Ten days of events culminate with 3 nights of top-notch bull riding
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Logan Biever, 23, of Alberta, Canada, leans against a table, the brim of his cowboy hat low in emblematic cowboy posture as he weaves white tape around his fingers. In the arena, PBR announcer Matt West riles up the crowd and the smell of diesel fuel wafts from the dirt as event producers prep center stage for the riders’ fiery entrance.
But back here, the riders have their own way of getting ready. They wrap themselves in tape, strap on colorful chaps and gaze into the chutes, where their 1,600-pound competition snorts fiercely behind gates. Though all parties are disparate in this moment, the crowd, the riders—perhaps even the bulls—are all waiting to be part of something special.
It’s Saturday night at the 10th Anniversary Big Sky PBR, and just out of sight of the sold-out arena a band of the world’s top cowboys are about to welcome the Big Sky audience to what they hope will be their own eight seconds of glory. They’re bull riders, contenders in a sport that transcends competition and dances with greatness.
It was the same thing that compelled Outlaw Partners founder and Explore Big Sky publisher Eric Ladd to bring the PBR to Big Sky in 2011. That first one-night event was a sparkling dream that lost the company $200,000 the first go-round. Now, in its 10th year, the treasured Big Sky event sold out three nights of high-energy, world-class bull riding in four minutes.
“We knew we wanted the 10th anniversary of Big Sky PBR to be special,” said Megan Paulson, CEO of Outlaw Partners, “and what happened in the arena those three nights was truly electric. The energy in the crowd was off the charts; we raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity; the bulls and bull riders put on a great show, and the community, sponsors and fans showed up.”
The time leading up to PBR, now known as Big Sky’s Biggest Week, was celebrated this year with 10 days of events, including the annual Big Sky Art Auction, the Big Sky Community Rodeo and Big Sky Community Street Dance, a mutton bustin’ family day and a community bingo night to honor the late community legacy, Dick Allgood. Each event was packed and rich with community spirit, a sign of local tradition igniting. Across all 10 days of Big Sky’s Biggest Week, more than $200,000 was raised for charitable donations.
“I don’t think I could have ever imagined it being this big,” Ladd said, “But I think I always had hoped that we would get something that would be so community encompassing.”
Outlaw Partners co-producers in the PBR, Jacey and Andy Watson with Freestone Productions, joined Ladd in the initial dream for PBR and are now sharing in its successes. “I don’t know if 10 years ago I would have seen myself get an extreme emotional feeling that I did this year,” Jacey said. “I’m not a person that shows a lot of emotion. And for me, it felt intense this year.” Jacey said after taking 2020 off due to the pandemic, it was amazing to hear the roar of the crowd once again.
The first year of PBR, Outlaw Partners brought Geyser Whitewater buses stacked with rooftop rafts to the makeshift arena to help fill the place. On July 22, the opening Thursday night for this year’s PBR, the bus returned to commemorate the early days.
Flint Rasmussen, the PBR entertainer in a league of his own, joked with the crowd between moments of excitement and gestured toward the bus. “They’ve got beer, they’ve got pizza and they haven’t showered in weeks,” he laughed at the raft guides, who raised their beers in salute.
Atop the bus, Hayley Schrope of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in Big Sky for her first summer, looks down on the arena in utter amazement. “It’s funny that this is such a thing here,” she said, two PBR beers clutched in her right hand. “I went to a rodeo in Florida, and this is so different because it’s so part of the blood of Montana.”
Indeed, sense of place is a large piece of what makes the Big Sky PBR so special. Though Big Sky has been known as a resort town since Big Sky Resort sprouted up in the ‘70s, the mountain town still enjoys celebrating its more classic Western lineage, as evident through the Western apparel draping PBR-goers each year. The Big Sky PBR has an exceptional way of articulating the blended culture, like raft guides in cowboy boots, through a series of moments.
“This is a great event,” said Matt Kidd, managing director of Lone Mountain Land Company, this year’s Big Sky PBR community partner. “We’re so thankful to help to sponsor it, because it really brings the whole community together—locals and visitors alike.”
For some youngsters, the Big Sky PBR is their first introduction to the Western lifestyle. Craig White and Gretchen Fellerhoff-White, owners of Bar Quarter Circle Ranch in Bozeman, have provided sheep for the mutton bustin’ event at the Big Sky PBR for the last eight years. During an intermission between bull rides, small kids under 60 pounds sit on top of the Whites’ sheep, clutching their wool with determination while the sheep charge through the arena until the rider falls off.
Though the rides are often only a few seconds—some end before they even start—the event brought the crowd to its feet this year just as much as the bull riding. The Whites say they enjoy watching kids who didn’t grow up on ranches interact with the sheep, and of course that triumphant moment when the little champion thrusts their trophy, often as big as them, into the air with pride.
On Friday night, another 3-foot-tall cowboy, Tucker Brennecke, age 6, made a memorable appearance in the arena during the dance-off, a PBR tradition, when he flung himself on the ground, kicking his feet in the air and spinning in circles to the echoing applause of the audience.
“I was nervous, but I said to myself ‘don’t worry, I’m good at this,” he said after celebrating his dance-off win and Murdoch’s gift card with his friends in the bleachers. “It’s just dancing.”
The crowd comes for the bucking bulls, but it’s moments like these that transform the event from a few hours of entertainment to community tradition, one that has not gone unnoticed.
“I’m just blown away: 10 years,” said Bill Simkins, manager of Simkins Holdings LLC and Big Sky Town Center developer, whose family is leasing the land the temporary PBR arena sits on to Outlaw Partners. “I never would have imagined it would be like this with the energy and all the people here. It’s a busy transformation in this community. If someone came in a time warp here today from 10 years ago, they wouldn’t recognize it.”
Rasmussen, who has as much spirit as he did when he performed at the first Big Sky PBR, says the fans in Big Sky have grown to love the sport and have learned how it works.
“They boo the judges, they cheer for the riders, they cheer for the bulls. The whole thing has evolved into something I never thought it would here, honestly,” he said before heading out on the dirt for night two after a rowdy night one.
“That was the craziest Thursday night I’ve ever seen in my life since college, maybe,” he said reflecting on this year’s opening evening, which event producers also called the best opening night in Big Sky PBR history. “That goes to [show] how the people have grown with this event and learned that when they step in here … we adapt to the uniqueness of the locale we’re in, and they know we’re going to put on a quality show and it’s going to be fun.”
Part of that fun this year included Rasmussen crowd surfing, something Jacey says she can’t recall him ever doing.
While the Big Sky PBR is well-loved locally, it’s also nationally revered. The event has won PBR Event of the Year seven times and along with West and Rasmussen, attracts big industry names behind the scenes.
Cord McCoy, former PBR rider-turned-stock contractor, arrived in Big Sky a few days before the PBR and was perhaps the only person walking around town with real spurs on his boots. McCoy, who hails from Atoka, Oklahoma, has been a part of the Big Sky PBR since it was merely an idea. This year, he chatted it up the crowd inside the arena and also muscled ropes on the bulls behind the chutes.
“I got to be a part of the first year when it came to Big Sky and I fell in love with it, with the producers, the Outlaw Partners and the rest of the crew,” McCoy said. Now, he’s grateful to bring his own family to Big Sky and share both the mountains and what he calls “one of the best PBR events in the world” with his wife, Sara, and two-year-old daughter, Tulsa.
Another big name in PBR world, Chad Berger, premiere PBR stock contractor and owner of Chad Berger Bucking Bulls, has been bringing his fleet of choice bulls to the Big Sky event since it began as well.
“This one is the coolest events of them all because of just the scenery, the [sold-out] crowds every night, the atmosphere is just electric,” Berger said while getting ready for opening night. “You have to have great bulls and great riders to have great rides, and Big Sky provides that.”
True to Berger’s claim, both riders and bulls were in top shape this year. Dalton Kasel, 22, won the Big Sky PBR in 2019 and returned this year to take home the most prize money of any rider. On Friday night, Kasel, the No. 22 rider in the world, rode a bounty bull for the chance at $10,000. And just before he mounted the bull, Outlaw Partners upped the prize money to $20,000.
The men working in the chutes behind the proverbial theater curtain of the PBR strain their arms against the ropes around Kasel’s bull, Lil Bit Crazy, the tension building both on the dirt and in the stands.
Lil Bit Crazy ripped out of the chute with fury, but Kasel completed his eight second ride in consummate style.
That Friday night, Jacey said, was the most matched she’s ever seen the crowd and the riders. What the riders put out, the crowd gave back. “It doesn’t happen like that very often,” she said.
Saturday night, the bulls came out especially passionate and ready to put up a fight. The first several riders failed to complete a full ride, and many bulls lingered in the arena long after they threw their rider from their back, some even charging the three L&K bullfighters. Bull riders thanked the fighters, slinging arms over their shoulders and bumping fists, and Outlaw Partners and Haas Construction awarded the intrepid men with bonuses for their valor.
In an intense championship round on Saturday, Junior Patrik Souza, the No. 7-ranked rider in the world, rode WSM’s Foghorn Leghorn for a whopping 91 points, earning him the overall event win and a collective take-home of $33,606. That last day, Outlaw Partners, Lone Mountain Land Company and Lone Mountain Ranch pooled together to double the money pot, setting records for cowboy payouts at the Big Sky PBR.
“This event has been able to garner some success, but we’ve continued to scale up and figure out ways to take care of people,” Ladd said.
Bull riders weren’t the only ones walking away with cash in their pockets. This year’s Calcutta auction raised over a quarter million dollars, setting a record for the Big Sky event. Saturday night’s auction marked records for both gross Calcutta—with a single-night total of $128,500—as well as an individual team bid of $35,000. Half of Calcutta money is donated to charity.
At the end of the championship night, Patrik Souza stepped into the ring of fire to accept his award: cash, a Sandy Epstein statue, a Montana Silversmiths Big Sky PBR belt buckle, a Gibson guitar, a trip to Seven Stars Resort Turks & Caicos, a commemorative bottle of Bozeman Spirits Montana Cold Spring Huckleberry Vodka, and custom Big Sky PBR rifle by Commemorative Firearms. He thanked everyone involved for making his dreams come true. The crowd cheered from the bleachers for the last time that night, the final expression of gratitude for having witnessed greatness.
A unique culture rides on the back of the PBR; a silent cowboy camaraderie shared through hat tips, handshakes and collective hope for eight seconds of wonder. The riders and bulls alike bring with them a kind of celebrity that is rooted in the West but celebrated globally, and a stoic humility that pairs well with the boiling energy of the crowd.
Every year the PBR has come to Big Sky since 2011, this culture settles into the dirt in the Big Sky Events Arena and takes a seat in the bleachers, waiting to be joined by new and loyal fans under the big sky to create magic.
“I hope my grandkids could still come to the Big Sky PBR,” McCoy said, an eager gleam in his eye. Ladd hopes so, too. Because the goal for the PBR, as with any time-honored community event, is not unlike that of a bull rider; for each ride, and, according to Alberta’s Logan Biever, for a bull rider’s career: “Stay on as long as you can.”
Julia Barton, Mira Brody, Gabrielle Gasser and Joseph T. O’Connor contributed reporting to this story.