Flipping past teenagers dancing and lip-synching their way to internet stardom, a 1,600-pound bull appears on my iPhone screen. The beast is dirty. Snot drips from its nose. A camera zooms in and out on the bull’s face as a remix of “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred blares.
At 101,000 views, the video hasn’t exactly gone viral, but it does demonstrate that on TikTok, even a motionless bull set to the right music can make a splash.
Professional Bull Riders, the Endeavor-owned sports league, said TikTok has allowed it to reach a new audience that’s younger and more female by moving beyond the big moments and showcasing what it’s like to be a fan of the sport.
“We don’t really focus on the sport’s highlights as much as we do the lifestyle of someone who attends our events and lives in our key markets, and uses our OTT subscription services,” Mitch Ladner, Endeavor’s director of social media, said in an interview. “Basically all the other parts of being a PBR fan.”
And PBR has found some early success on TikTok, growing its audience to more than 365,000 followers since September (NASCAR has around 305,000, while the National Hockey League has more than 630,000). But beyond the audience size is the fact that 59% of PBR’s followers are women—the only one of PBR’s social channels where a majority of its audience is female.
“In the sports landscape, that is unheard of on any single platform across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Snap,” Ladner said. “So for us, that’s a huge win.”
PBR’s social content team consists of 10 people—that includes strategy, programming, distribution and monetization—with three, including Ladner, working on the TikTok account.
As for its strategy, PBR is focused on going beyond typical highlight reel content often found on sports-focused social media accounts. It sees its presence on TikTok as building cultural appeal at a time when the American West is making a comeback—think of the cultural phenomenon of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”—with the attitude, quirks and flamboyance of cowboy culture fitting in nicely on TikTok.
“There’s definitely a Western culture renaissance going on,” Josh Tucker, senior director of social and digital at Endeavor, told Adweek. “We’ve tried to be pioneers… really leaning into western culture and the values, the music, pageantry of it. That’s the focus.”
PBR is so committed to TikTok, it has renamed a bull as @PBR on TikTok. It’s a promotional gimmick, but it works: Every time the bull appears, it’s also doing some marketing for the league.
And the promotional appeal translates to traditional media impressions, too. During PBR’s broadcasts on CBS, the announcing crew not only mentions the animal’s name—itself a plug for the social media account—but consistently waxes ignorant about what TikTok actually is.
“About how long it takes you to find [the TikTok account] using your phone, that’s how fast the buck-off took,” CBS play-by-play announcer Craig Hummer said on a broadcast earlier this month, after the bull threw a rider off. “Well, I’m gonna have to take your word on that because I do not know!” former bull rider Justin McBride responded.
Many of PBR’s current riders are on TikTok too, including Dylan Smith and Ezekiel Mitchell. The second video Smith posted in December—where he sticks the landing after being thrown from a bull—skyrocketed to 55 million views.
Mitchell, a 22-year-old rider, is perhaps the most active on the platform, which makes sense given that he first learned to ride bulls by watching YouTube videos.
“Nobody really taught me to ride bulls,” Mitchell told Adweek. “I just watched YouTube and built my own bucking barrel in the backyard. I had already learned some stuff from going to rodeos and snooping around and watching. I pretty much taught myself everything I needed to know, and then went to some bull riding schools.”
Now, Mitchell is appealing to a new fan base through TikTok and showcasing his sport to people who may never have seen bull riding before. “It’s a real sport, and you don’t have to come from a certain background to enjoy it,” Mitchell said. “We’re not just stuck-up tough cowboys—we’ve got funny bones, too, and we like to have a good time.”
Sometimes, however, those funny bones can break—or worse. In recent years, there have been several bull-riding deaths during PBR events. For example, rider Mason Lowe died in January 2019 at the National Western Stock Show. In 2018, Giliard Antonio died at a PBR event in Argentina. According to a 2011 study, bull riding was one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
Critics also come down on the effects of bull riding on, well, the bulls. Groups like PETA and NYC Animal Rights, for example, often picket outside of events, like the latter did in January outside of Madison Square Garden. PETA’s website includes information on what happens to bulls in preparation for riding.
But the rosy way in which PBR and its riders talk about the bulls offers a very different view of the matter. “With PBR, what a lot of people don’t realize is that you can fall in love not just with human athletes but our animal athletes as well,” Mitchell said. “Our sport is unpredictable. You never know what’s gonna happen with bull riding.”
And @PBR on TikTok is on a roll—the bull, that is. Since his name was changed from Test Me, fewer riders have had success testing him. The bull is 3-0 since getting the new moniker, as he successfully dispatched riders Edgar Durazo, Cody Teel and Taylor Toves before the clock hit the eight-second mark.
In bull riding, humans are only one half of the show. If @PBR on TikTok keeps this up, he could build a following for himself and the league.