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How Professional Bull Riders has helped pave way for return of live sports in United States

PBR chief executive Sean Gleason (Credit: Bull Stock Media)

  • PBR provides important test case after making Covid-19 comeback at event in rural Oklahoma
  • Around 15 sports organizations have been in contact for advice about their own live-action returns
  • Adapting preparation plans on an almost daily basis was biggest challenge, says CEO Sean Gleason

Professional Bull Riders’ successful return to competition in a small town in rural Oklahoma is poised to play a highly significant role in the resumption of live sports throughout the United States amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bull-riding circuit became one of the first professional sports organizations in the US to make a comeback during the ongoing health crisis when it staged an Unleash the Beast event that was originally scheduled for Las Vegas at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, on April 25-26.

With the Ultimate Fighting Championship – which is part of the Endeavor portfolio of holdings along with PBR – scheduling a return in Florida on May 9 and Nascar planning its comeback in South Carolina on May 17, many eyes were on the Lazy E Arena to see exactly how a major sports competition without fans in attendance would look and feel during the coronavirus crisis.

It was a resounding success. PBR’s first event back after a five-week hiatus was a logistical triumph despite the fact that strict and ever-changing coronavirus-related protocols had to be observed. This involved a 29-page action and safety plan that was given to local and state officials for review. Most importantly, no health issues were reported afterwards.

PBR chief executive Sean Gleason has subsequently been contacted by approximately 15 sports leagues and organizations, with whom he has willingly shared health and safety information and answered any further questions.

(Credit: Bull Stock Media)

PBR made a relatively speedy return to action for three principal reasons. Firstly, Oklahoma, which happens to be on the PBR schedule, became one of the first states to ease movement restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. Secondly, the Lazy E Arena and Ranch is expansive, spanning hundreds of acres, to allow for social-distancing guidelines to be easily met. Finally, the touring PBR requires a comparatively small staff to put on events and so was able to move nimbly and quickly.

For the two-day “Las Vegas Invitational”, all PBR participants had to be medically cleared to enter the Lazy E Arena and Ranch grounds, which included a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) questionnaire and temperature check. They were also given daily health assessments.

The participants comprised 41 professional riders, local stock contractors, medical staff, TV crews, and PBR staff, which represented around 140 people in total. Everyone drove to the venue, avoiding air travel and public transportation. The Oklahoman reported that eight bull riders scheduled to take part had to be replaced because they were from states on Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s travel ban.

The participants were then not allowed to leave until the event concluded. This included sleeping in Recreational Vehicles (RVs) on site, while Lazy E staff provided food and basic necessities for everyone in the grounds.

During the weekend, working groups of fewer than 10 people were created and they did not have close contact with the other groups. Members of each group wore color-coded wristbands for identification purposes.

In addition, all surfaces were regularly sanitized, as were all food and other supplies entering the grounds, and all participants were required to wear face masks.

The event was broadcast on CBS Sports Network and streaming service RidePass, with robotic cameras being used in part to allow for a skeleton-crew production.

(Credit: Bull Stock Media)

Even though the grandstands were empty, which inevitably diluted the atmosphere, the event was well received by PBR supporters, with a surge in fan interest on social media and on television.

Total social-media impressions were 12.3 million, up 86 per cent over the most-recent event held March 7-8 in Little Rock, Arkansas, before mass-gathering restrictions were put in place. Total video views were 2.09 million, up 78 per cent.

On Facebook, PBR generated 6 million total impressions and 929,000 video views during the weekend, increases of 100 per cent and 79 per cent from the event in Little Rock, respectively. On Instagram, the sport generated 5.6 million impressions compared to Little Rock’s 3.3 million, and 1.1 million video views compared to Little Rock’s 613,000.

TV ratings on CBS Sports Network “were up many double digits over previous broadcasts”, according to Gleason.

PBR now plans to stage further Unleash the Beast events at the Lazy E Arena on May 9-10 and May 16-17. The schedule beyond that has yet to be revealed, though it is hoped that PBR will be able to put on events outside of Oklahoma and ultimately with fans in attendance.

Gleason spoke to SportBusiness about the opportunities and challenges of being a first-mover in the live-action return from the coronavirus and what the comeback means for the wider sports industry in the US.

How would you describe the effects of the Covid-19 shutdown on PBR? What has the impact been?

It’s been monumental. As a live-event and television business, we’re very dependent on conducting events in front of our fans and when you don’t have the ability do to that, it effectively takes away about half of our potential revenues from every event.

What does it mean for PBR to be back, and to be one of the first sports organizations to make a live return amid the pandemic?

Anybody that knows me knows that I’m not somebody that seeks out spotlight. What I’m very thankful for is the fact that as the leader of the PBR, there is an entire industry that is dependent on our income and our events for their income, and to be able to get my people back to work, that’s what I’m most proud of.

How did the event at the Lazy E Arena go?

It was phenomenal. It was different for sure because of the lack of fans. But by Sunday the bullriders had found their way and it was a great bullring event, a great sporting event. Everyone was in good spirits, we all came in healthy and left healthy and that is what’s important in these times.

What were the biggest challenges in putting the event on?

The biggest challenges were the changes that happened from day to day, literally through the entire process. You would plan for one set of guidance and reality in the morning and by the next morning something had changed in terms of the CDC guidelines or Governor’s orders or just common-sense procedures as everyone learned more about the virus and what we’re facing.

The biggest challenge was adapting a plan as we moved forward to address every circumstance that came along that required that we changed the plan. So by the time we got there we had a very well-crafted and thought-out strategy for keeping people safe and it was just the daily changes that made it very, very difficult.

(Credit: Bull Stock Media)

Have any other sports organizations been in touch with you about how you put the event on, and what did they want to know?

I’ve been contacted by approximately 15 other leagues and organizations that work in the sports business. They wanted just advice and counsel for the challenges. I shared the plan with everyone of them, willingly, and took calls to answer questions about certain aspects of it and certain protocols. I also put people in contact with the medical professionals that we’ve been in contact with. We definitely want to see all sports return to normal.

I feel fortunate that we were able to be the first one [back]. I feel that we were because we have a very uniquely individual sports in bullriding, we can conduct the events with few people, so we had many advantages in getting back to work first. The principles of social distancing and functional groups, testing protocols and procedures, sanitation efforts are very consistent so we shared any information we could with the other leagues who were interested.

Have you specifically been in close contact with UFC, another Endeavor property, which is also planning to come back soon?

I’ve been in contact with the UFC either daily or every other day for many weeks as we both work to get back to business. We’re all part of the same family so we’ve shared information and resources at every turn.

Is there anything you are planning to change for the next event at the Lazy E Arena?

We learned a few things but they are mostly small details. From a safety and protocol standpoint we are certainly not going to let our guard down even though we’ll have results from two independent tests for everyone on the grounds and as you continue to test, the likelihood of somebody being asymptomatic and testing negative but being positive for coronavirus decreases. So every time we do this it becomes a safer environment. Nonetheless, we’re going to increase our enforcement of certain protocols that we believe are important for safety.

Some of the big things that we have to address are non-safety related issues and more quality of life issues, like the quality of the food we served people and mealtimes and prep and other logistical things. We were so focused on safety that now we’re improving those things as we move forward.

What is your planned schedule going forward?

We’re bucking bulls again on the weekend of May 9-10 and then May 16-17. We have several plans in the works for June and July that will keep our people working and employ a similar strategy perhaps in a different location. We’re working diligently with hopes that we can get back to events in front of fans much sooner than later and we expect that to potentially happen in July.

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