By Doug Hare EBS Staff
BIG SKY – “Big Sky’s Biggest Week” lived up to its billing once again this year. From July 26-29, the sometimes sleepy Town Center of Big Sky came alive, as the four-day extravaganza of events brought nearly 15,000 people in total attendance. The main draw, the Big Sky PBR, is the top-paying touring pro bull riding stop with prize and sponsorship money totaling nearly $80,000 for the 40 cowboys who competed.
The sold-out, four-time PBR Event of the Year drew visitors from around the country, with trailheads overflowing for the week and many local business owners saying that this was the most profitable week of the year for them.
Tickets sold to attendees from 41 different states with an estimated media coverage of 20-million-plus Facebook and Instagram views. The event raised a record of more than $115,000 for local charities highlighted by checks to Big Sky Rotary Club and Montana Land Reliance.
“The Big Sky PBR is not only incredibly fun and successful, the event has been very generous to charities around Big Sky,” said Jessie Wiese, the southwest manager of Montana Land Reliance. “We’ll use the funding to secure land conservation projects in and around Big Sky, protecting wildlife habitat, scenic beauty and streamfront.”
The festivities kicked off with a charity golf tournament at The Reserve at Moonlight Basin that helped raise $50,000 for the Rider Relief Fund during the week, which included $8,000 donated from Big Sky PBR event producers Eric Ladd and Jim Murphy. “We are so appreciative of the outpouring of support from the community of Big Sky,” said Jill vanEgmond, director of fund development for Rider Relief Fund. “Big Sky PBR week was a record-setting event for us with a sold out golf tournament and the generosity of those who made purchases during our live auction.”
“This is hands down the best event we are a part of. From organization to execution it’s second to none,” she said.
Wednesday also included the inaugural community barn dance, called the Hometown Hoedown, with free dance lessons and fiddle music courtesy of the Beet Tops. “It has such a quaint, intergenerational feel. It’s nice to see kids and grandparents having fun on the same dance floor,” said Big Sky local Mona Lovely.
The next day saw a successful Big Sky Art Auction that sold more than $300,000 worth of fine Western paintings and prints, followed by a Turnpike Troubadours concert that drew approximately 5,000 people, filling the lawn until the final notes of a lengthy encore set.
“I’d say it was the biggest concert we’ve ever had in Town Center Park,” said Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council of Big Sky. “The band did exactly what we hoped—their high-energy show blew the roof off the venue and set the stage for a great PBR weekend.”
Three thousand attendees witnessed the first night of bull riding action, and 15 riders hit the eight-second mark. “The crowd was electric,” said Freestone Productions’ Jacey Watson, who along with her husband Andy puts on PBR events across the country. “It was really great to see so many cowboys ride. It doesn’t happen so often, but in Big Sky it happens a lot. [I think it’s] the fresh mountain air and the good Montana vibes.”
The first night ended with a James McMurtry concert, and a number of fans stayed through a light rain to take in McMurtry’s lively rendition of Neil Young’s “Too Long in the Wasteland.”
The second night of bull riding kicked off with Jamie McLean’s electric guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and a flag ceremony with local businesses and firefighters representing the community. Even with the impressive bull riding that took place over the weekend, for some, the mutton bustin’ competition is the highlight of either night, as children cling to wily sheep for a shot at glory.
In the final round of bull riding, no riders were able to make it to eight seconds. “It’s not that uncommon,” said Watson, who keeps close tabs on riders’ performances in her role with Freestone Productions. “A lot of times in the Built Ford Tough Series we see maybe one or two bulls rode on a championship round. Obviously, the bulls outperformed the cowboys [in the last round]. It is the luck of the draw.”
Columbia Falls, Montana-native Matt Triplett, who’s currently ranked No. 7 in the world, took home first place, with Cody Teel and Volborg, Montana-native Jess Lockwood taking home second and third respectively. “I just want to thank all the fans and all the people that put so much work into this to make this event so awesome,” Triplett said.
Immediately following the prize ceremony, the Jamie McLean Band took the stage as the crowd filtered out into a July night, spruce moths encircling the still bright arena lights. The band played late into the night, with the concert culminating in a surprise fireworks show. McLean, who played at PBR two years ago, said, “This year definitely felt bigger and better. We just hope to be back.” The lead singer also hiked Lone Mountain over the weekend and attended both nights of bull riding.
“To watch these guys get thrown around was pretty nuts. It makes me feel pretty lucky to be a professional musician. Just being close to the animals, I can’t imagine riding one of them,” he added.
“I think the event turned out wonderfully. We had some nice little rain showers to settle the dust and we had wonderful evenings. The Big Sky arena is incredibly romantic. It’s a quintessential setting and you can’t replicate it,” Watson said. “How wonderful was it to crown a Montana boy at a Montana event?”
“It’s nice to see Big Sky come alive,” said Tom Simkins, co-owner of Simkins-Hallin Lumber, a major sponsor of the event. “We’ve had a vision of a vibrant, bustling downtown for a while now. It was fun to see enough people to make that vision a reality.” The Simkins family owns much of Big Sky Town Center and each summer allows their land to be used for the venue and looks forward to future PBR weekends.
When asked why Big Sky PBR event has won Event of the Year four years in a row, Watson is quick to point out that it’s voted on by the riders. “A lot of common comments that I got from the cowboys [highlighted] how welcomed they felt in Big Sky … Big Sky should pat themselves on the back and know that it is a great place to come visit for everyone. It goes a really long way for those cowboys to have the extra support of people paying their way to experience Big Sky.”
Buy your tickets early next year—this year’s two nights of bull riding sold out in less than 24 hours.