- Every sport in the US and internationally has been impacted in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Some sports leagues are in the process of working out the logistics of continuing their season with a few already returning to play.
- The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) has already held three closed events and is planning a June 28 event in Las Vegas.
COVID-19 is obviously the biggest news stories of the year and likely of the decade. The virus and subsequent mitigation attempts have impacted every person and every industry in some way or another. The sports ecosystem has been hit particularly hard. Most sports are impossible to play while maintaining ‘social distance’ and it’s equally as difficult to create proper health and safety condition among live spectators. The reality now is that for at least the near future sporting events will be contested without a live audience. This is true not only of major sports like NASCAR, Major League Baseball and pro basketball but of lower profile more niche competitions as well.
One popular event facing challenges is one that doesn’t immediately come to mind to the mainstream sports public has a big fanbase. Professional Bull Riding was called ‘America’s Fastest Growing Sport’ in 2013 and while growth might have plateaued somewhat still has a sizable fanbase and financial impact. The top cowboys make millions of dollars and surprisingly, so do the bulls–or more appropriately, the owners of the bulls. Over the years there have been a number of celebrities to invest in the bulls themselves including John Elway, Wayne Gretzky and Tommy Lasorda.
The Professional Bull Riders (PBR) will be the first live sporting event contested in Las Vegas since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic beginning on June 5 for a team challenge event at the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa. The event will be called the PBR Monster Energy Team Challenge and will run every Friday and Saturday throughout the month. The event will be closed to the public but will be broadcast on the CBS family of networks. Here’s how the PBR describes the competition:
The PBR Monster Energy Team Challenge will feature 48 of the world’s top professional bull riders split into 12 teams and two divisions, facing off until two teams remain to compete for the championship. The competitions each Friday and Saturday will be televised on CBS Sports Network with a “Game of the Week” broadcast on CBS Television Network each Sunday. Every night of competition will feature three “games,” where each game will comprise a head-to-head matchup of three riders from one team against three riders from another on the sport’s toughest bulls.
PRO BULL RIDERS HOPE TO HOLD FINALS IN JULY IN FRONT OF A LIVE AUDIENCE
Here’s where it gets interesting–after the run in Las Vegas the PBR Monster Energy Team Challenge will move to South Dakota for Championship Weekend on July 10-12. The plan at this point is to hold the finals in front of fans at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls in front of fans. This could very well make PBR the first US sport to resume competition in front of a live audience. It is a cooperative effort between the bull riders, the venue and South Dakota State government and could be the first taste of what sports live fans could look like post pandemic.
Fans will be in attendance but subject to stringent health protocols that are similar to those discussed in other sports. All ticketing will be mobile device based, seating will be staggered, traffic flow in the arena will be directional and cashless concession options will be available along with the now ubiquitous ‘social distancing’ mandates. It’s unclear if fans will be required to wear masks though the PBR website indicates that ‘complementary facial coverings’ will be provided for fans entering the venue. You can check out the full list of protocols and health/safety measures in the press release announcing the event.
Unlike governors in many states who plan to keep their states in ‘crisis mode’ for the foreseeable future South Dakota governor Kristi Noem is on board with what the PBR is doing:
“South Dakota is working to get back to normal, and that includes the return of sports at the proper time. South Dakotans have been smart and innovative in responding to this crisis, and the plan for the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center shows that we can reopen arenas in safe and innovative ways. We commend ASM Global and PBR for their careful planning and will continue to work with them to ensure the safety of their fans.”
PBR Commissioner Sean Gleason thanked the fans for their patience and touted his organizations comprehensive health and safety plans which he says is now being used as a template for other leagues:
“After successfully holding closed events in Oklahoma that utilized a comprehensive wellness and safety plan now being reviewed by other leagues, we have added protocols to provide fans a secure place to enjoy a new exciting team format. We want to thank our fans for their patience and cooperation, as well as our venue, city and state partners, including Governor Kristi Noem, for collaborating on these measures for bringing this new team tournament in front of fans in an environment they’ll be comfortable in.”
The PBR is planning to release a schedule of additional events in the coming weeks. Of course all of this is announced with the now standard caveat that everything is “subject to change depending on developments with Covid-19.”
This will all be very interesting to watch both in terms of the PBR’s production of the events and the reaction of fans and the media to the return of live sports with actual fans. The athletes who compete in pro bull riding are just tough as hell and I seriously doubt they’ll have any reservations about returning to action. If the finals weekend of the PBR Monster Energy Team Challenge goes well, it could hasten the return of other sports and leagues with their own upgraded health and safety protocol. If it goes poorly–and particularly if it results in a rash of positive tests–it could be a complete fiasco. In any case, sports fans and bettors hoping for a quick return to a full menu of action should wish them the best.