The most dangerous eight seconds in sports is back
Credit: Andy Watson

It’s the jingle of a pair of spurs.

A rider’s confident nod before the gate bursts open.

The triumphant toss of a cowboy’s hat after he rides a beast that would have the rest of us running for our lives.

The Professional Bull Riders are back for their 2012 season, kicking off at N.Y.C.’s Madison Square Garden this weekend (the action airs on CBS Sports Network Saturday at 11 p.m. ET and Sunday on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET).

And you don’t have to know a thing about the sport to fall in love with it.

“I guarantee that I could go get anyone off the street and take them into an event and they’re going to have a great time,” PBR co-founder and nine-time world champ Ty Murray told PEOPLE last fall. “You can’t say that about another sport.”

But that’s not all that distinguishes the PBR …

1. It’s Easy to Follow – And Easier to Get Hooked On

There are no downs, play calling or running routes to keep track of. The cowboy simply has to stay on his bull for eight seconds while holding on to his rope with one hand – that’s bull riding 101. Both the bull and the rider are scored, and he who earns the highest score wins. But it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Just ask NFL star Chad Ochocinco, who lasted a mere 1.5 seconds when challenged to a ride last year. “The sport doesn’t get enough credit,” he told reporters. “The guys who do this week in and week out … should be the highest-paid athletes in sports.”

While the best riders can earn big paychecks, if they fail to stay on their bulls for those eight seconds, they do not get paid. (How’s that for pressure?) “PBR bull riding is the extreme of extreme sports,” top stock contractor Jeff Robinson tells PEOPLE. “Nowhere else can people see 130-lb. men go head-to-head against 1,700-lb. opponents, and the little guy always expects to win.” Adds top-40 bull rider Sean Willingham: “The adrenaline rush and the challenge I face every time I get on the back of a bull keeps me wanting more.”

2. The Cowboys Are Hot

No two ways around this one: these riders are easy on the eyes. And it’s not just the cowboy hats and chaps that make them so appealing. “I hear a lot of women and girls who come to our events say that the bull riders are cute or that they have amazing bodies,” says Murray with a laugh.

And why wouldn’t they, with all the work of staying on a massive bucking bull? Those eight seconds “feel like a day at work!” says Willingham. “Sometimes it feels like it’s never going to end.” When they do stick out those eight seconds consistently, though, it can pay off in spades. Silvano Alves, who was crowned the 2011 PBR World Champion after 30-some events over the course of the year, earned a cool $1.4 million last year alone.

3. The Bulls Are Elite Athletes (and Real Characters)

First thing’s first: No, the bulls do not buck for that reason. “No genitals are involved!” says stock contractor Robinson (stock contractors raise, train and care for the bulls). “The misconstrued flank strap is only an aid in helping the animal buck. It’s tied loosely around the bull’s ‘flank’ area and it is a motivational tool for the bull to kick off to enhance their bucking potential.”

While the sport has its naysayers (including PETA, which calls it an “archaic practice”) and protesters have been spotted in recent years outside the Garden when the event is in town, the PBR staunchly maintains that it does everything possible to ensure the animals aren’t harmed. Like any athlete, says Robinson, the bulls are very well cared for: “I would say all of the top bulls receive treatment equal to, if not better than, the world’s greatest race horses. They are bred, fed and exercised to be the best of the best. The bulls are our livelihood and family, thus they are treated as such.”

What’s more, they’re incredibly fun to watch. After dumping a cowboy, some bulls will take a “victory lap” around the area, showing off for the crowd. And last year’s World Champion bull Bushwacker, stands still and calm as a soldier in the chutes but then bucks harder than any other bull out there. (He’s even known to “pose” for the camera).

Others are not as nice about it. “Some bulls like to interact and be rubbed and petted,” says Robinson. “And some like to rub and pet you! But no matter if they are laid back or mean and vicious, they all love their jobs, eight seconds at a time.”

The full 2012 PBR TV schedule can be found here. Cowboy up!