By: Andrew Giangola
Western sports bullfighters are sometimes called “the Secret Service of bull riding” – jumping into harm’s way just as highly trained agents would to protect the leader they serve.
Bullfighters similarly put life and limb on the line to protect riders who often wind up on the ground, prone to the stampeding animals.
The job requires more than oversized courage. Bullfighters are skilled athletes. They’re quick and agile, with the innate instincts to anticipate a bull’s next move and the ability to read their teammates’ next move to operate as a unit.
Today’s PBR bullfighters – the ultimate protectors – even look the part of top-level federal protectors in their striking U.S. Border Patrol uniforms.
At one time, however, the men on the dirt bore a closer resemblance to clowns, clad in hokey garb that could have been lifted from the wardrobe closet of the popular television show Hee-Haw.
PBR has always put a premium on the importance bullfighters play in protecting their star bull riders. As the sport grew in popularity, the organization also recognized how visible the bullfighters were to the fans in the arena and especially through the medium fueling PBR’s growth: television.
To determine the value of this exposure, PBR conducted a study with the gold standard firm for sports brand valuation, Joyce Julius Associates.
The study validated what was already suspected: while the bull riders were usually visible for less than a minute during and after their rides, the bullfighters were in the arena—and on the television screen—for every single ride throughout the entire event, and brought great value to any brand associating with them.
This allowed PBR to sell sponsorships on the bullfighters’ clothing—and pay them more.
So in 2001, PBR started thinking about changing what the bullfighters wore: from the traditional baggy oversized jeans shorts, hokey suspenders, tear-away rags and bandannas to athletic, color-coordinated jerseys and shorts bearing sponsor logos.
Led by then-CEO Randy Bernard and Chief Operating Officer Sean Gleason, the organization approached Rob Smets – the five-time World Champion and one of the top bullfighters – to get his thoughts on the idea. Smets was all for it.
An east coast design firm was engaged to create designs for the new bullfighter gear. But it was apparent from the start that their designers didn’t know much about the Western lifestyle market.
Rob’s wife, Carla, tells the story best: “Once I looked at the proposed designs the PBR sent from that other company, I realized there was no way that Rob would wear anything like that. Rob and I knew we had to come up with something that would make the PBR happy and that the bullfighters would want to wear.”
The couple went to Carla’s parent’s steakhouse in McLean, Texas, and sat down with Tye Thompson, a local artist, who had done several paintings for them.
“Rob and I were envisioning something similar to hockey shorts and a motocross jersey – athletic, with no frills, and sponsor-friendly,” she said. “We described the look to Tye, and he sketched our ideas. We showed the drawings to the PBR, who said that we were headed in the right direction.”
Once the project was approved, Smets suggested Duncan Dickinson of Dickinson Associates, who had been doing design and marketing for Smets and the PBR for several years.
Dickinson was also a competitive cyclist with a lot of experience in designing cycling team uniforms.
Drawing on his dual knowledge of rodeo and athletic clothing design, he chose to use the pattern of BMX jerseys, which he matched with large, baggy mountain bike shorts.
“The uniforms would still be loose-fitting and allow for the protective gear underneath, but the bullfighters would now look like the professional athletes they really are,” Dickinson said.
And best of all, instead of sewn-on patches and embroidery, the fabric would be sublimated (printed) with the bright colors and sharp logos that were easily readable in the arena and on the TV screen—a sponsorship dream.
“A whole series of designs was created, and everyone loved where it was going,” Dickinson said.
With the 2001 PBR World Finals only a few months away, PBR decided to postpone the rollout of the new bullfighter gear until 2002.
At the time, Smets, the world-class bullfighter, didn’t excel in exercising patience.
Secretly working with Teresa Underdown of Tru Marketing, he secured the sponsorship of Carquest Auto Parts. Designs were created and rushed to Dickinson’s clothing supplier in California. The finished gear was sent to Chicago to Duncan, who brought it onto a plane heading to Las Vegas.
“No one else knew what Rob had planned, and they were in for a big surprise,” he said.
At the opening of Round 1 of the 2001 PBR Finals, Smets’s fellow bullfighters Joe Baumgartner, Dennis Johnson, and Jimmy Anderson came out still wearing their traditional baggies and rags. And then Smets ran into the Thomas & Mack Arena sporting his radical red, white and blue Carquest uniform.
No one had ever seen anything like it.
On the TV broadcast, announcer Donnie Gay proclaimed Smets as “The Carquest King!”
“In front of a nationwide TV audience, Carquest got more sponsorship exposure than they could have ever hoped for,” Dickinson said.
The rest is history.
Playing off the success of the new look, in 2002, the PBR, led by Gleason, who is now league Commissioner and CEO, was able to secure Carhartt’s sponsorship of the Bullfighter Gear Program.
Since then, the PBR Bullfighters have been sponsored by Dickies, Matador Beef Jerky, and now U.S. Border Patrol.
And not to be outdone, PBR Official Entertainer Flint Rasmussen has also traded in his old-school gear and taken the sleek new look to another level—first sponsored by Enterprise Rent-A-Car and now by Cooper Tires.
Rasmussen has various designs that are big sellers for fans at events and through the PBR online store.
“From the beginning, the motivation of this program was to showcase the bullfighters as athletes and to get them the sponsorship they deserve,” Dickinson said. “Obviously, a great idea was born because bullfighter jerseys are now at almost every bull riding event and rodeo around the world.”
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