Under the Gun

Why the Army thinks a 30-year-old college-educated California bull rider will help it recruit soldiers during wartime

That same year, the Army began addressing kids' infatuation with extreme sports. Since the mid-'70s, the service had advertised during televised sporting events, but in 2000 the branch's brand started to become an integral part of the events themselves -- all of a sudden there were Army races, Army teams, and professional Army athletes. According to Tiernan, the first Army partnership, with the National Hot Rod Association, created 20,000 leads, and of that number, 2 percent, or 400 people, enlisted.

With this minor but telltale success, the Army began a full marketing assault on extreme sports. The next deal involved NASCAR driver Jerry Nadeau. For $16 million, the Army pasted its logo on the hood, doors, trunk, and driver of the 200mph billboard that was Car No. 1 (to echo "Army of One"), tapping into NASCAR's rapidly growing, rabidly loyal TV audience. Other businesses that were not strictly commercial enterprises followed suit, including the U.S. Postal Service's venture into professional cycling, but the Army's effort was different: It was the first time that sports sponsorships were used to encourage people to do something rather than buy something. Today that means they encourage people to sign up for the most lethal active duty since Vietnam.

The Army acquired properties in an assortment of other second-tier sports -- niche events with huge growth potential and low sponsorship costs. For the price of a single Super Bowl halftime commercial, it made deals with professional motocross and the Arena Football League; in April, for an undisclosed sum, it added the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Professional Bull Riders. For about $1 million, the Army also partnered with Nunnemaker and his fellow riders.

"Bull riders embody the tenets of the Warrior Ethos through their commitment to their mission, by never accepting defeat, never quitting and through the camaraderie among them," Army officials said in a press release that announced the PBR partnership.

"These guys have a lot of the same values of kids we'd like to see in the Army," explains Steve Johnson, an executive at Relay Sponsorship and Event Marketing, the agency that brokered the deal between the Army and Nunnemaker's agent. "And for Jaron, it's a way to differentiate himself from the other riders, save the three people on his team. In some ways the criteria we were looking at was obvious -- kids with a clean nose in the way they're living, their personal character, and their chances for success."

Nunnemaker's chances for taking the gold buckle at the PBR World Championship this season are slight: His rank hovers in the middle of the 75-man field. But he's right for the deal for other reasons.

"Jaron's perfect for the Army," says his longtime friend and fellow California rider Tony Mendez. "He just has that Army look."

That look is common to a lot of the fans and riders of the PBR. And despite the fact that audiences at Army-partnered sports are mostly white and rural, according to both Tiernan and Sealey it's just a matter of time before these promotional tools will have an effect on diverse urban areas like San Francisco.

"Remember, these rural sports have a great potential to cross over," reminds Sealey. "Good old boys bootlegging in the Southeastern United States -- which is the origin of NASCAR -- now have a major national sport. I would think that rural communities are probably disproportionate in the U.S. Army, in the same way that minorities are overrepresented in the Army. At first, you're not going to recruit a young man on Chestnut Street in San Francisco; you go to Alexandria, Louisiana, where there is a different kind of economic opportunity available to these people than there would be in San Francisco or San Diego. But eventually, that message will reach San Francisco."

Nunnemaker is thrilled to be able to spread the Army message. Now every time he dresses in his uniform he feels called to a patriotic duty. "I have the greatest, most powerful Army in the world on my sleeve. That is an awesome feeling," he says. "I didn't join the Army; it's kinda like the Army joined me," he adds, nearly echoing the branch's first ad campaign. The lucrative, exclusive deal also provided him some financial stability in a sport that otherwise has none. Before the Army gig, Nunnemaker's income depended entirely on the eight-second ride. If he was bucked off or disqualified, he would return home in debt from travel expenses. Given that the odds heavily favor the bulls, it's almost impossible to eke out a living by riding alone. With the Army contract, Nunnemaker gets paid per performance.

In return, the Army gains a face and brand recognition -- and, ideally, thousands of new soldiers. The branch's gold and white star has become an omnipresent symbol at PBR events, decorating riders and the arena. And Nunnemaker and his teammates will do more for their country than just ride bulls: Their contracts require that they begin their short fall off-season by going to boot camp (Nunnemaker delights at the prospect of jumping out of planes and practicing shooting), touring the country to address high schoolers, visiting wounded soldiers in Army hospitals, and possibly dropping in on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot more obligation than if you ride for Jack Daniel's.


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