New York City audiences may think they’ve seen it all, but Flint Rasmussen knows his show will still hold novelty for some.
“I know for a fact there’s people in the crowd in New York City who have never seen a bull in real life,” he said.
“That’s not a condescending statement,” he added. “It’s just that I could walk out my door right now and drive two minutes and see bulls.”
Rasmussen lives in Billings, Montana, and is the official entertainer — akin to a rodeo clown — for the Professional Bull Riders, also known as PBR. The group’s “Unleash the Beast” series pits “the world’s best cowboys” against the “rankest bulls.” The tour arrives Friday for a three-day event at Madison Square Garden.
To call Rasmussen a clown is like calling Joe Montana a quarterback: while it’s technically true, it misses a lot. Rasmussen is in the Pendleton Roundup and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame. He has been exclusively with PBR since 2006. Before this, his peers voted him the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year – the sport’s equivalent of an Academy Award — for eight years in a row.
You could say this is not his first rodeo, but PBR isn’t technically a rodeo: It was founded by a group of 20 bull riders who thought their sport, which is typically the last event in a rodeo and often its biggest draw, could break away from the rodeo circuit to become a standalone show. In 1992, they each chipped in $1,000 to start their own organization, and PBR was born.
It’s tricky to make sense of a rodeo clown in New York City, But Rasmussen isn’t just good at his job – he’s also changed the game, acting as an ambassador of sorts for rodeo culture.
Rodeo clowning used to follow a formula: baggy pants and corny jokes about the differences between men and women. Rasmussen broke from that tradition, and regularly improvises with the crowd; he’s also known to twerk or moonwalk to pop or rock blaring in the arena. He’s actually funny, and relatable to crowds whether he’s in Los Angeles or in Guthrie, Oklahoma. And unlike performers of yesteryear, he has parlayed his appeal into a personal brand with sponsorships, a podcast and TV appearances.
“The guy’s just an icon,” said Matt Merritt, a fellow entertainer with PBR who’s known Rasmussen for more than a decade and recalls watching him on TV as a teenager.
“The toughest of the tough love him to death,” said Merritt, but so do folks who are brand new and “maybe even wary of what they’re about to see.”
What they’re about to see is an extreme sport mixed with circus and doused with machismo. There are pyrotechnics and ballistic vests. There are no women competitors. Sponsors include Monster Energy, Wrangler, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The main event is the ultimate display of rugged individualism (albeit in a slick package): man versus beast. For a ride to count, a cowboy has to stay on for eight seconds, which can seem eternal to a 150-pound man getting bucked by a 1,600-pound animal. The odds are not in the cowboys’ favor: Last year, PBR’s top cowboys hit the dirt before completing about 70% of rides, according to Probullstats, an outlet that tracks the sport.
Throughout the show, Rasmussen is the master of ceremonies, often filling time during commercial breaks. He tailors his act to whatever city he’s in. What works in Billings doesn’t fly in New York City.
“I cannot do the same material or the same show in those two places,” he said. “There are some guys that would, but I think probably why I’ve had the job for so many years is, I understand that difference.” He later asks: “Is that tooting my own horn?”
In New York City, he’ll take a step back so that announcers can explain technicalities, like why a rider was disqualified — something they’re less likely to do in, say, Sioux Falls. He’ll play the beginning of “Piano Man” on his harmonica before the real song blasts in the arena.
“They’ll sing every word,” he said.
New York City audiences go wild if the safety man, from his horse, ropes a bull by the horns to get it back to the gate. In Billings, that gets no response.
That is sometimes the biggest cheer we get in New York City because that’s the coolest s–t they’ve ever seen.
“That is sometimes the biggest cheer we get in New York City because that’s the coolest s–t they’ve ever seen,” he said. “That’s the stuff they do on Yellowstone.”
Beyond all this, Rasmussen’s role has a deeper purpose: bringing levity to a death-defying endeavor — for both the audience and the guys who put their lives on the line.
Bull-riding is considered the most dangerous professional sport in America. The league estimates that one in 15 rides ends in injury. And although it’s rare, riders have been killed in competition. In 2021, Amadeu Campos Silva died at a PBR event in Fresno, California, when a bull stomped on his chest. Two years earlier, Mason Lowe, who was ranked 18th in the world, met a similar fate in Denver.
The threat is “always in the back of our mind somewhere,” said Rasmussen. “I know those guys, and I don’t want to think about it.”
However dangerous the game, riders at least know the deal. PBR draws criticism from some who say the animals have no such choice.
“There is a myth of consent that’s worked into a lot of the talk that you’ll hear at PBR shows,” said Susan Nance, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and the author of “Rodeo: An Animal History.” “Oh, this bull, he just loves to buck.” But, she said, the animals “don’t understand what PBR is. They don’t care about their statistics.”
Nance disapproves of bull-riding for a slew of reasons, including the fact that it rewards speculative breeding: for every bull that makes it to to the big show, many more wind up at the slaughterhouse.
Nance also said the sport, particularly at the lower levels that feed up to the major leagues, perpetuates animal mistreatment.
Brett McNabb, who runs the Large Animal Clinic at the University of California, Davis and has been the on-site veterinarian at Sacramento PBR events for almost a decade, said that the animals he sees are treated well, mainly because they are considered elite athletes. As such, they’re given “top-notch” veterinary care and nutrition. They are regularly tested for performance-enhancing drugs, which he said isn’t much of an issue in the sport because ultimately what makes a bull buck is genetics. McNabb said he’s a fan of PBR.
Rasmussen knows his sport draws criticism, particularly because it uses animals in a time when many events are moving away from the practice.
“A lot of the battle we will never win,” he said, adding that the bulls were treated more like pet dogs in New York City apartments than animals in the agricultural business. “Animals are used every day in the world I grew up in.”
That world is indeed far from Manhattan.
“A lot of people from little tiny towns in Montana, they always are like, ‘Oh God, I would never go to New York.’” said Rasmussen. “It’s intimidating to small-town people, you know? And guess what? Small-town America is intimidating to city people.”
Still, he said, he tells everyone they should go to the Big Apple.
“My whole life,” he said, “you hear about the energy of the greatest city in the world. And I get it. There is an energy in New York City. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else. There’s no city, especially in America, like New York City.”
Maybe he just knows his audience.
Professional Bull Riders’ “Unleash the Beast” takes place on Friday, Jan. 6; Saturday, Jan. 7 and Sunday Jan. 8 at Madison Square Garden. You can learn more at their website.