Big Bucks

If you want to watch some of the most highly compensated athletes in the world compete, don't waste your time trying to catch the Wizards courtside, scamming a ticket to Augusta or road-tripping it to Arlington, Texas. Compared to these gilded athletes, Mike, Tiger and A-Rod are practically indigent street-corner shoe salesmen.

The top-grossing jocks don't even need to train. They've never seen a weight room, massage table or ice pack in their lives. (They have, however, seen plenty of steak.) They lead lives of indolence and decadence, filling their off hours with more feed than Buster Douglas and enough casual sex to make Shawn Kemp wilt with shame.

They are available for viewing at the neighborhood stock show and rodeo. Top bucking rodeo bulls -- currently being referred to as "animal athletes" at a pen near you -- can earn more cash per time worked than a Manhattan plumber on a Christmas-morning house call. The cream of the crop of bulls grosses the pro-rated equivalent of up to $1 million. That's per hour, by the way.

But they're worth it. After all, talk about your essential gear: Even King of the Cowboys Ty Murray would be a mere peasant without a good bucking bull -- nothing but a short guy in chaps with a nasty chewing-tobacco habit. Take away their bulls, and riders are Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a hike, Reinhold Messner exiled to Iowa. It's not for nothing that the Professional Bull Riders Association names a bull of the year in addition to the year's best rider.

The best bulls are as coddled as Shaq's big toe, and they're viewed with a mixture of fear and awe that free-climbers reserve for El Capitan. The names Bodacious, Whitewater Skoal, Skat Kat, Yellow Jacket, Rapid Fire and Hammer are whispered with a reverence the rest of the population reserves for Sakic, Bonds and the Internal Revenue Service.

Are bulls legitimate athletes? They're stronger than Rulon Gardner, quicker than Gary Payton and have more desire than Randy Moss. They're smarter, by a long shot, than Leon Spinks. In fact, perhaps the only difference is that most of them have also been made from scratch: hatched out of a steaming pot of DNA soup, bred to buck.

Thanks to an explosion in the growth of rodeo events in general and bull riding specifically, the sport has worked its way into a corner: There are more events requiring bucking bulls than there are good bulls -- a bull deficit, if you will. The nine-year-old Professional Bull Riders tour has never been more popular. PBR shows (including the two-day National Western tour stop) are almost always sellouts. Last year, for the first time, a PBR event was broadcast on network TV.

"We're much more NASCAR than rodeo," says Randy Bernard, the PBR's executive director. "We create stars. A lot of people are drawn to the sport by the danger -- like NASCAR -- versus the 'Western lifestyle' for rodeo."

That said, the PBR's success hasn't escaped the notice of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, which itself is in the process of establishing its own bull-riding tour. Another series, called Bucking Thunder, made a go of it last year before pulling the plug on its own tour. Even then, organizer Alan Jacoby says the market for more bull riding was there; he blamed a post-9/11 slowdown in entertainment spending for Bucking Thunder's demise.

Add a sprinkling of local rodeo and riding events, and what you have is a Brahman-sized demand for bucking bulls. Figure: Your average performance bull has the workload of a lieutenant governor in a mid-sized Southwestern state; each is good for about twenty rides a year. With 27 separate rodeo shows and a two-day PBA tour stop, this year's National Western Stock Show alone is expected to play host to about 250 bulls.

In 2001, rodeos and bull-riding events across the country added up to about 640,000 rides, says Bob Tallman, a longtime rodeo announcer and founder of Buckers, Inc., a breeding and registering company. Divide that by twenty rides, and you get an annual-minimum-required roster of 32,000 bulls.

Trying to throw a cowboy off one's back is grueling work -- even at the rate of one and a half times a month, eight seconds at a time. As a result, most bucking bulls' careers are shorter than that of a Nuggets coach. The 2000-2001 PBR Bull of the Year, the 1,900-pound, single-horned Dillinger, suffered a career-ending injury last summer when he came down wrong on a leg while still in the chute. ("It's a tough lick," Robbie Herrington, Dillinger's owner, summarized for Pro BullRider magazine.)

Combine the climbing demand with the shortage of top animals, and what you have is a roaring bull market in bulls. "The success of the PBR has driven prices way, way up in the past few years," says Binion Cervi, a Roggen, Colorado, resident who organizes rodeo stock for many of the big shows across the country, including National Western. "It's crazy how high bulls can go for."