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Bull riders round up crowds as sponsors kick in

Hang onto your hat: bull riding is becoming a big sport, as advertisers look to rope in more young male viewers. By CNBC's Phil Lebeau.
/ Source: CNBC

It's an 8-second ride taking America by storm.

"It is man versus beast,” said champion bull rider Cody Hart. “It has grown leaps and bounds."

Hart is one of the cowboy-athletes leading the sport from small rodeos in traditional cowboy hangouts like Austin, Tex. to big-city arenas.

"Ten years ago we'd be riding for $3,000 to $4,000 out here,” he said. “Now, with the (Professional Bull Riders) and Ford Tough series we are riding for over $1 million."

Founded in 1992, Professional Bull Riders, Inc., when 20 riders pitched in $1,000 each to set up the sport based on the most popular event in traditional rodeo. Today, more than 700 bull riders from the U. S., Canada, Brazil and Australia are members, according to the groups Web site.

Big prize money is coming in part from sponsorships that bring in over $10 million from companies like Anhueser Busch, Pepsi, and Wrangler. Ford is sponsoring a bull on the tour, while scaling back it's spending on the PGA tour.

A quick look the response to the new sport helps explain the shift. Bull riding’s attendance is up 58 percent since 2000. And television viewership is up 59 percent, thanks to wider coverage from NBC. (MSNBC.COM is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

"I think the television coverage, and the fact it's a followable sport is what really made it grow," said PBR founder Ty Murray. “All we did was make sure fans are continually seeing the best guys."

Those cowboys are the appeal of bull riding. What they do -- or more often don't do -- is easy to understand, and unpredictable. More importantly, these are not prima donna athletes showboating after a win. The average person can identify with them.           

"I think these athletes here don't get paid what other professional athletes get paid and go through a whole lot more,” said Tab Young, a fan attending a recent competition in Austin, Tex.

So hang on: these cowboys and their sport are bucking to grab a little more limelight. And that's no bull.