What Rodeo And Western Sports Can Teach Us About Brand Authenticity

By Ben Zimmerman, president at Media Design Group.

Americans may be turning their sights to the heart of America following the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps newfound freedoms offered by remote work inspired former city dwellers to swap urban gridlock for wide-open spaces. The prospect of entrepreneurship may be another catalyst, suggested by Mark Smither, CSO at Paulsen. No matter the reason, the World Economic Forum found that almost half of all US adults preferred to live in a rural area or small town in 2020 than a city, a 9% jump from two years before.

But a majority of Americans already live in the country. As of 2022, nearly 60% of Americans lived in the “New Heartland,” a term coined to encompass the 26 states that roughly span from Virginia to Florida to Texas to North Dakota and back. While there’s up to 8 trillion in spending power across this swath of land, only 5% of New Heartland residents feel understood by brands. As more people plan their futures around proverbial amber waves of grain, it’s high time we reconsider how a certain pejorative term is used to describe these states. Americans in flyover states may feel they’ve been forced to, or flat-out ignored, for decades.

There’s never been a better time to be a cowboy.

If the popularity of Yellowstone is any indication, there’s a spike in appreciation for this rugged slice of Americana. The Paramount show’s two-part Season 4 premiere garnered 14.7 million viewers and was named the most significant cable show of 2021 by the Hollywood Reporter. But there were unlikely heroes of the west kicking up dust well before Kevin Costner owned a fictional ranch in Montana: the Professional Bull Riders organization (PBR) and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).

Called “America’s fastest-growing sport” in a Forbes article from 2013, PBR is a genuine marvel in the sports world. What started as a modest $1,000 investment from 20 cowboys bucked its way into a broader arena in 2015, when WME/IMG acquired PBR for a reported $100 million. PBR has continued its meteoric rise under current CEO Sean Gleason, who has taken the sport to new heights with the help of Endeavor (the holding company that oversees UFC, among other ventures). The league now broadcasts live on CBS, averaging more than one million viewers for each event in 2018, which results in a fan base of more than 82.5 million annually.

Despite its Western roots, PBR is also drawing attention from the suburban and urban markets (even if its user base is looking west). In 2019, PBR made its first Los Angeles appearance at the Staples Center. And starting in July 2022, PBR embarks on its most ambitious rodeo yet, with a new league schedule format with eight bull-riding teams competing in a ten-game season, culminating in its own championship in November. Based in cities from Austin, Texas, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the new format drew interest from a who’s who of investors across the tech, entertainment and media landscapes. This includes Egon Durban (co-CEO of Silver Lake whose portfolio includes the Manchester City Football Club and New York City FC), John Fisher (owner of the Oakland Athletics) and Johnny Morris (owner of Bass Pro Shops).

The PRCA has a storied history as well, spanning back to 1936. As the story goes, the association was formed following a strike by bull riders who split from their bigwig managers and producers to organize what eventually became the PRCA in 1975. Like PBR, the PRCA has exploded in popularity in the last five years. In 2019, it was announced that the PRCA and Rural Media Group (RMG) struck an agreement to move to The Cowboy Channel (TCC), a cable network dedicated to round-the-clock western coverage. “There is a Golf Channel, the NFL Network, a baseball network, a tennis channel, and so on,” said Patrick Gottsch, founder and president of Rural Media Group, Inc. “Now rodeo has its own channel(s). RMG plans to do everything for rodeo and the PRCA these other media partnerships have done for their sports.”

Gleason himself acknowledges the “Yellowstone effect” in a CSQ op-ed from February 2022. “If it took the runaway success of Yellowstone To reintroduce the appeal of cowboys to millions of Americans, PBR will gladly accept a push from those tailwinds,” he writes. Much like Harry Styles and the New York Knicks, PBR can pack Madison Square Garden. But the league also tours New Heartland towns like Deadwood, South Dakota, and Shipshewana, Indiana. They’ve done it their own way for decades; They’re just expanding their bootprint at this point.

It’s important to know your audience.

Maybe it’s no accident that a sport driven by authenticity (you try throwing in the towel on top of a bucking bull) has such a loyal fan base, no matter the location. PBR and PRCA offer a unique form of engrossing entertainment that extends beyond sports. They embody a rugged western lifestyle that appeals to their fanbase—the same folks who feel misunderstood by big advertising agencies in New York or tech brands in Silicon Valley. These leagues have understood their audience for decades. It’s no wonder they’ve got the rest of us hooked.

But what can business leaders learn from the growth of the sport? That understanding your target audience is paramount to success—and that it’s entirely possible to build a brand around a demographic that may be otherwise overlooked. Understanding the environment in which a product or service is sold can help you effortlessly reach your audience. According to a study from Atlantic Brand Partners, the majority of respondents (71%) said brands should understand them in some capacity—while less than half (43%) actually feel understood.

If anything, this gap in how consumers want to be perceived and how they’re treated represents an opportunity for companies to develop content and campaigns around the real needs of real people. As I’ve written about before, trust is gained by listening to your prospects.

Trust is earned, not given; it’s to focus on fostering and essential relationships. This means leading with transparency and authentic brand storytelling. Both the PBR and PRCA have understood their audience for decades. It’s no wonder they’ve got the rest of us hooked.

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