The Bulls of Midtown

A night at the Professional Bull Riders tour's New York City stop offers some culture clash, some non-culture, and some sense of what this strange sport is all about.
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On a freezing night in early January, at the cow-smelling terminus of some twisting pathways, two dozen or so bulls shuffle about their hay-covered pens. Every now and then, one emits a plaintive moo; otherwise, they seem -- oddly or not oddly -- quite calm. Being bulls, they can’t know how strange it is that they are where they are: Midtown Manhattan, at Madison Square Garden.

Just beyond their pens is the main floor of the World’s Most Famous Arena, usually a mass of interlocking tiles of hardwood or a single smooth sheet of ice. On this night, it’s covered by a tarp and over one million pounds of dirt, ready to host the first night of the Professional Bull Riders’ season-opening event.

In an hour or so, lights will flash and pyrotechnics will fire and music will blare and the public address announcer will ask the crowd if it’s ready, and they will whoop an affirmative. Just off the floor, those two dozen bulls will be lined up, saddled, and turned loose to inflict whiplashing hell upon the 35 or so cowboys who have accompanied them to New York. But for now, the bulls simply stand or kneel in the dirt, occasionally snorting or bumping into each other, living props for the weirdest annual show on Madison Square Garden’s calendar. They are the stars of the show, and they don’t seem nervous at all.

***

Every winter for the past eight years, PBR has brought bucking bulls and square-jawed men of the frontier and hundreds of tons of soil to New York; every year, thousands of people have dug out or somehow acquired cowboy hats and boots and turquoise jewelry and fringed jackets and descended upon the Garden despite the cold and piles of snow and slush on Seventh Avenue. The PBR’s Monster Energy Buck-Off At The Garden, a name that gets more unwieldy each time you say or hear it, is the only option that New Yorkers have for their man-versus-beast entertainment needs.

What results is an odd and temporary marriage of East and West, the bizarre sight of livestock the size of taxis stomping and flailing on the floor where Willis Reed came back, where Joe Frazier wore down Muhammad Ali, where J.R. Smith works to send your father-in-law (and various Classical contributors) to an early grave. And behind it all is the PBR, immersed in its Herculean effort to find this niche-est of sports a bigger audience thousands of miles from its historical home. They come to New York in part to see just how well they can sell something this strange, in a place so differently strange.

Several escalators and tunnels away from the bulls, PBR’s VIP party is in full swing. It’s the opening night of the Garden event, and PBR takes its obligation to gladhand and backslap as seriously as any other sports league. An open bar and tables lined with buffet options greet the PBR’s most faithful friends and well-wishers in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden, which usually plays host to pop music’s upwardly mobile but tonight sways to the DJ-selected strains of country music’s most effective crossover hits. As an orderly mob of bolo ties picks through sliders and double-fists gin and tonics, Trace Adkins tells us that it’s hard not to stare at that honky tonk badonkadonk. Middle America’s plan for coastal domination appears to be built on repurposing our safest urban words, and it appears to be working.

On the theater’s stage, a young man with carved cheekbones poses next to a poster bearing his own visage, staring off into the middle distance with his hat tilted at just the appropriate romantic angle. He’s a 24-year-old PBR rider named Jory Markiss, a native of Missoula, Montana and the cover boy for a Nicholas Sparks novel called The Longest Ride, an honor Markiss claimed as the winner of a fan vote to determine PBR’s “Sexiest Cowboy.” The copies of The Longest Ride that bear Markiss’ be-hatted smoldering will be available only at Wal-Mart as an in-store exclusive. The Arkansas-based retail giant has more or less succeeded in depositing its blue-box house of oversized mayonnaise containers and ammunition across the contiguous 48 states, but New York City has resisted any push to get a store in the five boroughs. As such, any New Yorker at the Garden to see PBR who is sufficiently interested in gazing into Markiss’ piercingly blue eyes would have to travel to Valley Stream or Secaucus or Bayonne to snag a copy.

This divorce between what the league is selling and who’s actually there to buy it is part of what feels so weird about PBR’s Garden party. As fans file into the arena and the bulls shuffle backstage and select VIPs tromp about the metal walkways that form the chute where the cowboys will wait for their trusty mounts, the Garden’s JumboTron runs through a progression of ads from PBR’s corporate sponsors. It’s immediately and obviously clear that the PBR hasn’t selected these ads to be location-specific: In the span of five minutes, we get ads for a $5,000 zero-turn-radius lawnmower, an arc welder, a Caterpillar tractor, and the silversmith company that makes buckles and jewelry for PBR’s riders. That no one in Manhattan would really have any use for a world-class lawnmower, let alone a tractor, doesn’t seem to matter; these are PBR’s corporate masters, and they will have their air time whether the show is in New York or Houston or anywhere in between.

Which, of course, is what they paid for. Though there are some nods to the city hosting the event -- a highlight video is soundtracked with a country cover of Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove”; the PBR’s resident rodeo clown, Flint Rasmussen, makes a few stale jokes about the Jets and the Knicks and boy, they ain’t been doin’ too hot, huh? -- the PBR at the Garden doesn’t seem all that different from the PBR anyplace else. The novelty is no longer new. “When we first came here, people were like, ‘Ooh, cowboys,’ and they’d stare at you,” Rasmussen tells the crowd. “Now, people like us!”

***

It makes sense that, as the PBR becomes a streamlined league with profit goals and advertising hopes, its events would move from oddity to accepted things-that-happen, and that the presentation would follow suit. To that end, virtually everything at the Garden event seems designed to be as conventional as possible. Music plays constantly, always Top 40 rap or pop or the squarest classic rock. Rasmussen jokes about Footloose and Twitter and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” (He also tells us that he has 16,000 followers, a nice reminder that you are probably using Twitter the wrong way.) This is what a thing that is for everyone sounds like.

There are what feel like hundreds of crowd-interactive contests and giveaways, ranging from throwing a cheap Frisbee into the bed of a pickup truck to dancing on camera to win a set of power tools. Everything is sponsored, and not a single moment of the night’s event has been left unused. The schedule is organized down to the tenth of a second, and throughout the night, the PBR’s announcers, Clint Adkins and Brandon Bates, talk as if a single moment of dead air will kill everyone in the arena.

This is a relentless bombardment of Sports As Entertainment, and if New York’s response shows anything, it is that the PBR is getting it right. There are 15,000-plus people in the seats at the Garden, despite the fact that the temperature outside has steadily hovered between 0 and various negative numbers all day. The usual assortment of drunk finance leather-lungs that would be ruining a Knicks game from the expensive seats are here, too, mostly to heckle the junior rodeo clowns and boo the non-American riders. Mostly, though, people seem happy and excited to cheer, eager to participate in whatever stunt or show or contest the PBR presents, even if the reward is merely a power drill with some bits. We shouldn’t expect an annual PBR spinoff taking over the Garden every week, but the sport has still managed to capture an audience in the city and keep it. Eight years of success in New York City is not nothing.

But to achieve that, PBR has had to take a strange and distinctive and flintily esoteric sport and turn it into a Midtown bar. The personality feels stripped, replaced by the same decor and noise available anywhere else. What makes PBR such an intrinsically appealing event to any New Yorker is the opportunity to see something we can’t experience anywhere else in the city. The Garden event is the PBR’s only East Coast stop, and its only jaunt east of Chicago. There’s an inevitable and not at all hostile gawk-factor to this opportunity to see something so ludicrously out-of-place in an arena so closely associated with New York. All the pre-packaged ad-roll and free power tools and ad nauseam Maroon 5 serve only to get in the way of what the viewer wants: the arresting marriage of violence and livestock handling that comes but once a year. There’s something not only sad but also a bit insulting about seeing something this distinctive reduced to the most identikit contemporary narrative: Heroes rise, clutch exists, drink Pepsi.

None of which is to say that the PBR’s night at the Garden isn’t fun. As wince-inducing as some of the rider falls can be, the unchecked and unpredictable violence of the rides has a can’t-look-away quality that most other sports -- those without access to animals and their weird will -- could never deliver. Every ride is the blood-pressure-rocket-equivalent of watching your team’s quarterback try to scramble out of a collapsing pocket and avoid a sack while down three points in the final 30 seconds of the Super Bowl. With each passing second that a rider stays on his bull, the crowd’s cheers and cries achieve an entirely new octave, peaking in a kind of mass buzzing scream not generally heard outside the insect world.

The theatrics are only enhanced by the stylistic flourishes. Some of the riders choose to compete wearing 10-gallon hats instead of helmets, a decision that makes you want to subject these men to lengthy and probing psychiatric tests. Yet after every throw or spill or near-trampling, the riders get up and jump around as if they were seven-year-olds crashing into the walls of a bouncy house. A few limp, a few grimace, but all dodge goring or broken bones. The phrase ‘death-defying’ is thrown around too often, but watching these men put their lives in the hands of a huge and hugely angry creature brings the combination of words to mind over and over again. That they so continually defy death isn’t just part of the fun, but also the very essence of it. It works.

It’s easy to see, then, why New Yorkers -- and the people of Big 12 country who have moved to New York -- would come out to see this dance every single year. The PBR can layer on as many contests and sponsors as it needs, but the real grab will always be the way a bull throws a rider like a drunk hurling a Slinky, the arcs of dirt and bull snot that come flying your way as the bull thrashes its way around the arena. The strange beauty of the PBR, the flailing balletic weirdness of it and weird musty smell and preponderance of names like Dirteater and Outlaw and Pistol -- real first and last names, I promise -- needs no polished presentation. It’s captivating enough on its own, in New York or Duluth or anywhere people understand what sports are about. Build the bull pens and they will come, no set of power tools required.


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