PBR Sustains Strategic Social Success

Before COVID-19 inflicted the Great Sport Hiatus upon us all, Team Marketing Report was tracking PBR‘s (Professional Bull Riders) 2020 schedule closely, impressed by their ongoing fancentric social media work.

One-third of the way into 27-event Unleash the Beast schedule, PBR was enjoying another strong campaign. Attendance was up 8 percent year-over-year. All social media accounts were experiencing strong gains in followers and engagement with TikTok‘s 5X year-over-year (YOY) growth leading the way.

Then everything changed.

As the pandemic began to impact the U.S., PBR remained true to its fancentric approach, heavily utilizing its well-established social channels to keep fans up to date and connected to the sport, its riders and even the bulls.

When the NBA suspended their season the evening of Mar 11, PBR production crews were deep into set-up for the UTB Gwinnett Invitational in Duluth, Ga., that upcoming weekend, Mar 14-15. Adjusting on the fly, PBR execs decided to go ahead with the event–but held without fans and operated with a skeleton crew of staff, sending all non-essential staff home.

PBR implemented CDC guidelines and screened everyone coming into the arena, built social distancing barriers to protect judges, production, riders and the TV crew. Rider participation was entirely voluntary with six different locker rooms utilized to keep riders separated. In the end, 35 of 36 riders participated in the event produced by a skeleton crew of about 110.

Instead of a weekend packed with college basketball tournaments–culminating in “Selection Sunday”–as well as a full slate of NBA, NHL, XFL and MLB Spring Training games, PBR was one of just three live sporting events taking place in the U.S. (The others: the Iditarod soldiered on in Alaska while the Professional Bowlers Association‘s PBA World Championship was pushed up three days due to coronavirus concerns and held Mar 15 in Las Vegas.)

The surreal scene at Gwinnett’s Infinite Energy Arena ended up the only live sports on prime time TV.

We started working on this story back at the beginning of Dec 2019, emailing, calling and interviewing PBR staff. Next, TMR attended PBR’s second Unleash the Beast event of the season, the Chicago Invitational at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., on Jan 11, 2020.

Instead of having a full 2020 season for us to slice-and-dice the numbers on, we’ll have to do what the PBR social/digital team did: pivot.

But, before we look at their COVID-19 response, let’s take a step back and understand how PBR set itself up for fan engagement success.

First, PBR and parent company Endeavor committed to supporting an internal team. Then, that team was charged with building a smart, sustainable strategy.

Josh Tucker, who oversees PBR’s 9-person social media team as Sr. Director, Social & Digital Partnerships, came on board just in time for the 2019 season, joining in Dec 2018. Tucker was coming off three seasons with the NFL. Previous sports experience includes another stint with Endeavor (where he gained previous PBR experience) and two and a half seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Rather than relying on local media coverage for exposure in event markets, PBR uses social media to reach their fans–and fight several perception headwinds among non-fans–in their fight for deeper “mainstream” acceptance:

  • “Nothing but rural rednecks” – sold out events at Madison Square Garden and L.A.’s Staples Center are nice counterpoints
  • “Riders are not athletes” – YOU try riding 1,500 pounds of bucking bull for eight seconds
  • “No home team” – perhaps the most difficult work is gaining local media coverage around the event in part due to misconceptions 1. and 2. as well as not having a “home” team playing at events

To do that PBR utilizes three types of content:

  1. Owned (~60 percent of PBR posts): Broadcast (real-time and archives), RidePass, content creators and in-arena content
  2. Curated (~10%): PBR or rodeo-related events and news containing relevant conversations around owned assets, PBR Riders and western lifestyle; a curated post was PBR’s most-viewed of 2019
  3. Original (~30%): Devoted to storytelling and showcasing riders’ personalities

So how does PBR balance engaging with the passionate fan base while bringing new fans on board? By setting strategy, establishing clear goals and measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) as they go.

“At the beginning [of 2019], we established clear KPIs across three areas,” explains Tucker. The three KPI areas:

  1. Grow PBR both as sport and brand – primarily measured with impressions
  2. Build fan loyalty and avidity – metrics are watch time and growth, as well as traffic (page views) at PBR.com
  3. Drive revenue – maximize monetization opportunities such as sponsorship, display, pre-roll inventory and ticket sales

The team does not simply count impressions or followers, but gathers analytics in multiple ways, and then shares those results with PBR leadership in a comprehensive dashboard each week.

The PBR team is constantly tracking not only their numbers, but those of the major “ball and stick” leagues and who the consider their competitive set which includes WWE, UFC, NASCAR, MLS ATP Tour and PGA Tour. This graphic shows how PBR stacks up on Facebook.

“We use native analytics to pull impressions, video views, watch time and growth to measure and show value,” Tucker discloses. “CrowdTangle is what we use to measure public data on Facebook and Twitter–and to see how we are tracking against other leagues. That’s one of two tools we use with access to Facebook and Instagram data…I can pull year-to-date engagement views, growth for all the leagues in the world. Beyond that we have access to MVP Index.”

Posts with lots of Likes, Shares, Views, etc. are great, but the PBR team looks to gain “impressions with a purpose.”

“A majority of our posts have a call to action. It’s not a hard sell–like ‘buy tickets, now!’,” says Tucker. “But we’re always thinking about how to use those eyeballs toward our future tent-pole events or storylines that will drive commerce.”

What does Tucker think about before each post?

“Every post has to check a number of boxes,” explains Tucker. “Is it good for our fans? Is it good for our brand? Is it good for our partners? Does it represent our cowboys well?”

And thanks to real time analytics, the team knows quickly whether a piece of content is going to perform.

“We’re constantly evaluating and evolving based on real time data,” adds Tucker. “Every week as a group we look at our top three performing posts and ask: Why did they perform? Why did some others not perform? How can we get better?”

“Every post has to check a number of boxes: Is it good for our fans? Is it good for our brand? Is it good for our partners? Does it represent our cowboys well?”

PBR’s Biggest Focus in 2019 was Instagram and Facebook
PBR Showed Largest YOY Follower Growth Among Leagues/Properties on Both Platforms
Entity IG % Chg Entity FB % Chg
1 PBR 49.1% 1 PBR 8.8%
2 UFC 43.6% 2 UFC 8.0%
3 MLS 40.6% 3 MLS 7.7%
4 ATP Tour 31.7% 4 NBA 3.8%
5 NBA 27.9% 5 MLB 3.7%
6 MLB 24.1% 6 ATP TOUR 2.1%
7 NFL 23.4% 7 NHL 1.9%
8 NASCAR 22.7% 8 NFL 1.1%
9 WWE 21.5% 9 WWE 0.4%
10 NHL 19.5% 10 NASCAR 0.3%

That brings us to when, thanks to a certain highly-contagious coronavirus, live sports changed in the blink of an eye.

We went back to Tucker and asked him to specifically break down how PBR approached and executed around an event with no fans. We also checked in to see how PBR is adjusting to conditions no one alive has seen.

Team Marketing Report: Heading into what turned into PBR’s last event before the hiatus, how did PBR’s social media approach change as a result of coronavirus?

Josh Tucker: Our social team is such a small piece of this story. Our executive team, the skeleton crew on the ground that put our Duluth event together, the production crew for both CBS and RidePass, our talent and our riders–they’re the real story.

Our approach on social media remained largely the same–on our respective couches watching the show unfold, attempting to tell the story beyond the broadcast. Everything was the same, but nothing was the same.

Even though the stands were empty, it was a standard live event by format. We were all trying to capture the emotion of an event that took place during an unprecedented moment in life…in an empty arena. There’s no road map for that.

Working in social media, especially in a moment like this, you never want the story to be about you. Sometimes it’s better to let your talent set the stage and tone for you as [PBR’s in-arena entertainer] Flint Rasmussen did.

TMR: What was the digital/social content from the event like, and how did it differ from a normal event?

JT: It was kind of eerie. There were modifications to our programming, but our focus remained on capturing the motion and emotion of the sport, our talent and riders. Because we were operating with a minimal crew (respecting CDC guidance), we did not have a social content producer on site. We had one PR manager in the building who helped so much by sharing behind-the-scenes content, which ultimately generated some of our top performing content of the weekend.

Delivering value for our partners is always a key focus. Without any fans in the arena, we needed to find a social solution to support our partners with in-arena activations. One example: we run the “Cooper Tires Fan of the Night” during every event, so we launched the “Cooper Tires Social Media Fan of the Night” and integrated it into the RidePass stream. Great way to deliver value to our partner while engaging our fans.

TMR: What were the metrics like for Duluth, and how does that compare to a typical event?

JT: The metrics for PBR on Instagram for the Duluth Unleash The Beast event compared to a normal event weekend were all up: Interaction Rate was up 31%, Total Interactions were up 46% and Video Views were up 41%.

One of our goals was to drive eyeballs to the live broadcast–both CBS Sports Network and RidePass. For that, our team took the cold open from the RidePass and broadcast it live on Facebook to drive tune-in.

TMR: Now with the season paused, how has PBR’s digital/social strategy changed once again?

JT: Creativity with caution. We are a sports and entertainment company–our goal, always, is to engage our fans and provide joy. We hope to continue to do that during a time of need. It’s evolving every day, but in the absence of live events, we are leaning on archival content, content from riders and talent, and content with riders and talent.

TMR: With the explosive rise of TikTok in sports–and PBR seizing it with, among other things, the clever use of a bull named “@PBR on TikTok how will your TikTok strategy specifically change given the circumstances?

JT: TikTok is slightly different–our audience skews younger and is a platform that allows for experimentation and fun. Therefore, the ‘caution’ element of the equation is even more important to factor in right now.

With so much uncertainty on when and how we will return to sports coming out of the shutdown, including if fans will be allowed to attend, PBR’s work may just provide us the perfect roadmap for when the Great Sports Hiatus finally ends.

Top 25 pro leagues by social media followers
As of Apr 6, 2020
Facebook Followers TikTok Followers Instagram Followers Twitter Followers
1 WWE 42,804,997 1 NBA 10,400,000 1 NBA 47,342,646 1 NBA 30,442,468
2 NBA 39,681,852 2 WWE 4,700,000 2 WWE 20,780,328 2 NFL 25,252,302
3 UFC 27,898,924 3 NFL 3,300,000 3 UFC 19,737,493 3 WWE 10,912,862
4 NFL 17,534,761 4 UFC 2,700,000 4 NFL 17,326,115 4 MLB 8,599,064
5 MLB 7,467,916 5 MLB 1,300,000 5 MLB 6,323,028 5 UFC 7,496,518
6 NASCAR 4,894,647 6 NHL 747,600 6 NHL 4,169,423 6 NHL 6,306,593
7 NHL 4,525,156 7 WNBA 531,700 7 Bellator MMA 2,305,745 7 NASCAR 3,421,892
8 MLS 3,592,989 8 NASCAR 457,700 8 PGA Tour 2,124,885 8 MLS 3,297,290
9 PBR 3,357,825 9 PBR 449,100 9 ATP Tour 1,839,787 9 PGA Tour 2,310,381
10 ATP Tour 3,149,663 10 XFL 346,100 10 MLS 1,634,000 10 ATP Tour 1,584,546
11 PGA Tour 2,688,441 11 Big3 124,400 11 NASCAR 1,239,902 11 WTA Tour 834,032
12 Bellator MMA 2,334,599 12 MiLB 117,200 12 PBR 1,157,922 12 NHRA 652,630
13 WTA Tour 2,129,086 13 MLS 81,200 13 NBA G 1,021,988 13 WNBA 615,918
14 PFL 1,925,585 14 PLL 79,400 14 WNBA 862,893 14 Bellator MMA 508,097
15 NHRA 1,437,392 15 PGA Tour 39,700 15 WTA Tour 805,000 15 XFL 399,628
16 LPGA 1,328,348 16 MLF 13,500 16 Big3 656,000 16 IndyCar 376,462
17 NBA G 1,292,381 17 ATP Tour 9,470 17 XFL 610,000 17 NBA G 346,902
18 WNBA 1,144,057 18 USL 6,608 18 NHRA 433,000 18 CFL 294,765
19 IndyCar 960,272 19 PFL 848 19 MiLB 367,000 19 MiLB 218,460
20 Dew Tour 613,116 20 WTA Tour 836 20 MLF 352,000 20 LPGA 214,569
21 MiLB 358,434 21 Bellator MMA 193 21 IndyCar 288,000 21 PBR 169,558
22 MLF 348,837 22 LPGA 81 22 PFL 278,534 22 Big3 130,592
23 Big3 263,837 23 IndyCar 63 23 LPGA 255,000 23 AHL 119,700
24 CFL 238,444 24 CFL 29 24 Dew Tour 225,418 24 MLL 84,892
25 XFL 221,362 25 ECHL 5 25 PLL 206,000 25 USL 73,030

Chris brings deep sports business experience to his role as publisher of TMR. He first put his sales, experiential marketing, PR, sales and valuation skills to work in sporting goods retail in 1986. He has since worked for brands and agencies across all major league sports, plus golf, college athletics, marathons and motorsports. Chris is also the proud founder of Painless Networking.