THE MAKING OF RFD-TV’S THE AMERICAN

Randy Bernard of the RFD-TV's The American. 

Photography: Mallory Beinborn

Editor's Note: Thanks to Lori O'Harver of Bronc Riding Nation for this great story on Randy Bernard

by  Lori O’Harver, Cowboys & Indians

For Randy Bernard, it took Texas to hold a rodeo the size of The American.

Three years ago, the Saturday before the unveiling of the richest one-day rodeo in the history of the sport dawned under blue skies and 74 degrees. Overnight, the bottom dropped out. By dawn the next morning, it was an unwelcoming 17 degrees in North Texas with 80,000 tickets to sell and millions in prize and production money invested in RFD-TV’s The American Presented by Polaris RANGER.

Randy Bernard, CEO of RFD-TV Events, will never forget it because he was up all night monitoring The Weather Channel and throwing up.

Bernard is a perfectionist, a master of the art of production who pays strict attention to every little detail. The driving force behind the Professional Bull Riders’ unprecedented success, when people think of him, it’s usually as the man with the Midas touch. In reality, he’s a brilliant, fearless visionary with very calloused hands, working relentlessly to bring rodeo to the world arena and contestants to paychecks comparable with those of other professional sports. He’s not just a visionary businessman driven to bring his dreams to life, he’s a philanthropist who has the best at heart for the cowboy community that he loves.

In 2006, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones invited Bernard to visit with him on his NFL team’s practice field. A short distance away, leagues of men and big machines were building the monument to Texas football now known as AT&T Stadium. Jones was interested in hosting a PBR event or maybe a rodeo. The conversation inspired Bernard, newly involved with Patrick Gotsch’s RFD-TV, to bring a dream he’d been incubating about a lucrative, multifaceted, one-day rodeo off of the back burner.

“Patrick and I were on a plane when I fronted the idea for The American to him,” Bernard says. “He liked it and asked for a business plan. As we got further into it, I told him I thought it would take six to eight years to become successful, and during that time I could lose about $2,000,000 for him before it ever saw a profit. He said he didn’t care if it lost $5,000,000 — producing the event was best for Western entertainment and RFD-TV. He got 100 percent behind it, Polaris stepped up immediately, and its success has been phenomenal.”

The cowboy culture was born of hard work and dedication. The rodeo cowboy culture magnifies that ethic and adds a deeply spiritual side that’s rooted in unfailing positivity. What isn’t too prevalent is the gift of wide-angle vision. Even in the small circles of people in rodeo who do possess the gift, no one saw this coming. Nobody, that is, except Bernard.

“I worked all three timed events back when I competed,” Bernard says. “When I was in college, I got an internship at Calgary Stampede and worked under CEO Don Jacques. He was the classiest, kindest, most brilliant visionary I’d met. I fell in love with the Western entertainment industry.”

While working in that genre for the California Mid State Fair, he took a job with the fledgling organization that was the PBR and steered it to the unprecedented success it is today.

“I had this vision to drive for an updated rodeo product that would reach a diverse, global audience,” Bernard says. “Rodeo events have never been in the spotlight on a par with other professional sports. The Professional Golf Association’s U.S. Open was in 1892 and offered the winner $300. The first rodeo was in Prescott, Arizona, in 1889 and offered the winners $800. I believe the difference in the growth of the sports is all traceable to promotion. The PGA hired professional promoters. Rodeo didn’t.”

“I’m a huge believer in ‘all boats rise on high tide’,” Bernard says. “I see these athletes going up and down the road for years without much to show for it.”

In typical Randy Bernard style, he’s developed a complex, deeply layered, and multifaceted system of inviting rodeo athletes to the now $2,000,000 RFD-TV’s The American. From youth organizations, event-specific association like the U.S. Team Roping Championship and Better Barrel Races, to qualifiers in Brazil, the number of contestants seeking to win their invitation to RFD-TV’s The American Presented by Polaris RANGER has doubled from 2,000 in 2014 to 4,000 this year. Last weekend, the governor of Chihuahua, Mexico, flew in to Arlington with an official contingency to learn about the event and how best to work with Bernard for inclusion of Mexican rodeo athletes.

“What I find most frustrating is PRCA’s unwillingness to understand that what events like The American offer to rodeo is priceless promotion and assistance to not just the athletes but the growth of the sport,” Bernard says. “I hope The American ignites the entrepreneurial spirit in all rodeo promoters and we see more events like it spring up. I have this dream of a rodeo called The Patriot on the Fourth of July at Chicago’s Soldier Field.”

Bernard’s dreams have a way of coming true. Last weekend, the event finally won over Mother Nature, who conceded great weather. AT&T Stadium’s 80,000 seats were warmed by people who came from all over the world to watch rodeo history in the making. They saw the romance and drama of the sport played out through the day that ended with Wade Sundell, the colorful bronc rider from Iowa, ride the Texas-born superstar Maple Leaf all the way from Iowa cowboy to millionaire. To put a finer point on it, he earned $137,000 per second.

It’s a tale worthy of Texas.