By Rob Knapp
The Professional Bull Riders held a fanless event as the COVID-19 lockdown began, March 14-15 at the Infinite Energy Center outside of Atlanta. To Sean Gleason, the message was clear.
“We were the last sport to have an event in North America and as we stood there in Georgia and looked out at the empty stands, we knew we needed to start making our plans to find a way back as quickly as possible,” Gleason said. “Our entire industry is dependent on PBR events — no guaranteed contracts for our athletes or our stock contractors — so we were resolute in finding a way to get back.”
And they did. The PBR, using a “bubble” strategy, returned with TV-only events over three weekends in April and May at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla, followed by Monster Energy Team Challenge competitions through June at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas.
For the Team Challenge postseason, PBR and the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., welcomed back fans for limited-capacity events July 10-12. It was one of the first paid audiences for an indoor sporting event after the shutdown.
Gleason has been with PBR for 20 years and has led it from niche status to become a reliable arena filler. That outwork-them mentality came in handy when it was time to plan events in the COVID-19 era.
“We’ve been fighting for attention and growth ever since the dawn of the existence of PBR, so when this came along, our team … dove in and we got it done the best we could,” Gleason said.
Also helpful was the link to another scrappy brand, UFC, with whom it shares an owner, Endeavor. They worked on cleanliness and safety protocols “hand in hand,” Gleason said, and both made a quick return to competition.
That connection nearly carried over to sharing a venue, Gleason said, noting that in April, the two organizations discussed both using Lazy E as a base.
A PBR-UFC mashup? “I think our bulls would beat all competitors,” Gleason joked, “but it’d be an interesting challenge.”