When Professional Bull Riders (PBR) first came to Madison Square Garden in 2007, the event was considered a novelty, given that the only cowboys New Yorkers see regularly are of the “Urban,” “Midnight” and “Naked” variety.
But now that the sport has announced plans to return to the "World’s Most Famous Arena" for the 13th consecutive season, it’s clear the big city has embraced it. And fans will be able to see PBR’s top 35 riders when the circuit kicks off its 26-stop 2019 elite tour season with the Monster Energy Buck Off, from Jan. 4 to 6.
“Before we first came here, most New Yorkers wouldn’t even turn on the TV to watch bull riding. They had probably never seen our sport,” veteran rider Sean Willingham told amNewYork. “Now, it’s a big weekend for us, and we see that New Yorkers come out and enjoy watching it.”
Last season, Gage Gay won the Garden event, earning the biggest payday of his PBR career — more than $100,000 — and 700 world points. The win moved the North Carolina native to the No. 1 spot in the world standings for the first time in his career.
“A win at the Garden can make your season,” said Willingham, who has been on the tour for 20 years and is the longest-tenured rider in PBR’s world rankings.
He’s looking to get his 2019 season off to a good start after experiencing a comeback year of sorts in 2018. The 37-year-old Georgia native has dealt with numerous injuries in recent campaigns, including, most notably, a broken neck in 2015. He had planned to make the Garden his last event before riding off into the sunset, but recently he changed his mind.
“As long as I still feel good, we’re just going to take it a week at a time,” Willingham said. “Given my age, and my past injuries, this will probably be my last year, but we’ll see.”
Willingham already has gotten a head start on the next chapter of his career, conducting bull-riding teaching camps across the country. He may also do some TV work. For now, he just wants to win at the Garden and qualify for the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas next November for the second consecutive year and his 13th time overall.
“Everyone wants to win at Madison Square Garden,” he said. “It’s special.”
That description applies to the crowd at the Buck Off as well.
“The atmosphere is totally different here,” Willingham said. “I think it’s because of the history of the place, with all the famous events. It’s a very historic building. And the crowd is very involved. They seem to feed off watching us ride.”