On Tuesday, the leading bull riding organization in America and the first Black touring rodeo association in the country announced a partnership that they hope will develop more Black rodeo athletes, diversify the sport’s white fan base and educate audiences about the lengthy and unheralded history of African Americans in rodeo.
As part of the agreement, Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which annually holds over 200 bull riding events across the globe, will coproduce multiple events involving the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), the oldest Black-owned rodeo circuit in America, in conjunction with PBR’s two largest tour series, Unleash the Beast and the Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour, which air on CBS and the CBS Sports Network.
PBR will also create new qualification opportunities for Black athletes at World Champions Rodeo Alliance (WCRA) events in an attempt to diversify the talent pool for high-payout contests, such as the Women’s Rodeo World Championship in Las Vegas in November, which will include a $750,000 payout to first-place finishers.
The BPIR events will be incorporated into the PBR tour schedule in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to PBR chief marketing officer Kosha Irby.
“We … see it as an opportunity to allow both of our brands to synergize and create something bigger than each of us can bring in individually,” Irby said.
Historically, rodeo athletes have to accumulate points throughout the year to qualify for higher-paying rodeos. But Irby said there are time and financial commitments that not all rodeo athletes, particularly African Americans, are capable of upholding. PBR working with WCRA hopes to create automatic qualifier events for riders of color, such as in the barrel racing circuit, to give Black athletes better chances at competing at larger events.
“We’re not just going into this to try to just create television opportunities, create sponsorship opportunities,” Irby said. “We’re really, truly trying to create opportunities to elevate the sport for all Bill Pickett athletes.”
The partnership is an opportunity for PBR to leverage its expertise in branding and promotion in the rodeo space for the BPIR, broaden rodeo opportunities for riders of color and women, and the dual purpose of exposing the BPIR to a broader audience and the whiter PBR audience to more Black riders and the history of African Americans in the sport.
The BPIR was founded in 1984 to both tell the history of Black cowboys and cowgirls and create a space for those Black riders who were not allowed in other rodeo associations at the time. BPIR president Valeria Howard-Cunningham, whose late husband, Lu Vason, founded the organization, sees her role as a springboard for Black athletes to make it to the higher levels of rodeo and bull riding. She gave the example of Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame member Fred Whitfield, who started with the BPIR before becoming one of the most decorated tie-down ropers in rodeo history.
“They [PBR] are huge and they have impact all over the world, all in the United States,” said Howard-Cunningham, who, when she took over the BPIR after Vason died in 2015, became the first and only Black woman to own and operate a touring rodeo company in America.
“With them partnering with us, they are going to help us to deliver that message to people and to cities and to markets that we would not be able to do.”
BPIR can now further educate audiences about the history of Black cowboys and cowgirls, showcase the talent of Black riders and expand the legacy of the organization’s namesake, Pickett, the son of a former slave who created a rodeo event (“bulldogging”) and, in 1972, became the first Black person inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame.
The concept of cowboys and rodeos, Howard-Cunningham said, has never been equated with Blackness, which has led to the whitewashing of the history of so many Black trailblazers, such as Nat Love and Bose Ikard.
The BPIR is a way of course correcting.
“We look at the organization as an organization that is about telling history and about creating history,” she said.
And it isn’t just about exposing more African Americans to this history. Both the PBR and BPIR want the majority-white rodeo audience to take something from this partnership as well. PBR’s viewership demographics are about three-fourths white and “3 to 5%” Black, according to Irby. Hispanics make up about 20%.
“One of our reasons for partnering with the PBR is to make sure that we are able to tell that story to everybody, no matter the color of their skin, no matter what ethnic background they have,” Howard-Cunningham said.
“They need to know what … the trueness of history is and see as history is still being made.”
The BPIR has been approached in the past about television opportunities, but network executives wanted fighting and cursing, Howard-Cunningham said, which goes against the organization’s family-friendly ethos and its founders’ desire to show the “greatness” of Black cowboys and cowgirls.
“We knew that the PBR understood our passion, and it kind of aligned with theirs,” she said.
But Irby wanted to emphasize that while PBR can provide additional opportunities for the 37-year-old Black organization, the hard work has already been done by Howard-Cunningham, Vason and many others.
“Bill Pickett was doing well before us. They’ve been in this business for decades,” Irby said. “And the only thing we’re going to do now is try to come in and just help where we can.”