. I’ve never traveled to an event before. Since Greenville is only an hour and change away, the intrepid E and I decided to go, and we brought two brand-new PBR fans with us who were all up for a weekend away from our darling husbands. And Greenville is gorgeous. It’s got the most fabulously planned and resurrected historic district I’ve ever seen (and which was attached to the PBR’s hotel) and spectacular public green spaces. It is a center for arts and culture in that corner of the Carolinas. In other words, Greenville is an urbane town, as urbane as it’ll get this close to Bob Jones University. This will become more significant later.

The good

We couldn’t attend both nights, so we went on Saturday night because of the bulls. One of the arena announcers said, “They call this the BEAST Coast” and they weren’t kidding. Thanks to our proximity to Teague, Robinson, Waggoner, and other contractors’ HQs, we had Bones, Uncle Buck, Major Payne, the front-running Voodoo Child, and that sweet, magnificent baby Chicken on a Chain for the short go, and bulls like Skyhawk Cut-a-Rug, MacNett’s Pinball Wizard, and Super Hou in the second round. We are spoiled rotten for bulls, and they did not disappoint. You all know JB’s ride on Voodoo was spectacular (especially when Voodoo launched him in the dismount like a slingshot), but to be in the audience? Bedlam. It still gives me chills. By the way, he made the 8 seconds, case closed. It was a magnificent ride and well deserved the score. Chicken caught more air than I’d ever seen him catch, but Paulo Lima matched him jump for jump. Two most excellent athletes!

Bulls to watch? Keep an eye on that dadgum Fire Ant. On Saturday, he bucked like a maniac that couldn’t get enough (ask Travis Briscoe.) I was also impressed with the punch-and-go of Monty the Bull with JB, Pinball Wizard with Brendon Clark, and Hot Tamale with Travis Sellers. And had his best out ever (which didn’t end well for Guilherme, dammit.) Were there riders I hadn’t noticed before last Saturday? Hmm, maybe Travis Sellers. He has excellent balance. And it was great to be in the arena when Paulo Lima caught fire. That out with Chicken is going to boost his confidence. Watch for him to stay on more tough bulls.

and bad. And bad . . .

After listening to the Friday Night Fracas on the event center, E and I knew there might be some tense faces in the hotel Saturday afternoon. In fact, the faces weren’t tense. There was a noticeable absence of faces. Except for Guilherme and a cluster of the younger Brazilians, no one was eating lunch or signing autographs. What was present—at least to me—was a sense of important things being discussed behind closed doors. (Note: JB did do a signing at his t-shirt concession—I got one for my daughter—and was mannerly as always.) We availed ourselves of the aforementioned historic district and then got all flossed up for the event.

The arena was only two city blocks from the hotel, so we walked. We had to wait outside for our other friends, so we squatted on some steps and watched the crowd go in. I observed that the arena staff was waving electronic scanner wands over almost everyone in line, and then the staffer at the end of the line called out, “If you have guns or knives, please do not bring them into the arena. Please take them back to your vehicle.” He repeated this phrase over and over again. At first it was funny, and then I thought, oh, god. Is this because of Renato’s callout?

Now you might say, “BB, it’s the South. Isn’t that part of the uniform?” To which I’d have to say, “For Greenville? No way.” It’s a PBR event with lots of kids and families in attendance. It’s not the kind of place the most, um, armed folks would carry their hardware. So why were they wanding everyone (including me?) Why even make that announcement repeatedly if it’s a family event? My deduction (and you’re welcome to agree or disagree) was that there was some concern there would be retaliation against Renato’s callout on McConnell’s slap. You see, I’d had time to read the sickening comments on the PBR’s thread. I knew what kind of craziness was transpiring, and it made me good and mad. And wary.

Because of my new wariness, I jumped like a scalded cat every time fireworks went off in the intro. Renato’s big climactic introduction was not met with boos, but much less applause than the world’s number one bull rider should receive. Afterward, there was so much smoke and fog in the arena that I felt like we were on Alcatraz on a winter morning. It was a jumpy event—not that our friends noticed it, they were entranced with everything—but it felt more jarring and uncertain, even, than events I’ve been to in the past. Not only that, I think we got out of there in record time. Why the bum’s rush?

There was a lot of buzz about Friday night’s drama in the stands. I’d say it was 50/50 as to whether or not Renato should have pushed the button. My opinion? The judging has been erratic and downright racist ever since I’ve watched the PBR. I’ve railed privately in my living room about the men who can’t let go of their personal prejudices or preferences and couldn’t believe that NO ONE in the PBR PTB ever stood up and called out that big pink elephant in the arena. Renato is the only person who has had the guts to point out that elephant. I am in awe of his actions; I also believe that Ryan’s initial reaction was an adrenaline-fueled outburst, and I’m happy with the way he’s calmed down and handled the situation. There was nothing overtly tense behind the chutes on Saturday, so I’m sure the riders felt like it had been resolved. It broke my heart in Leah’s interview with Renato on Sunday’s telecast when he said, “Maybe I just go back to Brazil.” I know his head was nowhere near where it needed to be to ride his bull that night, and we had to see him go down. I don’t know how long it’ll be before he’s turning backflips again; I fervently hope that he can find a way to put this behind him and go back to setting his jaw for a world championship. As always, YMMV. Note: We never saw him at the hotel.

. . . and good.

When we were leaving the arena, the folks who were handing out samples of BBQ sauce foisted an entire case of sample packets on me. My husband is a champeen smoker/griller type, so I knew he’d be happy with me. I tried to give a lot of it away, but took home a big enough supply that my dear hub was indeed tickled.

We did meet a few riders Saturday night after the event at the hotel. I came away with a good impression of Brendon Clark—very yakkity, friendly, and curious. I rode the elevator with Ross Coleman (he assured me that the sauce was good, heh), but he looked utterly exhausted. I remembered that he’d probably flown across the country to get to Greenville, and with jet lag gotten on bulls less than 48 hours after arrival, and then would get back on a 5+ hour flight. No wonder. Adriano blew past us a couple of times at the hotel—E did get a hug from him while I was out doing something else—but he was deep in conversation every time I saw him, I imagine about everything that was going on. JB and Austin have their jaws set and their game faces on, even though they’re cordial. They mean “bidness.” It’s going to be an interesting battle to Vegas.

And in my *squee* fangirl moment of the weekend, I would like to submit that Guilherme’s eyes are the color of dark cinnamon. He’s also every bit as nice as I imagined him to be. *Squee!* Okay, got that out of my system.

And one rider completely irked me. No dude, I was not trying to take a picture of your feeble chin spinach; in fact, if you hadn’t been so busy acting like a “D” list bit player, I might have told you that I applaud your decision to wear a helmet. Instead? Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out of the Top 40.

The very best thing about the weekend? The elevators. They smelled like eau de bull. How I love those four-legged athletes!

And now I’m going to watch Cowboy Up (minus the ending I hate) for about the eleventy millionth time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our Intrepid Reporter in Ontario

Gentle Readers, the Divine Shannon has yet again rescued the Stockyard Queen from the Slough of Despond, sending me this entertaining report of her adventures in Ontario last weekend. Pull up a chair and enjoy! Thanks, Shannon!--The Stockyard Queen

Musings from Ontario

First, thank God the heat lifted for this weekend. The previous weekend and the entire week up until Thursday, the temperatures were 100+, and on Friday, it was still 91. The high on Saturday was 75 and about the same for Sunday. This was a good thing because under normal circumstances, I’m a miserable witch in the heat, but when you like to dress the part like I do, in jeans and cowboy boots, I’ve have pitied my poor husband (who went with me on Saturday) and friend (who went with me on Sunday) for having to put up with me. Fortunately, it was quite comfortable.

Speaking of dressing the part: Is it just me or is it a Southern California thing that only a handful of us dress in our best jeans and boots while others come in the usual, local, seasonal get-ups? Here that was crop pants, sandals, or something comparable. I’m aware that not everyone has cowboy boots, but crop pants? Huh? It was rather baffling to me because, I couldn’t imagine going to a bull ride dressed like that anymore than I’d go to a rock concert in my Sunday best (and I mean no offense to anyone who dresses that way—it’s just that for me, looking the part is part of the whole experience). [SQ: It’s not just you. In Tulsa, the folks who came to the events looked like they had just stopped by on their way to K-Mart. I’m talking flip-flops. Flip-flops! I’ve seen more appropriately dressed folks at tractor pulls.]

In fact, bull riding going over so well in southern CA baffles me in general more than any other place on tour except maybe NYC. It surprises me that here, just 45 miles from Hollywood, where dressage is infinitely more popular than western riding, where PETA reigns supreme, the PBR has managed to have an Anaheim stop every year so far, and, for the last two, there were two events per season. Not only that, I’ve never seen or heard of one picket sign protesting the event.
But, I digress. I entered the event looking forward to seeing it live yet again, but at the same time hoping I’d see something exciting because the California events, to me, have always been a little dull. The really rank bulls are rare here and there are many bulls that people aren’t too familiar with and always a lot of rides.

The opening video

While watching the opening video of the wrecks, I thought about you here on the blog not liking the fact that it was all wrecks all the time. While I agree that they need to mix it up with some great rides, I thought of something my brother, a bull riding and NASCAR fan, said to me when he last attended an event with me. At one point, shaking his head and rolling his eyes, he was prompted to say “It’s just like NASCAR—everyone is waiting to see a wreck.” Morbid curiosity. Sadly human and, as Flint pointed out later in the program, “That’s what sells tickets.” [SQ: As one fan famously said, “We don’t want to see anybody get killed. We just want to see somebody ALMOST get killed.”]

Thankfully, there were only a few scary moments with riders getting thrown around, or limping out, with Ryan McConnel’s slam to the ground being the one true “someone was looking out for him” moment. Someone was looking out for the bull, too. It was still fresh in my mind, as well as many others, I’m sure, that it was just last week that Code Blue’s feet failed him as well. This bull, however, seemed to recover very well, as did Ryan.

Flint moments

After so many events, Flint has stopped really amusing me because it’s usually the same thing over and over again. In fact, a couple of times during the Sunday event, while my friend (a first time PBR attendee—she had a great time) was absorbed in watching one of his usual routines, I was texting a friend of mine updates because she wasn’t where she could watch a show online. I’m surprised he didn’t call me out—we were that close in what were supposed to be the best seats in the section, but I highly disagree to the point that the next time I go, I know exactly what row I’m going to request! Anyway, he did have some new stuff that made me chuckle: Running down Travis Sellers after his buck off, calling “What happened?! What happened?” to which Travis responded “The bull was better than me!” After we were sure that both Ryan McConnel and his bull were okay, Flint put himself into the mind of the bull and told us what he was thinking: “You think you can figure me out? Stay on this!” after which he crashed himself into the ground. After the Enterprise contest, in which Flint asks a fan what Brian Canter prefers—chicken or fish (really? Didn’t these people see the last event where that was aired on tv?), he wondered out loud if he liked boneless chicken and then went into a rather funny imitation of a boneless chicken. Finally, there was a cute moment when Flint and Brandon were having a contest to see who had the most famous person’s phone number in their cell phone. Brandon won with the number of a famous country singer whose name escapes me right now (sorry). [SQ: How famous could he have been if he’s hanging out with Brandon?]

Famous people and those who associate with them

On Saturday, the big talk was about “NCIS” and how Flint wasn’t invited. In fact, a large part of the crew was there in one of the back rows of the section next to us. Then on Sunday, I hear, from behind me: “Omg…that’s Tom Cruise.” Now, I’d heard from the sound man, whose booth we were sitting behind, that Tom was supposed to be there that weekend researching a new movie. Well, he was never announced, but people spotted him and yes, he was definitely in research mode. He was stuck like glue to someone in a cowboy hat, staring over the chutes, watching intently, asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. When he came down to right behind the chutes, he spent a moment or two with Guilherme, talking and laughing. Then, when it came to the rope pulling, the camera got him and that’s when most people got it—Tom was there! Loud cheers came from the crowd. I’m not crazy about his behavior and attitude these days, but it was kind of cool to see someone that popular at the event. I’ll be interested if anything comes of this movie.

On the dirt

Going on the dirt is an interesting experience because you learn a bit more about the riders and their attitudes. Ryan was in good form. Jordan Hupp is wonderfully polite and talkative young man. Renato and McKennon were mobbed, with each handling it differently. Both were accommodating and all smiles, but Renato had more of a vibe that said “I love my fans,” whereas McKennon had more of a vibe that said “I love being loved.” It was very subtle and it wasn’t enough for me to be turned off—like I said, he was very accommodating and friendly—but there was something. Perhaps the fact that he wouldn’t go farther than one or two steps across the barrier into the fan zone area and we had to go to him added to that. (After having seen his interview and rider profile the next morning, I really hope that someone he looks up to pulls him aside and tells him to dial it back a little.). Robson was the best encounter of the night. He spoke about his injury and then, when we told him about meeting his wife and little girl in Anaheim, he grinned and told us with great pride and animation about how she’s just started walking. Then about how she loves to go to the window to look out at the cows and announce, loudly, when they would approach the yard. He was glowing.

Something exciting!

In the end, it turned out to be a great event. McKennon was determined to hold onto that #10 spot. Shane made a great effort to knock him out of 10th. JB hung onto third. A short-go (sadly, w/o a Brazilian rider—how often does that happen?) with only one ride and, while I like other riders better, I have no issues with Austin Meier and respect the determination he has this season Therefore, I congratulate him on his win.