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Columbia Business Monthly

Bull Riding Brings Novel Entertainment, Cash to Greenville Economy

Apr 12, 2022 05:18PM ● By John C. Stevenson

Greenville is bullish on professional bull riding.

That was the conclusion offered recently by an executive of the Professional Bull Riders sports organization, over a January weekend that saw a capacity crowd of 8,100 people file into the Bon Secours Wellness Arena on a Saturday night to watch 40 athletes attempt to stay atop a bevy of 1,800-pound bucking bulls, for a “mere” eight seconds.

It marked the third time the PBR’s Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour has come to the Upstate city, with all of the Upstate stops – even a 2021 visit in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic – at sellout or near-sellout levels, according to Robert Simpson, vice president of PBR and general manager of the PBR’s Velocity Whisky Tour.

“The market here (in Greenville), from a business perspective, is tremendous,” Simpson said in a telephone interview while in town for the event. “When we sat there (in 2017) and we were looking at the map and saying, ‘That might be a nice PBR market, let’s go try it,’ we hit a goldmine in Greenville, and not only financially. We do what we do because we’re in business, but the other part of it that’s just super cool and super nice is (the) people. It’s the people that come, and it gives you a good feeling that we get to bring this product to a market that loves it. It gives you satisfaction, besides just the financial part.”

Of the three Greenville tour stops so far, Simpson said that only the first one, in 2018, barely missed sellout status. And while the 2021 Greenville tour stop was a technical sellout, Simpson pointed out that total available seating was drastically reduced to allow for social distancing.

The energy in the Wellness Arena was almost palpable during the most-recent stop in Greenville. The ice rink used by the Greenville Swamp Rabbits hockey team was concealed under a layer of dark, reddish-brown earth. At one end of the oblong floor were the chutes from which the riders and bulls would emerge.

The crowd’s excitement started to rise as the house lights went down and thumping music coursed through the PA system. The crowd noise continued to grow as the professional bull riders, whose challenge that night would be to stay atop a wildly bucking bull for eight seconds, were introduced.

The event is a mixture of pure athleticism combined with showmanship, wrapped up in a high-quality production. While it’s not a rodeo, and hence there are no rodeo clowns, there is an entertainer in minimal clown makeup who helps the announcers keep the crowd involved between bull rides with his antics and commentary. 

There’s also plenty of high-energy music, dancing colored lights playing about the arena, manufactured fog, and even pyrotechnics to round out the show.

The main draw, though, is the competition between riders and bulls.

“What we bring to Greenville is some of the top professional bull riders in the country, and in the world,” Simpson explained. “We have international riders that represent about five different (countries). … When you bring that kind of talent together, and especially to a market that is receptive, i.e. Greenville, it just makes for a fantastic show.”

But the riders aren’t the only stars.

“The second part is the bulls,” Simpson continued. “The riders are one-half of the show, the bulls are the other half, so when you match up the best bucking bulls you can find in the country and bring them to a city and put them with those riders who are coming from all over, it makes the sport so dramatic. It really is an edge-of-your-seat ticket.”

For the January event in Greenville, the bulls featured in the contests included “Gangster,” “Screamin Demon,” and “Buttermilk Biscuit.”

As general manager of the Bon Secours Wellness Center, Beth Paul has seen her fair share of acts during her tenure. She said she thinks several factors contribute to the PBR tour’s success here.

“I think it’s wonderful family entertainment,” Paul said in an interview after the recent PBR event. “There were a lot of children here; a lot of families here. And I think there’s kind of an intrigue behind the PBR. It’s not a form of sport you can go see every day, so I think there’s a certain amount of intrigue and interest for the consumer. And it’s a great value proposition for the family. And while it’s an incredible sporting event and the athletes are phenomenal, the PBR does a wonderful job just with the pure entertainment value.”

Beyond the Upstate

Simpson said an examination of ticket-buyer information sheds light on who is attending the PBR events in Greenville. He said about half of the audience for 2022’s event traveled from outside the Greenville metro area to see the show.

And Greenville’s not the only nearby venue where fans can enjoy the sport of bull riding. Simpson said the PBR was approached by the International Equestrian Center in Tryon, North Carolina, about the possibility of an outdoor event. A deal was struck, and in 2021 the center hosted a sellout crowd in a specially constructed 6,800-seat arena. 

Having two events so geographically close to each other – Tryon’s about 50 miles from Greenville – was a concern for the PBR, especially considering that many of those attending the Greenville tour stops are traveling by car from more than an hour away, Simpson said.

“I was a little bit skeptical. The facilities, the venue, the people up there were great, but I didn’t want that event cannibalizing our Greenville event, because we were so successful here,” he said. “That event last summer, we sold it out – 6,800 people in Tryon in the middle of summer. It was a tremendous success.

“Now my research and now my theory is that both events are helping each other, so just growing that PBR fanbase. I have to think that the majority of people who come to Greenville are the same majority that are going to Tryon, and vice versa,” Simpson continued. “And I think the more we can do with the two events, we’re just going to grow that base even further out, and at two times of the year. I think we’re just growing a tremendous story for the professional bull riders right now.”

Elsewhere in the Palmetto State, fan turnout for PBR events has been varied. Simpson described recent PBR stops in Columbia as “moderately successful,” and said the capital city is a probable candidate for biennial tour stops, whereas North Charleston, like Greenville, is an annual stop.

“Literally, if you want to talk about statewide, we have South Carolina covered,” Simpson said.

Simpson also noted that with the support the PBR has in Greenville, future Upstate Velocity Tour stops here could be extended from one-day to two-day events.

Economic Impact

There are a variety of ways to measure the economic impact of a PBR Velocity Tour stop on a city. Paul noted the direct impact: “One of the strongest indicators of positively impacting the community is job creation,” she said. “For that particular event and the staff that we hired we had almost 700 people working that event, starting from the changeover from the Greenville Swamp Rabbits ice that we had to convert to get ready for the dirt, and then obviously pretty significant on the cleaning and custodial side of things, with the dirt. It took 700 people for from 2,500 to 3,000 hours of work just to (host) PBR.”

Paul also pointed out that because a Velocity Tour stop draws its audience from the entire region – with some fans coming from as far away as Charlotte and Atlanta – it benefits the economy through increased traffic in area restaurants and hotels.

“With 60 percent coming from Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, and Asheville, if you look at the other 40 percent driving in, they’re perhaps spending the night, and perhaps having dinner in one of our restaurants downtown or in the county,” she said.

Paul said Columbia, Charlotte, and Atlanta comprise the top three markets from which people traveled to catch Greenville’s PBR tour stop.

The Winner Is…

During the PBR’s January stop in Greenville, Brazilian Marcos Gloria carried the evening on the strength of his perfect two-for-two performance, riding Barnett’s Row in the first round, and then besting Pneu Dart’s Black Label in the second round of competition.

In the stands, Greer residents Kevin and Stephanie Williams said they used to follow bull riding more when they lived in Ohio: “It’s been a while since I’ve been to one,” Kevin Williams said. “It’s nice to see it local.”

Nearby, fans Rusty and Lynn Greer, of Greenville, were also excited to see the action. Rusty Greer said he had been involved in rodeo since he was 8 years old; for Lynn, it was the former New Yorker’s first time at a bull-riding event.

“Really, what I want is to go pet the animals,” Lynn said with a laugh.