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Bull Riding Setting Sail Again – on an Aircraft Carrier

23 Sep, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

We already know Professional Bull Riders was among the first organization to buck the cancellation trend and host live events. And their current plans blow others out of the water – so to speak. The PBR Air Force Reserve Cowboys for a Cause will be held on the USS Lexington in Corpus Christi, Texas. That’s right: bull riding on the deck of an aircraft carrier – though one that is permanently moored.

The event, which will be broadcast on CBS on December 5, is a first-of-its-kind – although, to be honest, PBR has bucked bulls in some other unusual venues, including Times Square, Huntington Beach and in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.

For the event, PBR will construct a bull riding arena on the 872-foot long launch deck on top of the famed air craft carrier known as “The Blue Ghost,” bringing in 300 tons of dirt and steel and more than 15 miles of copper and fiber optic cables to support the event and television broadcast.

Bucking bulls will be brought on board via the ship’s still-functioning aircraft elevator, the same system that brought planes up to the flight deck from the hangar during battle. Aircraft aboard the ship will be used as set pieces around the arena, creating a unique backdrop.

Cowboys for a Cause is an invitational event, featuring five teams of three cowboys, riding to support military members and their families through a new charity initiative. PBR and its sponsors will donate to Operation Homefront, an organization providing financial support, housing and various resources to U.S. military families, for each second each cowboy stays on his bull, for up to eight seconds (eight seconds being the PBR standard for a qualified bull ride).

According to sources, PBR chose a military charity as the first beneficiary of the new program to acknowledge and thank members of the armed forces and their families for their sacrifices.

“As we get ready to close out a very challenging year, PBR wants to present an early holiday gift of an unforgettable bull riding event atop the grand and historic USS Lexington to the fans who support us through thick and thin and to military families who sacrifice so much for everyone,” said PBR Commissioner Sean Gleason. “While we’ve bucked bulls in Times Square, on Huntington Beach, and in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, the deck of the USS Lexington has long been on our list of iconic places for the most exciting eight seconds in sports.”

And just in case you’re wondering – yes, fans (a specific number of them) will be able to attend, by purchasing a package available through PBR.COM.

PBR actually has the event chops to make this work. Bull riding was the first major professional sport to safely return to competition and then welcome fans inside an arena during the COVID-19 pandemic and had team competition earlier this season. The Monster Energy Team Challenge competed in closed, televised events from South Point Arena in Las Vegas throughout June, and then in mid-July, hosted fans in the arena in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with new fan safety protocols in place. (And make no mistake, PBR will bring its COVID-19 protocols to Corpus Christi for the event).

What has enabled bull riding to buck up and show up in the face of the almost apocalyptic virus that has laid waste to other sports programming? In some ways, it’s because PBR has carved out its image, working steadily to distance itself from its county fair and rodeo roots and establish itself as an extreme sport.

Devoid of rodeo queens and rodeo clowns, without cotton candy and roping demos, and with only its bulls, its riders and its crew – no entertainment, no live music, no multi-sport events like calf roping or barrel racing or bronc busting – the sport has become pared down with a single focus – something that has allowed it to persevere the COVID-19 era.

“PBR has a nimble quality that other sports don’t. Unlike the NBA and NHL, it’s self-contained, and only needs to be in one geographic location at a time. Unlike NASCAR, it doesn’t require a huge infrastructure to keep operating. It can go on this lean, less-than-government-mandate model for as long as governments will permit it to do so … and thus, it’s trying something more akin to a live-streamed performance than a touring entertainment operation,” notes Yahoo! Sports.

Over the years, bull riding has shown strong growth and is a dependable audience draw, and has become an economic force to be reckoned with. About five years or so ago, before COVID was on the map, the economics were impressive: Explore Big Sky, Montana, noted that a PBR event made an estimated $250,000 impact in the 24 hours surrounding the event. It netted an additional $25,000 in money for local charities. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said the event can bring an estimated 70,000 attendees and generate an estimated economic impact of $15 million in non-gaming revenue for the city.

Let that sink in for a moment: $15 million in non-gaming revenue in Las Vegas. And it isn’t even an Olympic sport – something that will become even more pronounced as the world faces a year without an Olympics.

And it appears to have found its perfect venue this time around. The USS Lexington was nicknamed “The Blue Ghost” more than 70 years ago by Japanese propagandist Tokyo Rose, because she was reported to have been sunk no less than four times – but kept reappearing to fight, not unlike the PBR itself, emerging from COVID to keep going.

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