OKLAHOMA CITY – While bull riding has traditionally been an independent sport, professional bull riders – via PBR (Professional Bull Riders) – are now appearing on bull-riding teams, as is the case of the newly formed Oklahoma Freedom, based in Oklahoma City.
Southwest Chronicle recently spoke to key figures on the Oklahoma Freedom team: general manager Brandon Bates; Coach Cord McCoy and team bull rider Eli Vastbinder.
The PBR Team Series revolutionizes the sport of bull riding, transforming an individual sport into one in which riders join teams to compete in five-on-five bull riding games for a national championship. In the inaugural 2022 season, eight founding teams will compete: the Arizona Ridge Riders, Austin Gamblers, Carolina Cowboys, Kansas City Outlaws, Missouri Thunder, Nashville Stampede, Texas Rattlers, and Oklahoma’s own Oklahoma Freedom.
There will be bull riding showdowns against the Austin Gamblers, Texas Rattlers and Carolina Cowboys this week here in Oklahoma City at the Paycom Center.
Oklahoma Freedom is operated by Prodigal, a full-service sports and entertainment agency based in Oklahoma City. The senior staff at Prodigal has more than 100 years of experience managing sport and entertainment events and teams. PBR and Prodigal have a longstanding relationship dating to 2007, partnering annually on Unleash The Beast events in the Sooner State.
The manager of the Oklahoma Freedom, Brandon Bates, talked to Southwest Chronicle from his home in Park City, Utah.
“I was the announcer for PBR for almost 20 years,” Bates said, adding that when the new team concept was developed and Oklahoma Freedom was needing a manager, he “seemed like a natural fit.”
“I have an understanding of the sport from being an announcer,” he said, noting that with eight different teams in the league, you have a lot of things going on. But with Oklahoma Freedom, he feels he is right where he needs to be.
“I’m proud of these guys,” he said.
Bates said it would be considered “crazy” not to have a bull riding team from Oklahoma, “considering how many bull riding people come out of Oklahoma.”
He said: “There’s a steep, rodeo-rich background for Oklahoma.”
And in Oklahoma, people like action out in the ring.
“It’s real,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the closest thing to ancient Roman, gladiator-type sports, although please understand that I’m not advocating getting stabbed in the neck with a spear. It’s dangerous and very raw and there are elements of drama every night.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Bates continued. “Having a group of guys like this. I love the team, I love the name. I’m very patriotic. We are all 100% red-blooded Americans. It’s really fun to come and be patriotic. And then there’s the excitement factor. You have to see it to believe it. Like a combination of rodeo and rock concert.”
And while Oklahoma Freedom are all American bull riders, there are other teams with riders from foreign countries, like Brazil, where bull riding is popular.
This reporter also spoke with Oklahoma Freedom Coach Cord McCoy. He is a six-time PBR World Finals qualifier-turned-stock-contractor. McCoy had an amazing career when he finished inside the world’s Top 50 six times, before retiring. McCoy said that the biggest thing about being a coach is picking or drafting the right guys.
And in the case of the Oklahoma Freedom team, he said, “We drafted a really elite set of guys.”
Between the near dozen events the Freedom will take part in around the country, McCoy said the bull riders prepare and keep in shape all the time, while watching a lot of videos of prior performances to see where improvements can be made and techniques can be sharpened.
“But there is no better training for bull riding than bull riding,” McCoy said, adding that there is a lot of mental work that goes into training as well, alongside the athletic training they receive from a member of the Freedom staff.
McCoy said the team is looking forward to the performing at the PBR Freedom Fest Sept. 16-18 in the team’s home arena the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City.
“We hope everybody shows up,” McCoy said.
And the Freedom’s Eli Vastbinder, a native of Statesville, North Carolina, and the Rookie of the Year, said that while losing always hurts, there is a distinct camaraderie when you perform on a team. You know the others are counting on you to do your best.
“For me, once you learn how to ride bulls, it becomes mostly mental,” Vastbinder said. “Plus, when you add in the fear factor and the things that can happen … well, there’s definitely the mental game you have to be aware of.
Added Vastbinder: “It’s going to be a good event. Features the best bull riders in the world and the best bulls in the world. It’s an event you don’t want to miss.”
General admission tickets start at $20 per person and are available via Ticketmaster.com.
For more details, visit pbr.com.