By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Bull riding in Big Sky has hit the big stage.
A fledgling stop on the Professional Bull Riders circuit – in just its third year – Big Sky’s event was announced as the PBR Touring Pro Division Event of the Year at round two of the World Finals in Las Vegas, Nev., on Oct. 24.
The top 35 riders in the world compete every year at the PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals in the Thomas & Mack Center, where J.B. Mauney captured his first world title this year. The five-day event culminates a years’ worth of work by the riders, bulls and event producers.
“My first PBR event was over 10 years ago in Las Vegas,” said Eric Ladd, CEO of Outlaw Partners (and publisher of this newspaper) who co-produced the Big Sky PBR with Freestone Productions and Continental Construction. “I was so inspired after seeing the show and thought, ‘wow, I’d really like to bring this to Big Sky.’”
He did, and three years after the first bulls bucked under the shadow of Lone Mountain, Ladd stood in the national spotlight.
“Eric was shaking and could hardly breathe, he was so excited,” said Jacey Watson of Freestone Productions. She and her husband Andy Watson, along with Jim Murphy of Continental Construction, were on hand to accept the award voted on by the world’s top 35 riders.
PBR entertainer Flint Rasmussen and announcer Brandon Bates, both of whom work the World Finals and Big Sky show, were on the dusty floor of the Thomas & Mack Center pulling for the team.
Rasmussen, a Montana native, ran up on stage after the award ceremony, delivering hugs and congratulations.
“To have the riders vote the Big Sky PBR as the Touring Pro Event of the Year is a great honor,” said PBR CEO Jim Haworth, who was on stage for the award presentation and witnessed the Big Sky production first-hand this summer. “It means that out of the 120 events on the tour, this event is quickly becoming the TPD to attend on every riders’ list.”
The two-day event on July 31 and Aug. 1 brought nearly 5,000 fans to Big Sky Town Center for bull riding, mutton busting, pulled pork, Pabst Blue Ribbon and free concerts each night. The all-female AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles tore the cover off the Cooper Tire stage on night one, and Bozeman-based outlaw country outfit The Dirty Shame treated revelers to a rocking show night two, complete with the natural pyrotechnics of a mid-summer Montana lightning storm.
The momentum for the Big Sky PBR to take top honors was building even before the first bulls crashed through the gates. A week before the event, PBR announced that Big Sky would be the first ever Touring Pro Division stop shown live on pay-per-view, streaming the competition in real time to households around the world.
Chase Outlaw, Sean Willingham, Stetson Lawrence, former world champion Mike Lee, and 11 other bull riders used Big Sky as a springboard to the World Finals this year. The $40,000 added purse and the Built Ford Tough Series’ new point system made it a particularly enticing destination, according to Watson.
Most TPD events only contribute 15-20 percent of the points to riders’ BFTS standings, but 50 percent of the points earned in Big Sky were available this year, putting it on par with only three or four other events in the country.
For the past 8-10 years, the Event of the Year honor has been dominated by the J.W. Hart PBR Challenge in Decatur, Texas, and the Ross Coleman Invitational in Molalla, Ore., so the win for Big Sky was nothing short of a coup.
“It was a pretty humbling moment to stand in front of that crowd in Las Vegas, up against some of the most seasoned events in country,” Ladd said. “Jim [Murphy] and I didn’t have nearly the caliber of belt buckles our competition did.”
The allure of prize money and points brought bull riders to Big Sky, but it was likely the mountain culture and welcome they received that sealed the deal.
“I think the recreation played a big part [for the riders],” Watson said. “Several of the guys rented a condo and mountain bikes to go back and forth to the arena. It’s quite unheard of at any other event.”
“I think this is a proud moment for the town of Big Sky,” Murphy said. “Big Sky already has the best skiing in North America, now they also have the best PBR Touring Pro Event.”
Ladd was quick to point out all the individuals and businesses that make Big Sky’s biggest summer blow-out happen. “Thanks to a great partnership with Freestone Productions and our amazing sponsors, we’re able to bring to the Big Sky Meadow a show of the same quality as seen in Madison Square Garden in New York City.”
The free concerts associated with the PBR have also brought to town bigger names like Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and Morgan Frazier, keeping the party going after the last bull has bucked, and drawing another set of fans.
Turns out, the PBR’s frenzied atmosphere is a treat for the artists, too.
“It’s very inspiring to be around all the cowboys,” said Adrian “Angus” Conner of Hell’s Belles, after their performance this summer. “All that testosterone is a huge turn on!”
Plans for next year’s event are already in the works, and the promoters won’t be resting on their laurels in the meantime, Ladd said.
“We’re excited to make it even better and attract the very best riders in the world.”