BIG SKY — The lines formed early.
For some, this would be their first experience. For most, it would be the third straight summer.
Those strolling through the gates were a mix of young, old and in-between. There were plenty of new cowboy hats and fresh blue jeans coming through the gates.
The crowd was a reflection of the parking lot, where dusty pick-up trucks parked alongside expensive SUVs. A quick stroll showed license plates from 25 states — as far away as Hawaii, and nine from east of the Mississippi River.
They weren’t here for the orchestra under the stars.
They were here for bull riding.
And this was just not any bull riding. This was a Professional Bull Riders bull show, with all the same elements of the organization’s top-tier televised events.
And this crowd of 2,500 was ready to party.
For 360 days a year, the same patch of dirt in Big Sky’s New Town Center sits vacant. It’s just an open spot among the endless acres of sagebrush surrounded by mountains.
But for two nights, this same setting becomes the epicenter of the bull riding universe.
With a financial push from Yellowstone Club members Jim Murphy and Eric Ladd and put together by the
husband-and-wife team of Andy and Jacey Watson of Bozeman, the Professional Bull Riders Touring Pro Division event has become a must-stop for fans and competitors alike.
It began as a one-day event three years ago and was expanded to two nights for 2013.
The popular bull riding — which sold out in just hours this year — is a testament to the little town that would.
The Watsons, who also produced the PBR Touring Pro Division event in Livingston, initially did the same in Bozeman where Murphy was a sponsor.
“It’s such a quintessential Montana activity,’’ said Murphy, who is from Florida and owner of Continental Construction. “We knew it could be big up here. But we didn’t know it would turn out like this.
Murphy, Ladd and the Watsons kept visiting about doing a PBR event in Big Sky.
“That first meeting, we were asking, ‘How many do you think it will draw?’ ” recalled Ladd, the owner of Outlaw Partners, an advertising and marketing company. “We thought maybe 800. We just weren’t sure.”
However, there was one real pressing issue: Everything would have to be hauled in.
“There was nothing here,’’ said Andy Watson, who is the longtime photographer for the PBR. “We had to figure out a budget to see if it was feasible to do this.”
It became a reality when Watson cleared the area with a bulldozer three years ago.
The first event had a capacity crowd.
“We proved a little community could have something like this,’’ Murphy said. “We wanted to take a chance and see what happens.”
Watson and his wife, along with a crew of 20, assemble every part needed for a bull riding in a 90-by-120-foot arena. That includes bleachers, chutes, lights, a video board, sound system and generators for electricity.
Bo Wagner of Billings is also a partner, helping with setup, sponsorship and marketing.
Watson was still lugging materials 20 minutes before the first bull was turned loose. “I’m not good with multitasking,’’ said Watson, who was also carrying three cellphones. “By now, Jacey and I have a pretty good system going. The bull riding, that typically is the easy part.”
This year’s event was also live-streamed, the first for a Touring Pro Division bull riding.
“Big Sky is a unique setting,’’ Watson said. “Everybody up here, they just love having fun.”
Time to ride bulls
As people filtered in, they had plenty of options. They could grab something to eat, something to drink (which was often) or mingle past a host of other booths.
Many rushed in to find a good seat closest to the action.
Standing at a table and greeting fans was former PBR superstar Wiley Petersen. Petersen, of Fort Hall, Idaho, retired from competition a year ago. He patiently answered questions, explained the bull riding equipment, signed autographs and posed for plenty of pictures.
Less than 50 yards away on the other side of the bucking chutes, more than 30 bull riders prepared for their real jobs.
They had ridden the night before and would ride once, hopefully twice, more. The top 10 would qualify for the championship round. At stake was more than $40,000 in prize money and the opportunity to earn points in qualifying for the PBR’s World Finals this October.
The cowboys were much like the crowd: A diverse group from many places. This year’s field included bull riders from 18 states and four countries, including Canada, Australia and Mexico.
Along with money and points, this was also an opportunity to ride some Chad Berger bucking bulls. Berger, of North Dakota, is a three-time PBR Stock Contractor of the Year honoree.
“The big thing was we wanted an A show. We didn’t want a B show,’’ said Ladd, who became a fan after watching the World Finals in Las Vegas.
Berger put together a fan-friendly pen of bulls, tough but ones that could be ridden to keep the fans leaning toward the arena. A string of five consecutive rides — all 85 points or better — had the crowd roaring.
“No. 1, it’s the enthusiasm of the fans. This is such a big deal,” Murphy said of the event’s soaring popularity. “And No. 2, the environment, it’s so small and intimate.”
Between rides, popular entertainer Flint Rasmussen worked the crowd. He told stories, staged a dance contest and even went into the stands to have some fun with a family dressed in identical sparkly green shirts better made for a barrel racer than bull riding fans.
“The fans here are unbelievable,’’ Rasmussen said. “A lot of people at this event are now regulars. To them, it’s like a summer festival.”
Rasmussen added that even a mid-performance rain storm the previous night could not dampen the crowd’s passion. “They came back even louder,’’ he said.
The championship round started slow, with the first six bull riders getting tossed.
But the event closed with a rousing finish.
Sean Willingham was the first to cover with an 89.5-point ride and Chase Outlaw followed with the same score. Jared Farley clinched the victory with a rousing 91-point ride.
“Look what I started,’’ Willingham joked.
Three rides, three lead changes. Nobody left early.
Farley, of Australia, pocketed more than $13,000 for 32 seconds of work — he also rode a bounty bull in the first performance — in two nights.
Watching like a proud father was Watson.
“It’s a rush to see all this come together,’’ said Watson, as happy fans mingled with happy bull riders. “It’s a rush to put this on.
“At the end of the day, our payoff is to watch the crowd’s reaction.”