Pictured above: Hundreds of professional bull riders compete during sanctioned tours with the Professional Bull Riders.

 

If a baker’s dozen is 13, what phrase would best describe the number 11? At Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock this spring, call it a bull’s dozen because for the 11th time, the Professional Bull Riders’ premier series, Unleash the Beast, will return to central Arkansas. If attendance numbers align with previous years at the wildly popular event, Dogtown will once again become Bulltown — at least for a weekend.

 

There is just something about North Little Rock and Arkansas that keeps PBR coming back. It is no secret as to why for Robert Simpson, senior vice president and general manager at PBR and a longtime veteran of the industry.

 

“Anywhere around the region [and] in the state of Arkansas, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody that didn’t know what PBR was,” Simpson said. “It’s one of our better events on tour.”

The Professional Bull Riders’ Unleash the Beast will take place at the Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock in March.

There is probably little disagreement to be had with such a sentiment. As Simpson points out, Arkansas — along with neighbors Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri and so on — is typically where salt-of-the-earth people harmonize with the bread and butter of PBR. As such, a PBR event in the state — even 11 years of them — may not come as a surprise. Fans and insiders, however, would know that this face value is not the whole picture; Arkansas has been getting a different kind of beast.

 

Over the past three decades, PBR has cemented itself as the lodestar of bull riding in the world. A typical year brings hundreds of collective national and international events and hundreds more professional riders competing in sanctioned tours. These range from the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour to the Touring Pro Division to international circuits in Australia, Brazil, Canada and Mexico.

 

Each tour and competition involves a different tier of rider and bull based on rolling world rankings. Riders may go up and down in tours throughout the season based on points and performance in a similar way to promotion and relegation in English soccer, just much more frequently.

 

All of the tours mean something competitively, and all put on a show for attendees, but the pinnacle of PBR is Unleash the Beast. It is the tour every rider wants to work their way up to, in which the current top 40 in the world compete across the core season, November through May. Unleash the Beast brings big-time payouts and even greater stakes as each contestant vies for the ultimate crown of world champion.

Unleash the Beast brings the big names of bull riding to North Little Rock.

The 23 stops on the Unleash the Beast calendar this year include Madison Square Garden in New York, Allstate Arena near Chicago, the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif., the Toyota Center in Houston and, of course, Simmons Bank Arena.

 

“As star-studded as the field will be on the rider’s side, the bull side will be just as star-studded,” Simpson said. “For people who don’t really follow it, until they see it, they don’t understand the bull is half the star of every ride.”

 

Simpson said while many cheer for the riders — or expect to — plenty pull for the bulls, as well, first-time visitors especially.

 

“[They] just cannot believe the athleticism that the bulls have; they’re like racehorses,” he said. “They are that caliber of an animal that people walk away and say, ‘Holy moly … That’s not that same bull that I watched at that county fair.’

While the riders are impressive, the bulls are equally impressive for their athleticism and attitude.

“We bring bulls from across the country — literally, they’re handpicked. They are the cream of the crop, so every bull that we bring to North Little Rock will have a pedigree to them, a resume.”

 

PBR employs a dedicated livestock director who keeps tabs on more than 1,000 bulls countrywide and has control of the reins behind each tour event’s lineup, monitoring recent performances, energy levels and moxie. The bulls need to be tough — or “rank” in bull rider vernacular — but not too tough so as to create some balance to the field and avoid events becoming drawing contests.

 

Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, when the best riders and the best bulls in the world collide, the result is destined to be memorable, or in Simpson’s words, “unforgettable.”

 

Insofar as they are the best of the best, being a rider or a bull at Unleash the Beast is a seat at a pretty exclusive table. The audience, on the other hand, is a bit of a melting pot. PBR is a popular sport, and as such boasts a myriad of core fans across the country, continent and globe, a a base of folks who, like any sport, follow the major and minor players, keep up with the live standings, watch the tour on TV to see the drama unfold firsthand, and may even root for a rider as one would a football team.

 

As big as that fan base has become over the years, when it comes to the tour, it will only represent a small slice of who is in the stands. The rest of the routinely sold-out crowds will run the gamut of families, couples, suburbanites, rural-breds and anything in between. In Simpson’s eyes, that is one of the biggest things that makes PBR so special. No matter the color of the collar, there is plenty of fun to be had for everyone.

“The additional people in that arena that come out, they want to see a big-time event, and that is what we give them,” Simpson said. “They might not follow it the rest of the year, but they do come back.”

 

It is with this demographic — indirect fans and first-timers destined to return — that PBR has become a sort of 30-year-old snowball. With each seasonal revolution, the venues need to get bigger to accommodate the demand. Simpson aptly likens it to Arkansas itself, which may seem unassuming or be preconceived in certain ways to folks to the east and west, north and south, only to prove those assumptions as mischaracterizations.

 

Whether describing landmarks of the South that he has seen with his own eyes or the fierce majesty of bull riding to which he has dedicated his career, Simpson offers the same advice to anyone unfamiliar with either: Do not pass judgment until you go.

 

“Once we get a fan to an event … they come back,” he said. “In the marketing world, it’s getting that fan that’s never been to go — that’s kind of it in a nutshell because once they go and they experience the live show and take it all in, they see the enormity of the bulls compared to the cowboys. They see a cowboy ride, feel the excitement of the crowd, experience all the pomp and circumstance around the event. It’s easy to get hooked.

 

“Thirty years later, we’re selling out Madison Square Garden, we’re selling out Sacramento, Calif., and we’re selling out Chicago. It’s all of these major metropolitan cities, as well, that have just embraced PBR because the product is so good. … We just kind of keep growing with the sport.”

 

When the bulls buck into Simmons Bank Arena in March, the drama, stakes and those circumstances will have reached a tipping point. Of the 23-event Unleash the Beast regular season, North Little Rock is the 16th contest and during this home stretch — just like the basketball Madness for which the same month is known — anything can happen and everything will be on the line.

pbr bull

The top 40 bull riders in the world will compete for the title of world champion during Unleash the Beast.

Last year’s Arkansas event saw Dalton Kasel, a 25-year-old Texan, nab the overall win at Simmons. He entered the event ranked No. 4 in the world after another win just one weekend prior in Los Angeles and climbed up the world rankings to No. 2 after going a perfect 3-for-3 in North Little Rock. Kasel, who won PBR’s Rookie of the Year award in 2019, rode that momentum all the way to the world finals but ultimately fell just short of the title, finishing the season at No. 5 in the world.

 

Kasel has competed in Arkansas four times in past seasons and hopes to make it a fifth this year.

 

“Going to a place like North Little Rock with such an electric crowd and such a good fan base, it makes it so much easier for us as riders to be successful,” Kasel said. “We couldn’t do any of it without them, and I am super excited to come back and be around all these great people.”

 

Kasel said he dreamed of the life he is now living since he was 2 years old, when he first saw a PBR event on TV. At around 13 or 14, he finally talked his parents into the idea, and from the moment he hopped on a bull for the first time, he — like the aforementioned first-timers in the crowds that watch him — was hooked.

PBR bull

Kasel is the latest in a long line of sport legends and rising stars that have put up big performances north of the capital city. Simpson himself points out how impressive the list of names is who have come through Simmons, many of whom will likely be in the field again this year. Riders like José Vitor Leme, a two-time world champion who PBR ranks in its top five riders in sport history, plus J.B. Mauney, Derek Kolbaba, Ryan Dirteater, and the list goes on and on.

 

“These guys are legends,” Simpson said. “Almost short to say, to win North Little Rock, you better be somebody because this list is pretty stout.”

 

PBR’s Unleash the Beast returns to Simmons Bank Arena for a two-night stand on March 15 and 16. Returning fans and curious newcomers will need to act quickly because both nights are usually packed houses, and the Saturday showdowns typically sell out fast. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online at ticketmaster.com or pbr.com.

 

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