FORT WORTH, Texas ― Prior to every Built Ford Tough Series event there's a rider meeting.
PBR executives and production personnel discuss everything from what procedure will be followed for rider introductions that weekend to planned autograph signings or any other news and notes of interest or importance.
In the fall of 2002, then-CEO Randy Bernard walked into a Baltimore locker room and announced to a room full of the top professional bull riders in the world that the PBR would be offering a $1 million bonus to the World Champion beginning in 2003.
J.W. Hart, 38, known for voicing a sarcastic bite, recalled saying, "Well, I guess, it'll be just my luck and I'll win this year."
Ednei Caminhas was actually the last PBR rider to win a title prior to the $1 million payout, and in 2003 two-time world title winner Chris Shivers was the first to receive the bonus.
Justin McBride, who would eventually win the title in 2005 and again in 2006, making him the first to win the $1 million twice, said he didn't take Bernard's announcement seriously.
"When Shivers won it and they brought out the check," he recalled, "that's when I realized it was for real."
Throughout the 2013 season, the PBR is celebrating its 20th anniversary leading up to the World Finals. All season long pbr.com has been commemorating the past 20 years by featuring the Top 20 moments in PBR history.
This week the final moment in a 20-part series is "World Finals Reaches $1 Million."
The PBR offered a total purse of $1 million at the 1996 World Finals. In the two previous years it had been $120,000 and $300,000. Then in 2003, the organization began paying a $1 million bonus to the World Champion.
"The only thing we want to reward is greatness," said Cody Lambert, who was among the 20 co-founders of the PBR and remains intimately involved with the organization as its livestock director. "We admire effort and we appreciate effort.
"We think it's the most American thing in the world, is that whoever does his job the best gets paid the most."
In spite of those who might have doubted them in 1996, Lambert remembers accompanying Bernard on a trip to Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo in December of '95 when they were determined to raise the $1 million they needed in prize money.
"It felt huge," said nine-time World Champion and co-founder Ty Murray, "but there were a million milestones that felt big to us. Anytime we reached a milestone it felt like we were going somewhere because when we first started we were looked at like a joke, like none of this would happen."
When they initially met with executives from the MGM Grand Hotel, he recalled hearing some of them cough and laugh when Bernard laid out their plan and asked for the money. However, Bernard and the board members had met for months and they were confident they could raise the money elsewhere if needed.
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Perhaps, more importantly, they knew they might be turned down and they were willing look elsewhere.
Eventually, they worked out a deal with MGM and the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
Murray said, "$1 million purse is saying something," for what he described as a "start-up idea."
"That made the Finals something special," said Lambert, of the total prize equaling $1 million. "That made it bigger than any other bull riding finals ― even bigger than the NFR in that particular event."
There's something about the allure of Las Vegas and the idea of awarding $1 million.
Lambert added, "That stirs up a lot of interest from a lot of other people."
Those other people happened to be television viewers.
And the interest began a meteoric rise once Bernard announced the PBR would pay its World Champion $1 million bonus ― to be paid out $100,000 a year over 10 years.
"People will watch somebody eat worms or bugs on TV if there's a chance for them to win a million dollars at the end of the show or at the end of the season," Lambert explained. "They'll watch damn-near anything if there's a chance the winner is going to get a million dollars, so we knew if we could get people to watch bull riding that they would become fans. We know that, but to get them to initially watch it is trickier than you think."
Lambert, who retired from competition at the conclusion of the 1996 season, doesn't know what it feels like as a rider to have a chance to win a $1 million bonus, but, as a founder of the PBR, he wanted to help create an opportunity for someone who spent their youth learning this skill ― bull riding ― for it to be "actually worth something."
The bonus certainly made it worth the risk.
"Up until that time, riding bulls, you did it because you loved it, and it didn't matter how much money was up," Lambert said. "If you didn't love it, it wasn't worth it; but even if you do love it, if you can't make a decent living at it, then it isn't worth it because you could get hurt and then you can't go to work doing other things.
"But the real problem was guys who were really good at it ― really serious about it ― most of them don't learn how to do anything else because they spent their entire youth learning to be a better bull rider. They've worked to put so much into that, that the day they're done hopefully they find some former bull rider, who didn't make it, that learned a trade earlier that can hire them."
"That was a big moment too," Murray said of the commitment to paying a $1 million bonus, "but it was almost scary. … But I had enough trust in Randy and his business skills to know he wouldn't do something we weren't capable of doing.
"It's one thing to think, 'OK, this year we're going to give the World Champion a $1 million bonus,' but it's another thing when you think of it being every year. You know what I'm saying? That's where it got scary for me. … That's a big thing when you've watched this thing build up from nothing."
Mike Lee became the second World Champion to win the bonus a year after Shivers won the first $1 million bonus.
Lee has an older brother, who he said was a better bull rider than he is. However, their father wouldn't let him pursue the sport professionally because, at the time, the money simply wasn't available.
By the time Lee was old enough to turn pro in June of 2001, the PBR was only two seasons away from offering the World Champion a $1 million bonus. Unlike his brother, Lee was afforded an opportunity.
"We wanted to stop that cycle," Lambert said. "We feel like we have in certain ways, but we feel like we're still in the beginning in a lot of ways."
Murray added, "Even now, there are ways you feel momentum, and whenever you feel that momentum it gets you excited."
Follow Keith Ryan Cartwright on Twitter @PBR_KRC
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