While most eyes are transfixed on the professional sports restarting in Orlando and Utah bubbles, there is one organization that has been holding live events since late April, and is welcoming fans back this weekend for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Professional Bull Riders (PBR) will permit 40-47% attendance for Championship Weekend of its inaugural Team Challenge from July 10-12 at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“It’s very important we get back to work in front of our fans,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said. “I called Governor [Kristi] Noem in South Dakota and said I’d like to bring an event back in early July, and since then we’ve been working directly with ASM Global, which manages 300-plus venues around the world, as well as the county, city and state.
“I think when we go to Sioux Falls it will be an industry-leading protocol for an industry event getting back to work.”
Health and safety measures for this weekend’s event include: pod seating, more hand sanitizing stations, cashless transactions, prepackaged food, digital ticketing, recommending masks and social distancing, as well as ingress and egress protocols to limit person-to-person contact.
The Denny Sanford Premier Center typically holds more than 9,000 fans for a regular PBR event, so an estimated 3,600 would be in attendance if they fill 40% capacity.
South Dakota has reported 7,336 positive cases of coronavirus since early March, but numbers have tapered off recently, with less than 100 new cases confirmed per day since May 24. The state confirmed 94 new cases on June 9, including 17 out of Minnehaha County, which includes Sioux Falls, the state’s most populous city.
“We’re excited to be back in front of fans,” said Stetson Lawrence, a member of Team Cooper Tires, which earned a first-round bye for winning Division A. “It’s gotten a little tough to get excited and amped up when you’re riding in a big arena with nobody there besides your buddies. … We rely on the crowds. Riding the past six events without fans, you really appreciate them now, and that’s why we’re looking forward to having them back.”
Professional Bull Riders, which suspended events in mid-March as the world pressed pause due to COVID-19, returned to action on April 25 with three consecutive weekends of fan-less live TV events at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Riders stayed on the private ranch’s property and were divided into functional groups of six or fewer to limit contact. Competition flow and draw was altered to limit exposure time among riders and personnel.
PBR officials took an extensive look at operations, particularly person-to-person and person-to-surface contact, analyzing where they could mitigate exposure. Guidance changed daily as more information about coronavirus was shared from health and government officials.
“Every time we thought we had a hurdle knocked down, another came up,” Gleason said. “… All of our riders are independent contractors with no guaranteed revenue or income, and there’s literally hundreds of other people who don’t make a living if PBR doesn’t have events, so the biggest challenge for me was getting us back to work in a safe and responsible way.
“It would have been easier to duck and cover and ride it out until someone told us how to make this happen, but no one was telling us, ‘This is how you ride bulls during a pandemic.’ We had to seek out these plans and have them tested by health authorities.”
From Oklahoma, the show headed west and took up residency at South Point Arena & Equestrian Center in Las Vegas for its Team Challenge, which features 48 of the world’s top bull riders divided into 12 teams across two divisions.
Any rider (or personnel) who tested positive was immediately sent home to limit potential exposure.
“It was definitely overwhelming because none of us were used to it all, but now it’s become the new normal,” said Lawrence, ranked No. 17 in the world. “… I was a little nervous about getting coronavirus at first, but after the second time in Guthrie, it was a little relieving. I’m not worried about catching it now because I know they put in the right guidelines and are making sure everyone is safe and healthy.”
Because it was one of the first sports leagues/organizations in North America to resume amid the pandemic, others reached out for guidance regarding their own restart—similarly to leagues studying the German Bundesliga, which restarted May 16.
Gleason said he spoke with 15-20 leagues since PBR’s resumption, including NBA, UFC, Nascar, Supercross, CONCACAF and Liga MX.
“Anybody that’s called we hit ‘send’ on the plan before they finished their request,” Gleason said. “We’re interested in all sports getting back because there’s zero advantage to us being the only ones out there.”
PBR, which competes in five countries and can be seen in 130 territories around the world including on CBS Sports in the United States, has 82.5 million fans in the U.S. according to a 2016 ESPN Sports Poll. PBR averaged more than 1 million U.S. viewers per broadcast during the 2018-19 season.
With this weekend being the first to feature fans since March, Gleason hopes to utilize the lessons learned from Sioux Falls moving forward for the rest of their season. He hopes to get back to some semblance of a regular schedule by the PBR Express Ranches Classic from August 8-9.
“We’re going to get back to work, take protocols and apply them to every market while taking guidance from every community,” he said. “One of the fortunate things with our tour is we can pretty much go anywhere. We’re going to move to markets with the safest opportunity to present our event in front of fans.
“But we’re going to take it slow. It would be nice to be selling out arenas again, but we’re going to take it slow and apply intelligent, safe and responsible plans to put fans into the buildings, not just riders, staff and TV crew.”