By Ford Springer
Nearly every industry in the country has suffered in some form or fashion due to COVID-19. Setting aside essential businesses, sports has perhaps had the most widespread impact on society. Its absence has left a void that simply can’t be satisfied by Super Bowl reruns. And let’s be honest: Most of us were already tired of watching the Patriots win.
One by one, each and every league around the country, and the world, made the difficult yet necessary decision to shut down with no definite timeline for their return. While the mainstream “stick and ball sports” uniformly shut down early and are just now beginning to come back, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) fought tooth and nail to keep riding (in a safe and controlled manner) until they simply couldn’t, and they then began immediately planning for their return. Embodying the grit and toughness of the cowboys that compete in their league, the PBR has effectively pioneered the return to live sports with thoughtful and careful determination, culminating in their first event back in front of their loyal fans this weekend in Sioux Falls, S.D.
In early March, the spread of COVID-19 forced the NCAA to cancel conference tournaments and the NCAA tournaments that followed. The NBA, MLS, NHL, XFL and NASCAR all suspended competition indefinitely, and the MLB suspended the start of its season. At that same time, the PBR moved quickly to transform a scheduled event in Duluth, Ga., to meet the necessary CDC guidelines, putting extensive precautions in place to move forward with the event so the athletes, stock contractors and the rest of the PBR family could get paid. There were 150 people in the arena and no fans in attendance, but the cowboys did their jobs and got one last paycheck before the pandemic forced the PBR to shut down as well.
Bull riding and the sport of rodeo are unlike other sports in that the athletes aren’t under contracts and don’t get paid unless they compete. “To just cancel events would imperil a lot of people,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said at the time. For that reason, Gleason and his team exhausted every option to keep the PBR going as long as they could and worked even harder to bring it back, sticking to their “Be Cowboy” mantra every step of the way.
Forty-one days after the closed event in Georgia, the PBR was the first sport to return in the continental United States with closed, made-for-television events at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla. The league developed a comprehensive safety and wellness plan, following the guidance of local, state and health officials. Everyone involved in the events underwent health screenings and remained isolated in their own recreational vehicles until cleared, cowboys wore facial coverings and split up into functional groups to allow for social distancing, and the PBR safely and successfully returned to competition, laying the groundwork for other leagues to follow. While the PBR’s return went mostly unnoticed by mainstream sports fans, Gleason was busy fielding calls from other leagues, including the NBA, UFC and NASCAR.
Immediately following the last of three events in Oklahoma, Gleason announced the PBR’s plan to continue bucking bulls with a new format in the Monster Energy Team Challenge taking place in Las Vegas and culminating in a championship event in Sioux Falls with fans in attendance. At the time, other major sports leagues were still in the initial planning phase of their return. Yet the PBR persisted with a strict safety and wellness plan in place, adhering to federal, state and local guidelines and putting on electrifying events for the fans at home.
Under Gleason’s leadership and the support of major sponsors like Monster Energy, Wrangler, YETI, Pendleton Whisky and others, the PBR continued to pioneer the return of sports and establish a blueprint for other leagues that are just now starting to come back. This weekend, it will host one of the first sporting events open to fans since the coronavirus began to spread across the United States. Precautionary measures will include limiting the arena to 40 – 70% capacity, establishing a four-to-six foot buffer between ticketed seats, allowing early entry for elderly fans and providing facial coverings for all attendees.
With decades of experience working closely with the PBR through clients like Justin Boots, Pendleton Whisky and Wrangler, it comes as no surprise to us how the toughest sport on dirt handled a situation that other major sports properties are still trying to navigate. The PBR was one of the last to compete before the pandemic and the first to return because the livelihood of everyone involved with the sport depends on it. If you want to know how to ride out a storm, take some notes from these cowboys.