So Far PBR Events Getting "No Scores"
Summer 2020 by Cyd Hoefle Photos by Stu Hoefle & Andy Watson
Holding out hope for another round of Livingston saturday night
August 2019. Anticipation was in the air as thousands of eager spectators began searching for their seats in bleachers surrounding the outdoor arena. Lively conversation and laughter abounded, and loud upbeat music added to the energy. Lines formed quickly for burgers, hotdogs, and beer. A beautiful summer sunset and warm temperatures added to the atmosphere.
The announcer soon grabbed everyone’s attention welcoming them to the event, Professional Bull Riding in Livingston, Montana! The National Anthem was sung as cowboys covered their hearts with their hats, followed by a prayer of protection. Soon rodeo queens wearing sashes, cowboy hats and carrying flags galloped around the arena. The tone was set. The crowd hopeful, the contestants excited and the opportunity to experience a long enjoyed western tradition was before everyone.
At last summer’s Livingston PBR and every other PBR event, cowboys are willing to tie themselves on the back of a wild, bucking bull for eight seconds (or less) and the chance at a pile of money. Brightly garbed bullfighters put their lives in jeopardy to make sure the cowboy is safe as he rides and when he dismounts or is thrown. The entertainer and announcer banter back and forth to the delight and often inclusion of the audience. It is all part of the environment at a PBR rodeo, one of dozens held around the region in the course of a year.
But because of the pandemic, the grandstands have been empty. The bull riders as well as the spectators are under stay-at-home orders. As with all rodeo events, all PBR events are canceled for the time being because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jacey and Andy Watson are the co-producers of the Livingston Classic PBR, held each August. They brought it to the community 10 years ago. The success of the function has grown each year and has become an anticipated event for not only locals, but residents across the state and visitors from other states and nations as well. It’s also an incredible economic boost for the town and a tremendous responsibility for Freestone Productions, the Watsons’ Three Forks-based business.
Months of planning go into the event to ensure that the night is as fun-filled and as exciting as the fans expect.
“The day of the show, it’s showtime,” Andy said. “Ticket sales, arena work, time with the announcer, bull fighters, entertainer, music, technology for the big screen and the pyro graphic show…” The list seems daunting, but this married couple has been doing it for so long that it has become second nature.
The PBR is divided into three different levels. The first and most prestigious is “Unleash the Beast,” an elite tour that begins in Madison Square Garden in New York on the first of the year and is nationally televised. The cream of the bull riding crop are the contestants.
The second level is the “Velocity” tour. It is to “Unleash the Beast” as Major League Baseball is to the minor leagues, with the bull riders well on their way to contending for the top titles.
The third level is the “Touring Pro Division,” which consists of up-and-coming bull riders and others not qualified yet to be in the other levels. Points are earned on all levels and qualify toward the national championship held in December, a coveted position that all bull riders hope to earn.
The Livingston PBR event is in a unique position because the top two levels of PBR do not tour during the summer. Consequently, many of the top cowboys in all the levels make their way to Livingston to compete, turning it into a rare opportunity for fans to see some of the best bull riders in the world competing at a fraction of the cost of the more elite events.
Some of those bull riders make certain that they get to Livingston and have returned year after year. “Our riders love coming to Montana,” Jacey said. “They often bring their families and enjoy a break while they’re here.”
In addition to the uniqueness of the timing is the reputation the Watsons have built, which continues to draw a larger crowd every year.
They started the PBR in Bozeman 15 years ago and within three years they outgrew the facility and began looking for a venue that would support the popular event. Just over the hill, Livingston fit the bill.
“We have a beautiful venue in Livingston,” Jacey said, “Not only the backdrop, but the town itself. It’s a warm, welcoming town with a western heritage. Many of our sponsors are local businesses and we all take pride in the event.”
Behind-the-scenes the planning is extensive in order for the 5,000+ fans to enjoy every aspect of the night.
“We start greasing the wheels in January,” Jacey said, “by gathering our sponsors and working on our marketing plan with graphics, art and promotions.” As the months peel off the calendar and it gets closer to the event, the Watsons and their team start working on the finer details.
“In addition to Jacey and me, we have a staff of about 15 to 20 that we count on for that day,” Andy added. “On the actual day, over 50 volunteers step up to help us out.”
Flint Rasmussen, a PBR exclusive entertainer, has been with the Watsons all but one year since they have been in Livingston, along with world-famous stock contractor Chad Burger.
“We have the best of the best putting on this show,” Andy said with pride. “It’s like a family circus. We operate on a handshake and the guarantee that you’re with us until you screw up!”
Andy is the official photographer of the PBR, so the team that he and Jacey work with are as familiar as family. They have worked the same rodeos for years and their friendships run deep.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the people that stand in there with us,” Andy continued. “Everyone is equally important.”
From strategically planning every minute of the day — dealing with everything from parking lot attendants, ticket takers and ushers to the concessions and alcohol sales — the Watsons work through each detail ensuring that no stone is left unturned.
“We have a great relationship with Livingston sponsors,” Jacey continued. “Pinky’s and the Office Lounge have been with us for a long time and both do an amazing job of covering concessions and alcohol sales.”
“It’s the little things that keep our reviews good,” Andy said. “If people have to wait too long for a burger and miss something in the arena, we’ll hear about it.”
But even with all the planning and the details, nothing could have prepared the Watsons for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re not in this alone, that’s for sure,” Andy said. “But it makes it hard. We haven’t canceled our event yet, but we are a long way from being out of the woods.”
“We’ll do whatever we have to do to make certain that it’s safe for everyone involved,” Jacey added. “We believe that safety comes first, and we know there will be a lot of changes to be made for the event to happen.”
The Watsons are not alone in their uncertainty about the future of the PBR and what it will mean to not only them but the bull riders. For now, they are moving forward as if the event will not be canceled, but time will tell and a tough decision will be made by mid-June as to whether the event will go on.
“There are so many unknowns,” Andy said, “not only for us, but for the bull riders. Will the points based on the first two months of the year be enough to decide who goes to the nationals if PBR doesn’t resume? Will they skip the nationals this year and allow the 2019 champions to reign another year? Every day something changes. All we know is that it’s affected everyone. But whatever happens and however things change, we will work together and adapt because that’s what we do. If we do get cancelled, we’ll work all the harder for next year.”