Photo by Sam Basel
Welcome to City of Sport, a new blog series where I explore every athletic spectacle New York City has to offer. This week, I take an inside look at Pro Bull Riding at Madison Square Garden, the challenges they've faced in holding this event, and the value these riders place in winning at the World's Most Famous Arena.
While New York City has always been considered a tough fanbase to please, the crowd at Madison Square Garden will always let you know when you’ve earned their admiration with, to borrow a term from pro wrestling, a big pop. In 1985, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T heard it when taking down Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania I. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony was engulfed in it when he hit a game-tying shot over the Bulls. This past weekend, Pro Bull Rider Conner Halverson took it all in after completing his 90-point ride in the New York Buck-Off’s Opening round.
“[The Garden] is one of the biggest venues we go to, and they pack it out every night,” Halverson explained, noting the importance of this event in relation to the rest of the Unleash the Beast Tour. “The amount of points that we can get here will really shoot a guy up into the standings and set him up for a good year.”
Setting the bar high early, Halverson’s stellar ride was the first successful attempt of the weekend, and the third attempt overall after Dawson Gleaves and Vitor Losnake were unsuccessful in their rides. As Halverson reached 8 seconds on UTZ BesTex Smokestack, a bull with a 70% career buck-off rate, the 22-year old Nebraskan dismounted and pumped his fists as the Garden crowd leapt to their feet.
Despite the PBR’s two-sided scoring system that measures both the performance of the rider and bull, it’s not too hard for the layman spectator to figure out what counts as a good ride. Aggressive hops, direction change, and rider control all come together to record a high score; essentially, if it looks cool, it’s probably worth a lot of points. While the in-stadium hosts take the time to explain these rules each day, PBR CEO Sean Gleason is confident that the New York crowd’s knowledge of the sport is above average.
“Most of these people have now been coming for 10 years,” Gleason explained during Round 3 on Sunday afternoon. “That’s what makes me [the] most proud about what we’ve accomplished here.”
With over 20 years of experience at PBR, taking over as CEO in 2015, Sean Gleason has seen bull riding’s reputation in New York grow from simple spectacle to a respected athletic tour. The 2024 Buck-Off marked the organization’s 17th event weekend at the World’s Most Famous Arena. According to Gleason, who spent time handing out free tickets on the streets of Manhattan in the late 2000s, it’s encouraging to see the renewed excitement from locals when cattle trailers and felt hats re-emerge in Midtown every winter.
“The cowboys were the oddballs,” Gleason recounted. “And after four or five years, you’d walk the streets and people would ask ‘oh are the bulls back in town?’ and we’d [say] ‘yes we are.’”
Aside from laughs on the subway, Gleason listed plenty of logistical challenges the tour faced both in its Garden debut and in subsequent seasons. After coating the Garden’s lower bowl with a thick layer of dirt and a fully operation bull chute, PBR staff must walk the stars of the show (the bulls) through a winding freight ramp that leads to the main area five floors aboveground. Once the dirt has been laid down and the bulls are prepared to enter the chute, the final challenge comes in keeping the crowd entertained and engaged.
“It starts with those [logistical] challenges, and then [the challenge is] really just getting people to understand that the sport could be for them.”
Throughout the weekend, the in-arena broadcast crew (led by Matt West) takes the time to walk fans through the intricacies of the sport. Aside from breaking down the scoring of a ride, West and company fill every in-between moment with recaps, storylines, and stakes in relation to each rider’s season up to that moment, as well as how their performance in New York can carve a path to the PBR World Finals in May. Frequent ticket giveaways to the World Finals, held in Austin, also help fans understand the scope of PBR outside of the New York Buck-Off.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to educate people that it’s more of an entertainment experience,” Gleason said. “It’s a unique sport that has a lot of drama, and a lot of interesting angles to it. It’s very dangerous and exciting.”
New Yorkers, especially New Yorkers who love sports, are no strangers to drama, and saw plenty of it unfold on the dirt last weekend. Following Round 2, Conner Halverson extended his event lead with an 85.5 ride on Wilson. Heading into Sunday, Halverson emphasized the importance of maintaining his composure in the final two rounds.
“[I] Just don’t think about it,” Halverson said on Saturday night. “[I have to] focus on one bull at a time and take care of the task at hand.”
Despite getting bucked off by Kodiac in Round 3, Halverson’s strong start carried him into the Championship Round. Composed of the top 12 riders from the weekend based on aggregate score, each championship contender drafted a bull from a roster of the toughest animals on the tour. Joining Halverson in the final 12 were tour legends like Mason Taylor and Austin Richardson, young guns like Dalton Kasel and Koltin Hevalow, and Cassio Diaz, the World No. 1 Rider heading into New York.
With Halverson lasting just 5.73 seconds on Ridin’ solo, it would come down to Richardson and Hevalow (both on re-ride attempts) for the New York Crown. Scoring 83.5 on Moonlight Party, Richardson was given the option for a re-ride after the bull made an awkward stop mid-ride. Playing it safe, Richardson opted to keep his score for a weekend aggregate total of 258.25 points.
Richardson’s gamble would pay off, as Koltin Hevalow failed to qualify on Red Scorpion, bringing Hevalow’s total to 249.5 points and locking in the weekend victory for Richardson. With the win in New York, Richardson was awarded $100,000, a custom trophy modeled after the famous Charging Bull Statue on Wall Street, and enough tour points to overtake Cassio Dias as the No.1 Rider on the Unleash the Beast tour.
“To be here in New York and to win this event has been my dream for a long time,” Richardson said following the trophy ceremony. “Coming here to this big crowd at Madison Square Garden is amazing.”
Speaking to the crowd on the podium, Richardson called the weekend “the best win” in his career.
In past years, fans streaming out of the Garden following the event had a long wait ahead of them for the return of PBR in New York City. However, in an announcement to the crowd during Saturday’s Round 2, PBR unveiled a second Bull Riding event to take place in Brooklyn later this summer. According to Sean Gleason, the ability to host two events in New York in a calendar year is the ultimate culmination of the foundation laid 17 years ago.
“Honestly, we can take PBR anywhere,” Gleason explained. “Last night [January 6th], we had sellout crowds in Lexington, Kentucky, Portland, Oregon, and Madison Square Garden [simultaneously]. We can really take PBR to any city, but the fact that we can do New York twice [in one year] is a testament to how much appreciation there is in this market for cowboys and the sport we bring.”
The PBR Unleash the Beast tour returns to action this weekend in Chicago. PBR heads to Brooklyn on August 9th and 10th.