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Professional Bull Riding Bucking COVID's No-Sports Trend

23 Mar, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

March Madness, Major League Baseball and most everything else has fallen silent. But in the face of COVID-19, know what is not just thriving but packing in the TV viewers? Professional bull riding. And despite being held in empty (or nearly empty) arenas, the extreme sport/rodeo hybrid is providing a welcome adrenaline rush.

It’s no bull. Two weekends ago, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) brought their show to Duluth, Georgia’s Infinity Energy Center. There were no spectators, but there were camera crews. The CBS Sports Network broadcast the action nationwide – where it was gobbled up by a sports-starved public.

“We are so proud of our partnership with CBS,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said in a statement. “They’ve been a great and nimble partner in bringing more PBR action to fans this weekend.”

The Kitsap Sun notes, “TV programming will be devoid of the previously scheduled NBAcollege basketballMLSNHL and XFL, with the events and telecasts having been canceled because of the spread of COVID-19. But there will cowboys climbing onto the backs of 1,800-pound bulls, and a chance to watch it live.”

Gleason said that in surreal times, the sport had been able to step into an odd and unexpected void, providing sports action to people who enjoy it – and also providing a secondhand adrenaline rush. And unlike many other sports that have had to shut down, leaving athletes without a paycheck, PBR has kept the flame lit.

“Our events feed an entire industry that takes care of literally thousands of people. … To just cancel events would imperil a lot of people,” Gleason said. “We travel up and down the road with these people, and they’re family. In tough times, you take care of your family.” 

“If we aren’t going out and riding bulls, we aren’t getting paid,” said Derek Kolbaba, a 23-year-old rider out of Walla Walla, Washington. “It’s not like we’re on contracts. People still have bills and mortgages that they have to cover. We’re just happy and blessed to still be able to compete, even though it’s odd with an empty building.”

To date, nobody in PBR has tested positive for the coronavirus. Gleason says that bridge will be crossed if it appears. Cowboys and crew members are taking all the health precautions they can and maintaining distances from one another. At the same time, they’re all helping together, leaning over the fences and making nose to distract the bulls who buck off their riders, allowing those riders to get out of the arena safely.

“I don’t want anybody to think that we took this cavalierly …” Gleason said. “They are cowboys. It is part of the ethos to get back up, dust yourself off, and get back on the bull or get back to work. But that’s not even remotely close to the agony we went through to get here.” 

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.

Without 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.

“We are bull riding only; we take the most exciting sport and wrap it in a rock concert environment with state-of-the-art production, lights and sounds, and pyro,” Gleason noted back in 2016. “So we are delivering a highly entertaining product. It's a formula that works.” 

Another advantage is its ability to use multi-purpose indoor venues where access can be easily controlled. And those arenas, standing empty right now, are more than happy to continue to host. And people are happy to watch.

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 may become even more pronounced as the world faces the possibility of a year without an Olympics.

The fact that bull riding embodies an old-fashioned skill set has helped it along as well. Audiences are gobbling up the action and learning about the sport as they go, becoming familiar with both sets of athletes, human and animal.

While some areas have had to cancel their PBR events, bull riding continues to go where it’s welcome. And it’s obvious that for now, it’s very welcome.

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