By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR
The Big Sky PBR is co-produced by Outlaw Partners. Outlaw Partners publishes Explore Big Sky.
BIG SKY – Built around one of the nation’s largest ski resorts, Big Sky isn’t a traditional rodeo town. But this past weekend, the Big Sky PBR dusted this skiville with a Western culture that at its core shares the same foundation that holds Big Sky together: community.
On the second evening of this three-day PBR event, thousands of people were suspended in a moment of shared adrenaline as the event quickly changed course. A bull escaped from a gate behind the chutes, and every cowboy, firefighter and law enforcement agent in the Big Sky Events Arena saddled nearby horses and jumped into trucks to wrangle the loose stock.
Bull riders Dakota Louis and Eli Vastbinder joined longtime cowboy and former Montana State University Rodeo Head Coach Andy Bolich in pursuit of the bull down the main streets of Big Sky. After it was caught, the three rode back into the arena on horses and Louis tossed his hat into the stands, where the crowd erupted.
“That’s cowboy stuff right there, people,” said Flint Rasmussen, renowned PBR entertainer and longtime staple of the 11-years-running Big Sky event.
Indeed, it was a display of true Western life, but it also resembled the sense of neighborliness embedded in the Big Sky PBR as well as Big Sky itself. Certainly more than a rowdy event and a chance to dust off cowboy boots each year, the consistently sold-out three nights of bull riding and now week chock-full of events leading up to it is about community. It’s about family.
During night three, at the contestant’s pre-event meeting behind the arena, Outlaw Partners founder and chairman Eric Ladd addressed a circle of riders and crew members and thanked them for looking out for his community. He then told them the story he would that night relate to the crowd: How the Big Sky PBR, born from awe of the cowboy and a big dream, has created a family.
“You are my family,” Ladd told them, mirroring the riders with their hands tucked into their Wranglers and their heads hung in respect.
The riders concur. After voting the Big Sky event the PBR Event of the Year for eight years in a row, the top-tier athletes at the 2022 Big Sky PBR were either veterans of the event who recounted it as their favorite, or eager rookies who had heard of the legend that the Big Sky PBR has become.
“Big Sky, there’s nowhere else like it,” said this year’s event champion Jesse Petri after walking off the dirt with more than $46,000 in prize money and a slew of other big-ticket awards following his 88.5-point championship ride. “The crowd is just absolutely wild. They throw a bunch of money at us and they love to see good bull riding and that’s what it’s all about.”
Behind the chutes, the riders are each other’s biggest fans, but they also treat everyone else in the arena like family. They call members of the Outlaw Partners crew by first name, share seats with audience members in the stands and dance with Big Sky’s young and wild at bars each night after the PBR wrapped up.
It’s a relationship founded on reciprocity: the fans provide enthusiasm, support and a window into the community, and the riders give everything they’ve got.
“It’s just all in all good for us and the community loves us,” said bull rider Matt Triplett, who won the Big Sky PBR in 2017. “They treat us really good. They pay our fees, give us a little extra traveling money. It’s just this is by far the best bull riding we all go to all year …This is one we all want to come and perform [at] and do really well just because the fans [are] so into it.”
The riders aren’t the only ones walking away from the week with big payouts. A 2021 study commissioned by Outlaw Partners found that events culminating with the Big Sky PBR, dubbed Big Sky’s Biggest Week, attract up to 30,000 visitors, support the equivalent of 311 jobs and generate $19 million throughout the community.
“It pumps a lot of revenue into the local businesses and we love to see these big events come to town,” said Kristin Kern, owner of the Hungry Moose Market & Deli, who said her staff donned green bandanas all week to get excited for the PBR.
In addition to commerce, the 50/50 raffle and Calcutta at the Big Sky PBR this year contributed nearly $152,000 in charitable donations to local causes. Additional charitable funds are raked in throughout Big Sky’s Biggest Week through high-energy events like a four-day art auction, a Black Bull golf tournament and a bingo night that celebrates late local legend Dick Allgood.
“I hope that every fundraiser I ever host is this fun,” said Mariel Butan, executive director of Morningstar Learning Center, at bingo night. MLC was one of two beneficiaries for the bingo event. “It kind of embodies Big Sky that we’re showing up for each other and having it be a really fun way to do that.”
Though Big Sky’s Biggest Week and the Big Sky PBR have become tradition for much of the community, the event is the picture of open arms. Each year, new faces embed themselves inside the crowd and add something of their own.
A staple of the PBR is the dance competition, where three fans are chosen each night to take the dirt alongside Rasmussen and compete for the crowd’s affection to their music of choice. On Thursday night, Boyd Beasley, an “over-50” Texan who’d been to many PBRs but never the Big Sky event, shocked the crowd with an ‘80s hip-hop number that ended with him doing one of the more impressive worms ever witnessed in the arena.
After the crowd decidedly cheered Beasley on to victory, he stepped off the dirt, sweat dripping down his face and flecks of dust coating his arms.
“I love it when really tough men are riding on dangerous animals,” Beasley said about PBR. “I live vicariously through their risk.”
Beasley took his own risk that night while the bull riders enjoyed a break behind the chutes, setting the crowd on fire for another round of all-time riding.
“It’s exciting, it’s riveting, people are just riled up!” Beasley shouted over famous PBR announcer Matt West’s booming voice in the background. “Everybody loves a cowboy.”
It turns out that everyone especially loves cowboys and cowgirls when they’re 3-feet tall. Mutton busters this year received some of the rowdiest crowd engagement, and for good reason.
On Thursday night, Memphis native Burke Strange, 5, careened all the way through the arena on his sheep for a first-place ride.
“This is my dream,” Burke said when accepting his trophy, which he later held up in the front at the crowd in Len Hill Park while he danced to the sounds of Chancey Williams.
On Friday night, 5-year-old Briella Rauch’s face was streaked with tears as she accepted her mutton bustin’ trophy in her American flag print jacket and chaps, telling West in the microphone that it was the best day of her life. On Saturday, Big Sky’s Adley McPhillips followed her 2021 win with another champion ride, admitting to the crowd she had been practicing on her parents and dog.
“The Big Sky PBR was again impactful at every level imaginable,” said Jacey Watson, who co-produces the Big Sky PBR with her husband, Andy. “…A wonderful community event to be a part of and everyone is so grateful.”
On the dirt on the last night, Ladd announced that a recent agreement extended the Big Sky Events Arena’s lease in Town Center and that the Big Sky PBR would be returning in 2023.
“Outlaw Partners is committed to being part of the Big Sky community for many years to come and we look at the opportunity to help curate events as a key pillar to our business and the community desires and needs,” Ladd said.
When Ladd opened the final night of bull riding with an address to the crowd, he said when he and the Watsons first dreamed up the Big Sky PBR, they agreed it had to be about two things: “One is it’s gotta be the best,” he said. “No. 2: It’s gotta be about community.”
Now 11 years later, between the dirt, the chutes, the bleachers and the streets of Big Sky, petrifying tradition binds together all the pieces of this ever-growing event. It informs a rich sense of place, one textured with different ways of life and colored by a dream come true.
“As it polishes out and it gets bigger and bigger, it’s something I want the community to feel ownership in and it’s something that it helps generate that bigger heartbeat within a community,” Ladd said on the Big Sky-based Hoary Marmot podcast while reflecting on this year’s event. “That’s what I hope for.”
Big Sky isn’t a rodeo town, but it saddles up each July to celebrate community and to honor its own brand of Western; a brand that looks like cowboys riding horses down the streets with local fire trucks in tow to bring a bull back to the arena so the show can go on. And on.
Leonora Willett, Gabrielle Gasser, Julia Barton and Joseph T. O’Connor contributed reporting to this story.