The Professional Bull Riders made two big moves this month that are raising questions among tradition-minded followers of the sport.

First, the association is allowing competitors on its top-tier tour to pick the animals that they will face at some shows instead of matching cowboys and bulls by a random draw.

Second, the PBR conducted a one night, winner-take-all show that offered more than $100,000 instead of the traditional method of paying off multiple top finishers throughout the night.

While many followers of rodeo and bull riding might think this is going too far, the PBR should be commended for attempting to make a compelling sport even more appealing to fans.

A problem with traditional rodeos is that organizers have been slow to change and sluggish about trying new formats that just might win more fans.

Since its inception on the Old West prairies during the late 1800s, rodeo has matched competitors and bucking stock by a random draw. In the early days, a cowboy drew the name of a bronc from a stained Stetson and the bucking commenced.

On today’s circuit, familiar rodeos such as the Fort Worth Stock Show, Athens’ MDA Benefit Rodeo, the Dogwood Classic PRCA Rodeo in Palestine and RodeoHouston use the random draw.

And the PBR uses a draw most of the time. Competitors are only allowed to pick their bulls at the three-day Ford Series events and they do that in only two of the four rounds.

The first-round winner has first choice of which bull he will ride in the second round. Then, the other 44 riders pick according to first-round scores and buck off times. Later in the show, the 15 finalists (round four) pick according to their rankings.

Randy Bernard, the PBR’s chief executive officer, is betting that the new method will create a buzz among fans. And in a day when bulls are bred to be so rank that they buck off more riders than fans want, the new format always has the potential to increase the percentage of cowboys staying on bulls for the eight-second count.

Just remember, a competitor can pick a bull that’s more suitable for his riding style, but he still has the daunting task of staying on an animal that can throw him into the next county.

“There will be more strategy used (by competitors), and hopefully that will create coffee-shop talk on Monday morning,” Bernard said. “People will ask, Why did (three-time world champion) Adriano Moraes pick that bull?”

The PBR calls their new way of match-making “the draft” and they used the format this month in New York City and in Worcester, Mass.

In Worcester, winner Travis Briscoe of Edgewood, N.M., wowed fans after turning in a stunning score of 95 aboard a bull named Copperhead Slinger that he had hand-picked for the Jan. 13 final round.

The PBR also is attempting to create excitement by converting some of its one-day tour stops into winner-take-all shows that award the winner prize money into six figures.

On Jan. 18, Briscoe earned $105,000 after winning the tour stop in Fresno, Calif., and his victory was featured the next day on an NBC Sports telecast.

The winner-take format is a departure from paying the top finishers in the rounds and the average, a common practice at rodeos and bull riding shows.

“We want it to be like the old boxing match where only one guy takes the big prize home,” Bernard said. “We’re creating events where guys ride their hearts out.”

The PBR can get away with paying big money to one cowboy because its annual world title race is based on points from about 30 tour stops instead of prize money. Though only one cowboy was paid in Fresno, the top finishers in the rounds and average earned title race points.

But fans saw cowboys ride more aggressively than normal.

“There was so much urgency in each ride in the championship round,” Bernard said. “Each person knew they had to get by the past rider and that was very exciting,”

Brett Hoffman is a 20-year rodeo columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and a member of the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. He can be reached at brett@myrodeoinsider.com.

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