Courier Staff Writer
One year after the first sell-out event at the Bridge View Center, the Bullriders of America Finals are back in town.
The top 25 bull riders are matched up with the best bulls in competition for two nights of breath-taking excitement. An entire season of work comes down to what the numbers say at the end of round four tonight.
Each year, riders in the BOA compete at over 60 events in 10 Midwestern states for more than $225,000 in prize money.
“They travel all year long, literally thousands of miles, and it all comes down to this weekend,” stock contractor Shad Smith said. He is one of three contractors who brought in bulls for the weekend’s event. “This is the very last round, and they’ve known they’re coming back here. This is when it all comes together.”
Levi Stepp, a bull rider from Pierce, Neb., is currently in second place in the standings. Last year, Stepp finished second after climbing his way from seventh. Coming into the weekend, the top riders are within just points of each other, leaving the title up for grabs. Stepp says this kind of competition is what makes the event so exciting.
“The top six guys are six guys who all have a chance to win,” Stepp said. “It’s gonna be a firefight this year.”
The riders remember last year’s finals just as well as the local fans do. That event, and knowing they would be returning to Ottumwa this year, has been on their minds for the past 12 months.
“Last year was almost electric. The music was loud, the crowd was cheering and into it,” Stepp said. “And there were people who would come up and say, ‘I talked to you last night.’ The crowd here was really good.”
Tyler Croxell, at just 24 years old, has already been fighting bulls for seven years. This will be his first BOA finals, a position hand-selected by the riders themselves.
“For a bullfighter, it’s different. All the hard work from the year is noticed,” he explained. “The riders only pick two fighters, so I’m really blessed to be picked.”
And anybody who didn’t make it to the event Friday night had better make plans to be there tonight.
“It’s definitely going to be the talk of Sunday morning at breakfast, that’s for sure,” Croxell said.
The finals are an up-close-and-personal competition, both during and after the event. During the show, the crowd will be right on top of the action. After the show, there will be plenty of time to meet all of the riders, the barrelman, announcer and bullfighters.
“The audience really gets to feel like they’re part of it,” BOA secretary Hallie Dessel said. “At an indoor venue, they’re more a part of everything, and (meeting the bull riders) is a big part of that. And they do it because they love it.”
Anyone who was at least year’s event will remember Shawn “Boom-Boom” Thompson. The barrelman is back for another BOA finals. He says that Bridge View Center and the Ottumwa community have been the topic of discussion around the BOA all year.
“I’ve been to many buildings that have sold out a show, but Bridge View is different. There’s a different atmosphere,” Thompson said. “It’s like you walk into the building and you’re walking out of a saloon into the O.K. Corral. The finals is the best of the best — the best riders and the best bulls.”
The support and excitement from the community has been felt by everyone in the BOA organization. Announcer Kelly Kenney says he’s thankful the finals are in a place where they’re so welcome.
“We know coming in that there will be a crowd on their feet and enjoying what we do for a living,” Kenney said. “That makes the points irrelevant. It makes my paycheck irrelevant. That’s what it’s all about.”
And the BOA has seen an increase in memberships and many rookie riders since last year’s event. BOA president Brian Collett says there’s a definite connection.
“The better the finals, the more (the riders) want to be a part of it. There’s nothing better than riding in front of a full crowd,” Collett said.
The second time around is a little easier for Bridge View Center director Larry Gawronski, too. He says that the marketing effort is no longer in making the community aware that the event is going to take place, but they’re putting effort into improving on a good thing.
“We want to make sure that what was good before is even better now. We want to work to give them a place to do their best,” Gawronski said. “The arena is in even better shape, the sponsors have increased. That’s a testament to the buying public and the sponsors who have chosen to support the finals. Now we’re geared toward making it better and better.”
Kenney says that for the BOA, the momentum from last year’s finals has continued through the entire year.
“Momentum is important to any business, any game or any industry. Momentum is a factor in a tidal wave, an avalanche, selling trucks or riding bulls,” he said. “We had something special last year, and it’s actually an ace in the hole for this year. The fans from last year have an overall perception of, ‘It’s our event, our bull riding.’ They took ownership, and that’s a true testament of the people who bought tickets.”
For those who have their tickets for this weekend, tonight will be another night of excitement, entertainment and adrenaline.
“If you sit too close, you’ll leave with dust in your ears,” Thompson said. “You’ll leave with a sense of ‘Wow, what did I just see?’ You’ll be amazed by the size of the bulls, the strength of the bulls. There’s the brotherhood of the riders. You’ll witness the funny side. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll cringe, all in three hours.”
For ticket information for tonight’s final two rounds of competition, call the Bridge View Center box office at 641-684-7000.
6:30 p.m. Doors open
7:30 p.m. Third and fourth rounds of competition
9:30 p.m. Awards ceremony in the Bridge View Theatre