By: Andrew Giangola
Dener Barbosa took seven stitches in his free hand and then took the event buckle after a 91-point ride on Bullseye.
That part of the PBR Unleash The Beast in Duluth, Ga., was standard: a cowboy rode through injury to notch another career highlight.
Everything else felt like an opening scene in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
That PBR event, played in an empty arena on Sunday, March 16, 2020, was like no other, and it was a prelude of sorts to one of the strangest – and most difficult stretches – of Sean Gleason’s career.
From the time PBR’s Commissioner and CEO left the Infinite Energy Center that Sunday heading for his flight at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta to when he landed in Denver a few hours later and new restrictions were announced, the world had changed… for him and everyone in the “mass gathering business.”
Prior to that weekend’s PBR event in Georgia – intended to be a big, fun, boisterous gathering – a mysterious, dangerous virus was beginning to infect people in communities across the country.
Urgent health guidance was issued, prohibiting any public events of 250 or more people. With the PBR season’s tenth premier series event on tap in Georgia, Gleason did the math. Factoring in all the riders, stock contractors, and event and TV production crew, he figured PBR could conduct the bull riding in a closed environment with 150 people in the building.
The PBR ticketing team contacted fans to let them know that due to unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances, this would be a closed event. Their tickets would be refunded.
The 2020 Gwinett Invitational would be delivered to fans watching at home via CBS Sports with no one outside of essential crew allowed in the arena.
The scene was eerie; sounds of clanging gates and grunting bull riders replaced the usual roaring of fans. It was raw and unfiltered, a must-see in its own intimate way, like being a fly on the wall in the world’s rankest practice pen.
PBR had pulled off a scaled-down event.
This looked to be the way forward for a while – “PBR Unplugged” available on TV and PBR’s RidePass streamer.
It was a short-lived plan.
When Gleason deplaned in Denver, public gathering guidance had tightened to a maximum of 100 people. Monday morning, as he drove his Ford F-150 to the office in Pueblo, permissible gatherings were reduced to groups of 10.
Everything had really changed. All sports were now shut down.
“This was all so new with so many unknowns,” Gleason said. “One thing we did know is we weren’t going to sit around and wait for instructions we suspected wouldn’t come. We were faced with a decision. We could hide in fear, or we could learn how to live with danger. We chose the cowboy way. Get up, dust yourself off, get back on the horse, and find a way to get the job done.”
Barbosa’s win in Duluth would be the last major televised sport in North America… until 41 days later, on April 25. As the nation made a run on toilet paper and disinfectants, PBR returned as the first sport back to competition at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla., with every cowboy self-quarantined in his own RV and revolutionary new protocols in place for holding closed-to-the-public, televised events.
The closed events continued until mid-July and another bold, pioneering PBR move, this time at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls. By adding new safety protocols, fans were invited back in a limited capacity inside an indoor venue for the first time since the lockdown.
Amid a dearth of live sports, and to continue to deliver programming to CBS and value to partners, PBR again innovated by launching a new team tournament – the Monster Energy Team Challenge.
The 40-hour televised competition, including a weekly broadcast on CBS Television Network during a period of virtually no new sports programming, began with divisional play four weekends in June from South Point Arena in Las Vegas.
This “regular season” for the tournament was held in a made-for-TV set called the Pendleton Whisky Let ‘er Buck Saloon, providing strong exposure to the title partner of the sport’s premier expansion tour, the PBR Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour. And Monster Energy, the league’s premier tour title sponsor, also received entitlement for the Team Challenge.
“This safe and rapid return to competition in the midst of the global pandemic was truly remarkable,” said Dan McHugh, CMO, Monster Energy. “As the first major sport to resume competition, it was the perfect entertainment for homebound fans during the early days of COVID-19 quarantine, and we admire the work the organization was able to accomplish. With virtually all sports on hold, PBR’s live televised events offered Monster Energy the ability to remain visible as a supporter to the most extreme sports and athletes on the planet.”
PBR’s fast return to the dirt in rolling out the first sports “bubble” allowed it to complete a full season at the PBR World Finals (Nov. 12-15), a pivot from closed-to-events Las Vegas, hosting nearly 44,000 fans over four days in socially-distanced AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
PBR would wind up delivering a full season to fans… and growing its TV ratings at a time when other sports were struggling with viewership declines when they eventually returned.
When books are written about the response to COVID-19, the entire PBR industry will emerge as the resolute leaders who made the right decision. Whether it was creating new safety measures or new ways to engage sponsors and fans, the sport found a way to get it done by being relentlessly creative, optimistically stubborn, and always having contingency plans.
How PBR wrote the initial return playbook for live sports and entertainment beginning on April 25, 2020, is a story of can-do cowboy grit, innovation, and determination. And most of all, trusting your intuition to drown out the voices of doubt, negativity, and skepticism.
A personal responsibility to return
The PBR industry is comprised largely of independent contractors: unsalaried bull riders and stock contractors who get paid only when competing in addition to the traveling crew who build, operate and televise the event.
Ordered to stand down and effectively put these people out of work, Gleason and his team were smitten with the personal responsibility of finding a way to continue holding events.
The league’s leadership formed a crisis committee they dubbed “Red Dawn,” named for the 1984 film featuring a group of intrepid youth in Colorado fighting off a Soviet invasion. Meeting first thing every morning – including weekends – until Thanksgiving, the team felt like they were banding together to fend off an invasion and save their business.
The virus had created a fog of fear and paralyzing uncertainty. Once shut down, someone had to step up as an example for others to try to chart a path to normalcy. Over the ensuing days and weeks, Gleason characterized the push to come back as less of being one “ah-ha moment” and more a lot of moments realizing, “we can do this, persevere, and find a way.”
The prevailing wisdom was to lock down and wait it out. If bull riding were to return, it would be under intense public scrutiny. Optics and bad press aside, of course nobody wants anyone to get sick.
During the onset of COVID-19, that overriding safety objective was the baseline for addressing many unknowns and fresh challenges confronting the team architecting PBR’s comeback. All the planning began by asking, ‘How can we compete in an arena without bringing Coronavirus into a community or contributing to the spread of the virus?’
The Red Dawn team examined the movements of every person attending a PBR event from the moment they left their homes to when they returned home days later. How did they travel? Who did they interact with? What happened when they got to the hotel… and to the arena?
That knowledge informed the solutions laid out in the PBR blueprint for resuming events during a pandemic – a comprehensive 41-page plan laying out new physical distancing and hygiene protocols to help ensure the safety of everyone present at the event as well as in the surrounding community. The protocols included medical testing for any participant in the event (bull riders, stock contractors and crew) before they travel to an event market, strict adherence to mask usage, social distancing, and rigorous sanitization of equipment and touch-points.
Holding an event during a pandemic is like flying an airplane. Every protocol and safety element is crucial. Everything is interconnected. If one link in the chain breaks, it affects another, and so on, and the plane can crash.
A critical element in PBR’s return was requiring COVID testing for any participant to come to an event market. Gleason reminded the team that the framework for any PBR event starts with ensuring the sport would not bring the virus into the event, spread it unknowingly into the community, or take it back home.
While this may now seem like common sense, at the time, when every participant was driving to Guthrie alone on strict orders not to stop for anything unless running out of gas, there were no sports bubbles. Athletes were busy searching for the best Zoom workouts. The only sports programming on television were highlight shows and re-runs.
Once PBR began welcoming fans into the arena in July, the plan focused on separating spectators as much as possible, including the introduction of “pod seating” at Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls to distance fans in the stands. Throughout the remainder of the 2020 season, PBR would sell only up to 50% of arena capacity to separate fans enjoying the action.
From its first event back in competition at the Lazy E Arena in late April to World Finals in November, PBR safely held 20 event weekends in 2020, 13 with fans in attendance. Continuing into the new season, since the pandemic began, PBR has held more than 35 ticketed fan weekends globally, welcoming more than 145,000 fans.
The Red Dawn plan – which would be shared with 15 other global leagues and major sports teams forging their respective paths back – also emphasized cashless transactions and mobile ticketing for less activity at the box office. Some sponsor activations and other activities on the concourse were eliminated to create more space among fans. Merchandise sales at the arena were limited to the top-selling items to make for faster decisions and fewer lines. Rather than leap the fence and venture into the grandstands, PBR Entertainer Flint Rasmussen would present the Cooper Tires Fan of the Night buckle from the dirt.
“Everyone’s wondering when we’ll fully be out of this crisis. Well, fans will know it when every seat is full and I’m back in the crowd,” Rasmussen said.
Following a triumphant ticketed World Finals at AT&T Stadium, the PBR team created one more special event to end the 2020 season with an exclamation point.
Working with the USS Lexington and US Air Force Reserve, PBR would thank fans and members of the military by concluding the season with a special event bucking bulls on top of the USS Lexington aircraft carrier docked in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The league launched its new annual fundraising event (more than $250,000 was raised for military charities), and the USS Air Force Reserve Cowboys for a Cause event peaked at 2.3 million viewers on CBS, the No. 2 sporting event of the day on Sunday, Dec. 5, trailing only the NFL.
“With all that we had to go through to complete a season in the most challenging times any of us hopefully have to face in our lifetimes, some might think 2020 wasn’t the time to tackle a major special event,” Gleason said. “From our perspective, it was the perfect year. Cowboys for a Cause on the USS Lexington was a triumphant expression of cowboy grit to not only finish what we started but put in a little extra effort to show the world what we’re made of. It was a celebration for all of us.”
The determination to push into the 2021 season, beginning outdoors in Florida and Texas, resonated with fans and would be replicated abroad.
In the 2020 regular season, while virtually every major sport was mired in a TV ratings decline, PBR on CBS viewership was up +8% vs. 2019, according to Nielsen. Just about every other major sport was down.
On social media, in the 2020 season, PBR increased its followers +18% across its platforms, and watch time increased +27% compared to 2019. Overall, the PBR industry’s total social and digital reach in 2020 was 122.7 million people. Across earned media in the 2020 season, PBR had an overall reach of more than 16 billion impressions as well.
Outside the US, PBR Australia delivered a nine-week tour of 16 events across eight locations, culminating with the 2020 Monster Energy PBR Grand Finals in Townsville, North Queensland – the first indoor event in the state to benefit from easing restrictions allowing full stadium capacities.
PBR Canada also adapted to execute the nationally-televised Monster Energy Tour (MET), ushering in the return of pro sports in Canada with a uniquely formatted drive-in event on July 23 in Lethbridge. The 2020 Canadian season concluded with a three-day Finals at Revolution Place in Grande Prairie, Alberta.
Yet, even with all these great results, Gleason is most proud of how his team came together to get back to business during the pandemic safely and responsibly.
“This most trying time is when you appreciate the people around you and those you really work for,” he said. “We came together as a team like never before. We didn’t do anything to be first. The goal was to get our cowboys and crew back to work. We could have packed up to ride out the storm from the safety of our homes. But we were driven by the desire put on events, keep our industry working, and bring fans the sport they loved.”
It’s hard to believe that maybe PBR’s finest moment amid the biggest risk and darkest challenges – returning to competition in Guthrie, Oklahoma – happened a year ago.
In some ways, the comeback at Lazy E seems a lifetime ago. In other ways, it feels like yesterday.
The vaccination rollout continues. Herd immunity is building. And PBR keeps leading the way.
In early April, PBR became the first sport to offer an event at full indoor arena capacity in Sioux Falls.
Last weekend in Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, Kaique Pacheco put up one of the season’s biggest rides – going for 94-points on world No. 1-ranked bull Chiseled in front of the first crowd inside the NBA Thunder’s arena since the shutdown.
“We are very proud to continue to chart a way back to normalcy based on common-sense solutions,” Gleason said. “If cowboys didn’t step up to do it, who would?”
Back in Guthrie one year ago, stepping up was not without risk. PBR was, in essence, the canary in the coal mine. And the canary made it out.
And now, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is projecting up to 135,000 fans for the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, after the Texas Rangers hosted over 38,000 fans for its opening day in early April and the University of Alabama welcomed 47,000 fans in Tuscaloosa two weeks later.
Fans of those sports might not know it, but they owe a small debt of gratitude to those who did the early work to show sports could return: the cowboys of the PBR.
Considering the challenges, barriers, and setbacks America’s original cowboys had to overcome in settling the West, it makes sense. Resiliency and grit always win.
A documentary bringing the sights and sounds of PBR’s historic comeback will premiere on PBR’s Facebook and YouTube channels at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday.
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