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Ride is better in person

On bull circuit, TV has its limits

For some of us, sitting home and watching sports on TV beats being there in person. Given the choice, couch potatoes will go with high definition, picture-in-picture, a couple of clickers, an ottoman, and unlimited access to the fridge every time.

Saturday night, that theory took a beating. Live beat Memorex, and the eyeglass lenses proved to be sharper than the expensive Canon lenses on the Sony TV cameras in the arena.

The event was the Professional Bull Riders Tour stop at the DCU Center in Worcester (former Worcester Centrum). On this occasion, there were 90,000 pounds of bull in one building and not a politician to be found.

Outdoor Life Network's production of the weekend event, seen on tape Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m., was slick, but after seeing this sport in person, the TV coverage didn't beat being there.

TV can't catch the smell of the 80-plus bulls in the building, the sight and feel of the dirt that goes flying into the stands, the drool flying from the bulls as the 2,000-pound animals burst from the chute trying to shed the cowboys on their backs.

It's a pretty simple contest. If you're a rider and you stay aboard for 8 seconds, you get judged. You can get up to 50 points for your ride from the two judges. The bull's performance is also scored by the two judges, up to 50 points. The two scores are added, and anything over 90 points is the equivalent of a baseball grand slam. And no one came close to hitting one in Worcester.

Usually, it turns out, the animal wins. It seems that the PBR Tour has reinvigorated the bull-breeding business, with the nastier animals enjoying a pampered lifestyle of comfortable travel and limited performances. In Saturday's final round, only one rider -- co-champ Greg Potter of Queensland, Australia -- stayed aboard for the necessary 8 seconds, making a new viewer wonder whether the bulls are getting too tough. Justin McBride of Elk City, Okla., who rode both of his bulls in qualifying, piled up enough early points to hold on and be a surprise co-champ.

In this sport, the stars are the bulls. They have names like Little Yellow Jacket (a three-time Bull of the Year) and Mesquite Heat, who was banned from the circuit midway through the 2004 season for being just too nasty.

When a group of 20 bull riders broke away from the rodeo circuit in 1992, each put up $1,000 to take the sport mainstream. There are more than 600 registered riders in the major league -- the Ford Built Tough series -- and three minor leagues, the Humps 'n' Horns, Enterprise, and US Smokeless Tobacco series.

The move paid off. Prize money increased from $250,000 in 1993 to just under $10 million in 2004 when OLN broadcast all 29 events and NBC picked up eight.

"We bought our way onto NBC for one event in 2001," said Randy Bernard, CEO of the tour. "NBC told us that if we got a 1 rating, they'd sell us some airtime again. If we got a 2, they'd pick up two events."

Ratings exceeded all expectations -- and hopes -- and the sport now fits NBC's guidelines of being a profitable sports partner. The PBR consistently ranks as OLN's highest-rated programming. PBR officials compare their fandom and demographics to NASCAR, and the two circuits have plans to combine on future promotions. Riders, who average about 5 feet 6 inches and 150 pounds, sport sponsor logos on their shirts and protective Kevlar vests, strongly resembling NASCAR drivers.

Joe Loverro, who produces OLN's annual Tour de France cycling coverage, loves both the product and the long season.

"How many sports can give you a 31-week season," he said, "with a two-week finale in Las Vegas?"

Brett Haber, who handles play-by-play for PBR on OLN, is a former ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor who now is sports director of WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C.

"It didn't take long to make me a convert to the sport," he said. "You have to like everything about it, from the athletes to the organization to the fans."

Analyst Justin McKee and rider/commentator Michael Gaffney, one of the tour's founders, worked the weekend telecasts with Haber. Leah Garcia, a former competitor in rodeo and mountain biking, handles the postride interviews, often a tough job, as about one in 10 rides results in an injury to the rider.

They put on a good TV show, and it made for some fun viewing Sunday night, but being there was twice the fun in this case.

Bad moon rising
Fox's Joe Buck didn't waste any time in calling Randy Moss's pantomime mooning of the Green Bay fans late in Sunday's game "a disgusting act," adding, "It's unfortunate it was on our air." On one hand, it was refreshing to hear such a spontaneous and honest reaction from a network announcer. On the other, it was from the guy who interviews the actor who symbolizes all that fans despise in pro athletes: "Leon," the centerpiece in a Budweiser campaign . . . Two years ago, 150 people attended the inaugural "Whiney Awards," celebrating WEEI's sometimes funny, sometimes clever but often just nasty "Whiner Line," which closes the afternoon "Big Show" at 5:50. Last year, attendance jumped to 800, and more than 1,000 are expected for this year's event Feb. 17 at the Copley Marriott. Tickets are $150 and available only to WEEI "Clubhouse Insiders" until tomorrow, when they go on sale to the general public at 2 p.m. via the station's website, www.weei.com . . . CN8 has UMass-Saint Joseph's basketball tomorrow at 8 p.m. . . . The Globe's "Sports Plus" tomorrow (NESN, 6:30 p.m.) has Bob Ryan and Nick Cafardo joining host Tom Caron to debate which quarterback they'd want for one game: Peyton Manning or Tom Brady . . . Caron also will host tonight's "Red Sox Inside Out" with Jerry Remy and the Globe's Gordon Edes . . . New Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson will be a guest on "Late Show with David Letterman" tonight (Channel 4, 11:35) . . . We have another weekend of evening golf with ESPN covering the Sony Open in Honolulu starting Thursday from 6:30-9 p.m.

Character references
The funeral for Norm Resha was yesterday, but the memories live on.

Peter Casey, WBZ Radio program director: "He had an interesting way of doing business with golf tournaments and fund-raisers. They'd be looking for a piece of sports memorabilia to auction or sell. He'd say, `This is what it costs; set your minimum price, and if you reach your goal, fine. Otherwise, bring it back and you don't owe me anything.' And he was in his element when he was the auctioneer at an event."

Len Megliola, Metro West Daily News columnist: "He was a Runyonesque character who loved the theater. You'd think he was right out of `Guys and Dolls.' He had a big old Mercedes that was in perfect shape and he loved cracking the window and driving along smoking a big Macanudo and listening to Frank Sinatra like the king of Broadway."

Gary Tanguay of FSN: "Doing the show really was a social event for him. And he made me laugh so many times, including once when I couldn't finish reading a commercial and the client canceled. To Norm, the laughs were more important than the money."

Show cohost Bob Rodgers: "We were in a restaurant and Norm was with a lady he was hoping to impress. A guy came up and was telling Norm how much he enjoyed the show and then asked, `So, Eddie, would you sign this for me?' having mistaken Norm for Eddie Andelman."

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com 

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