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PBR at risk of losing the World from its Finals

On Wednesday last week, the PBR announced that Aaron Kleier, Australia’s No. 1 ranked bull rider has been ruled ineligible to compete in the 2019 PBR World Finals.

The decision was passed on in the Anaheim Game Notes article written by Justin Felisko and posted on the PBR Website last Thursday.

It stated that “The Top 36 riders in the world standings will qualify for the World Finals with No. 18 Aaron Kleier (declined UTB draw spot) ineligible for a Top 35 spot. Kleier, however, is still eligible for the Rookie of the Year title, the PBR’s competition committee ruled on Wednesday.”

Let me preface this article by saying that I have not spoken to Kleier or any other Australian bull rider about the ruling or their end of season goals. I am also unsure of the number of events that Kleier has declined, but with the increase in points at the Monster Energy Tour level of competition, I feel that this decision could regularly affect Australian and other International cowboys in the future.

Firstly, let’s look at what it takes for an Australian rider to get to the USA, and I will use this weekend’s event in Springfield, Missouri as an example.

With three weeks’ notice, getting to this three-day event would cost an Australian rider living in Central Queensland or the Hunter Valley over $2500. This outlay includes flights to Kansas City which takes between 24 and 27 hours and then a further 3-hour drive to Springfield. He then also needs to pay for his accommodation.

In a perfect world, the rider would leave home on Friday morning, arrive in Los Angeles around 5 am on the same day due to the time difference. They would then arrive in Kansas City around lunchtime and take the drive south.

Worst case, the rider bucks off his three bulls and collects his USD 400 (before tax) appearance fee. If he rides a single bull for a mid-range score but fails to make the Championship Round, he may come close to recouping the money spent on travel.

Then to fly home, the rider would hope to make it back to Los Angeles in time to catch the final flight home late on Sunday night, arriving back in Australia early on Wednesday to continue the journey to their home. If that isn’t possible, add a day.

Let’s remember that not all riders are professional cowboys and that most work Monday to Friday. So, this trip would require the rider to be off work and away from their family from Friday until Thursday at least. That’s a week away for a possible loss of over $2000, and that’s not including lost wages.

Who would take that risk?

If the rider is inside the top-30 and required to stay for multiple events, that is a long time away from work and family with no income. Not to mention the Visa issues frequently experienced and the costs associated with entering the USA.

Sure, this system may work for any American or Canadian rider. Travel times are much shorter, and the prices much more affordable. They can leave home Friday and be back Sunday night to work on Monday. But as a ‘World’ league, with a requirement for riders to compete at the premier level to make it to the end of year finals, it does not work.

A quick Google search shows that Brazilian cowboys flying to the USA from Sao Paulo face 15-17 hours travel and slightly less financial outlay than a trip from Australia.

At the start of the 2019 season, the competition committee increased the number of points available at events on the Velocity Tour and International Monster Energy Tours. Riders now receive 170 points for winning the aggregate at these events, compared to 120 in 2018. Second-place moved up to 90 points and third-place takes home 55 points.

I believe this is the first time that the PBR has encountered the issue of a rider declining multiple Unleash The Beast spots and it may be a one-off occurrence, but with changes to the points allocation, I think it will become more frequent.

For example, in 2017, Kleier earned the most points on Australian soil. He collected 562.5 world points which left him ranked No. 37 in the PBR World Standings. Last season he also topped the standings with all 490 points earned at home to finish 47th in the world.

Even if Kleier did not compete in the USA and Canada earlier this season, with the extra points available at each event in 2019, his ranking would still be well inside the Top-30 on 850 points. That is purely on World Points earned in Australia.

Cliff Richardson sits 39th in the PBR World Standings with all his 580 points won at home. No. 35 ranked Brady Fielder would still have 572.50 points if he had not competed overseas, enough to be ranked 41st with Cody Heffernan close behind in 42nd with 522.5 points.

This progression indicates that in the coming years with the added points, we will continue to see riders who only compete in PBR Australian competition ranked high in the PBR World Standings.

So why should riders who are well outside the Top-35 but are based in North America still have a chance to make the PBR World Finals while Kleier, who has been ranked inside the Top-30 for many months, is ruled ineligible to compete?

The ruling handed down by the PBR’s competition committee seems to remove the PBR World Finals incentive for Australian riders who want to excel in the Australian title race, but who do not wish to spend the year competing in the USA.

If you are good enough to amass the points required to finish inside the Top-35 by competing at any level of PBR competition, then you should qualify.

After all, 1 point is 1 point whether it is won on the Unleash The Beast tour or at the Touring Pro Division level.

If the PBR wishes for their end of year event to remain the PBR World Finals, and not become the North American PBR Finals, then I think some changes need to be made.

1- Coordinate the final month of the PBR schedule worldwide.

This season will be the second successive year that the PBR Australian and PBR Canadian finals have been scheduled in the weeks following the PBR World Finals.

Here in Australia, we have Monster Energy Tour events planned for the weekends of the Velocity Finals and PBR World Finals with our Grand Finals scheduled for the following weekend.

With the PBR Australian National Championship once again coming down to the wire, the top riders will need to choose between the chance of competing at the PBR World Finals or chasing an Australian National Championship.

Aren’t they the two most realistic goals of most PBR bull riders?

Then why should they be forced to choose between one or the other?

The Canadian National Championship also looks to be a close race, so their riders will be put in a similar spot.

Let’s see the champions of all tours crowned before Round 1 of the PBR World Finals and introduced on Wednesday night.

2 – Simplify the PBR World Finals qualification.

Currently, the champion or top-ranked rider in each country is invited to compete in the Velocity Tour Finals in Las Vegas on the weekend before the World Finals. The PBR also invites numerous other riders from non-PBR competitions to compete.

Competitors riding at the Monster Energy Tour level in Australia, Brazil and Canada compete for the same amount of event points as the riders competing at the Velocity Tour level. The only difference is that riders on the international tours do not receive round points as those in the USA do.

So, with the odds already stacked against the international invites, the PBR then takes the top three highest-ranked finishers at the Velocity Tour Finals and gifts them a World Finals berth regardless of their ranking.

Just one of the three international invites will qualify for the PBR World Finals.

The Velocity Tour Finals has become somewhat of a second-chance event for USA based riders ranked outside of the Top-35 to gain themselves a spot at the World Finals.

If we go by the event points allocated, the Velocity Tour riders have competed at the same level of competition all season long, but with the opportunity to earn more points. So why are they given such an advantage over the international competitors?

As a fan, here is how I would like to see the 40 rider World Finals field assembled.

  • The Top-35 from the PBR World Standings automatically qualify. After all, that is what riders currently aim for all season long.
  • If they are not already an automatic qualifier, the PBR Australia, PBR Brazil, PBR Canada National Champions also make it to T-Mobile.
  • The Velocity Tour Champion, or the highest-ranked rider not already qualified also qualifies.
  • Then the final spots are filled from the World Standings to fill the 40-rider field.

Let all four champions compete inside T-Mobile and represent their country and tours on the big stage, as they used to earlier this decade, but for all five nights. Surely after twelve months of competition and becoming their National Champion, they have earned that right.

3 – Add guaranteed money for the elite riders by reducing the field and increase rounds.

This suggestion will be the hardest to implement, but I believe it is attainable and could result in a much better product.

If the PBR wants to treat the cowboys as professionals, a regular income must be provided to the elite riders.

While rodeo has traditionally been a performance-based sport, I see this as an opportunity for the PBR to lead the way in providing guaranteed money to the elite riders. Especially in a game where concussion is such a hot issue and where careers can be cut short by injury.

For most bull riders, this is not their profession; they have 9-5 jobs. It is not the NRL in Australia or the NFL in the USA where each athlete is guaranteed a salary. It is performance-based. Ride a bull or go home empty-handed.

Currently, on other individual World Tour’s such as Tennis or Surfing, competitors are compensated much better for their attendance.

For example, if a surfer fails to win a heat through two rounds of competition on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, he or she still collects USD 10,000. If a tennis player loses in the first round at an ATP 250 Tour event, they are in line for a payday of around USD 5000 depending on the total purse.

Sure, the structure of the prizemoney pools differs significantly, but if competitors are required to attend or risk being deemed ineligible for future events, more than $400 should be paid out.

Perhaps in the future, a format change may accommodate this.

The PBR is the only sport I can think of, where you see the best in the world compete once or perhaps twice a night for 16 seconds in total.

The fans want to see more Chase Outlaw, more Jess Lockwood, more José Vitor Leme and so on.

One hundred eighty-four riders have earned 40 world points or more so far this season. That means over 20% of these riders compete on the ‘elite tour’. To contend for a Gold Buckle, you need over 5000 points, so I believe this number should be much closer to 10%.

Let’s start by reducing the size of the Unleash The Beast field so that it is truly elite. Just the Top-22 compete each weekend and let’s guarantee each of them $2000 each to attend.

Schedule each two-day event for five rounds of competition. Run three or four rounds across the weekend with a Championship Round on the final day. Trim the round money to fill three or four holes and increase the event payouts.

Then for three-day events, run the 15/15 as a standalone event on Friday or Saturday, adopting the popular ‘Bulls After Dark’ concept which we saw at Calgary this year. Make it a night where we not only see the best riders against some rank bulls but throw in the bullfights, mini-bulls and other entertainment.

The extra payout may also benefit rider health, with cowboys who are diagnosed with symptoms of concussion, or other injuries, able to afford to take an extra weekend off to recover instead of feeling like they have to rush back to make ends meet following a ride-less performance. They could also take a week or two away from their job to heal up, and I think that this would also help with the mental health.

In saying that, I think the PBR Majors should continue to be run with a full 35 or 40-man field. On these weekends, make it a standalone event worldwide, so international riders ranked inside the Top-40 can compete and put the eyes of every PBR fan around the world on it.

4- Bring back a clearer path of progression through the leagues.

If the Unleash The Beast field is trimmed, this adds some outstanding riders back into the minor leagues.

The Velocity Tour can be expanded and be run with a regular group of riders under the same conditions as the Monster Energy Tours in Australia, Brazil and Canada.

Currently, the 40 riders ranked from No. 23 onwards is made up of 23 Americans, 7 Brazilians, 6 Australians and 4 Canadians. Adding these riders back into the Velocity and Monster Energy Tours will enhance the competition level and provide a stable and consistent bank of riders for each tour.

This change will ensure that all riders, no matter where they are competing, have an equal chance at making the premier level. Again, 1 point is 1 point.

Previously, riders have finished in the Top-5 in the Velocity Standings after attending just two events. I think in its current state; the Velocity Tour serves no purpose other than providing a second chance to make the PBR World Finals through the Velocity Tour Finals.

Sure, some riders compete at 18 or more events, but they are quickly surpassed by the elite riders who drop back to compete at a handful of events to boost their points.

Give riders a pathway to naturally rise up from the Touring Pro Division, up to the Velocity Tour and Monster Energy Tour level with the Unleash The Beast Tour being the pinnacle.

If you don’t cover your bulls at the Unleash The Beast level, you are not guaranteed any money and go back to the minor leagues.

Let me close by saying that I am sure that I don’t have all the information needed to fine-tune the solutions I have presented above, or even to say that they are possible. But as a fan, these are changes that I would love to see in the future to ensure that the PBR remains a true world league.

Here is my Follow Up Article

Published inOpinion