PROFESSIONAL BULL RIDERS LEADING THE CHARGE
Updated: Jun 15, 2020
The successful return of the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) has so far played a significant role in the resumption of live sports in the U.S.
Now as more sports are following their lead, PBR is setting its eyes on being the first to open its gates and welcome back fans post COVID-19 outbreak.
“It took every aspect of the ‘Be Cowboy’ mantra to get us to this point. Cowboy ingenuity, cowboy grit and the no-quit cowboy attitude will bring PBR events back to life as one of the world’s first sports to return to competition,” said CEO Sean Gleason (@pbrceo), in an official statement announcing the organization’s return-to-action plan.
The Professional Bull Riders organization started life in 1992. Thanks to the efforts of 20 riders, who each contributed $1,000 to its development.
The idea was for the riders to break away from the traditional rodeo format and create a standalone sport based around the rodeo's most popular event, bull riding.
"We wanted to create a better product for the fans, so that when they tuned in they were seeing the best of the best every time," said PBR co-founder and nine-time World Champion Ty Murray.
Since its first event in 1994 PBR, the organization has become one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The PBR how plays host to three different tours (Unleash the Beast Series, Velocity Tour, and Touring Pro Division), staging over 300 events each year across the U.S.
In 2006, the PBR expanded its market reach by launching events in international markets, such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia.
2015 would see PBR become acquired by Endeavor, the parent company of UFC, further assisting the organization's expansion.
The unprecedented growth of the tour has allowed for the PBR to increase the prize money that is offered to its athletes. The athletes compete for an annual prize pot of $11 million. However, riders' main objective over the season is to qualify for the PBR World Finals in Las Vegas, for a shot at a $1 million bonus.
In 2018, PBR announced that it had awarded over $180 million in prize money to its athletes.
As the Coronavirus pandemic started to become more serious in mid-March, PBR along with the rest of the sports industry began to announce the cancellation of all its upcoming events.
Despite the ongoing pandemic PBR began to rally as it looked to become the first professional U.S. sport to make a comeback.
"We worked through something that none of us have ever faced before," Gleason said,"which is figuring out how to get back to business and buck bulls in the one of the most challenging and unique times of our lifetime."
PBR announced that it would host a closed-door Unleash the Beast event, that was originally scheduled for Las Vegas, at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, on April 25-26. This meant that PBR would return from only a 41-day break.
"The Lazy E, an iconic western sports arena and host of some of the PBR's first-ever events, is an ideal venue to execute our return-to-competition plan in a safe and responsible way," said Gleason.
"The grounds are expansive, featuring hundreds of acres and more than 450 RV spaces, helping us ensure we meet all social distancing guidelines and house everyone involved in the event on-site."
Lazy E Arena VP & GM Dan Wall said that the facility "will provide food, prepared in house or catered, and basic necessities for everyone on the grounds."
Wall further explained the safety procedures that PBR and the Lazy E Arena took prior to the event, "We went through extreme measures to make sure we were cooperating with the city of Guthrie."
"Technically, we could have rolled in and shot this and nobody would have ever known, but that's not the Lazy E way of doing business. We are a big part of the community and the community is a big part of us.
"We would not intentionally do anything to put our community at harm."
Furthermore, PBR and the Lazy E developed a 29-page action and safety plan that was given to local and state officials for review.
“Since Be Cowboy is our motto, we take the coronavirus pandemic very seriously; we haven’t thrown caution to the wind,” said Gleason. “We’ve approached this with a detailed, thoughtful and intelligent plan that took into consideration any and all interactions among our constituents. We developed a comprehensive safety and wellness plan that has been reviewed and approved by city of Guthrie, Logan County, and Oklahoma state officials.”
The plan "was vetted by a large number of people to make sure every possible safety precaution that could be taken was employed," Wall said.
Each of the 140 people working at the event was organized into working groups with an average size of 6. Each group had no contact with other working groups, with members of each group wearing color-coded wristbands as identification, to ensure separation.
PBR ensured the skeleton crew was helped by including the use of robotic cameras and relocating judges and TV announcers away from the field of play.
To even gain access to the event every person passed through a health screening, which included a CDC questionnaire and temperature check.
"We are all trying to do our best to mitigate this beast we are fighting against," Wall said."We put extreme measures in place, including daily health screenings."
Additionally PBR, retrofitted its 3D printer to make respirator masks for all personnel and athletes to wear at the Lazy E.
PBR even made sure that personnel avoided air travel and public transportation while traveling to the Guthrie event. Even seeing eight bull riders replaced because they came from states on Governor Kevin Stitt's (@GovStitt) travel ban.
Even though the grandstands were empty, which inevitably diluted the atmosphere, the event was well-received by PBR fans, with a surge in fan interest on social media and on television.
Total social-media impressions were 12.3 million, up 86% 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%
On Facebook, PBR generated 6 million total impressions and 929,000 video views during the weekend, increases of 100% and 79% 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.
After successfully competing behind closed doors, PBR announced that it would also be the first U.S. pro sporting event to swing open its gates to fans.
PBR announced that Sioux Falls, South Dakota would be the first location to see fans in attendance, starting July 10th.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) offered her endorsement. “South Dakota is working to get back to normal, and that includes the return of sports at the proper time.”
The 12,000 capacity Sanford Denny Premier Center will play host to the first open door event. However, PBR will only sell about 4,200 tickets, to allow for socially distanced staggered seating.
PBR will also control the flow of people entering the arena, even introducing early entry for elderly fans. While after the event fans will exit by zones, to ensure people are unable to congregate.
Furthermore, PBR will introduce mobile ticketing to replace hard tickets. While emphasizing an increased reliance on cashless, contactless concessions with prepacked food.
“We support PBR in their courageous and considerable action plan,’’ said Mitch Covington, senior vice president of sports marketing at Monster Energy. “As more sports seek to return to hosting regular competition series, PBR is charting a path to present world-class entertainment while maintaining all-important safety guidelines.’’