THE BUCK STARTS HERE: A crowd enjoys a Professional Bull Riders event at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2018. (Getty Images)

South Dakota’s Denny Sanford Premier Center prepares to welcome fans back for July 10-12  team competition

After entertaining fans at home via TV broadcasts for three months, Professional Bull Riders is eager to have everybody back over to its place.

That day is scheduled to arrive July 10, when PBR will become one of the first national sports properties to hold an indoor event with ticket-buying customers in the house since COVID-19 brought the live business to a standstill. The occasion will be the first edition of the Monster Energy Team Challenge Championship, a three-day event to be contested at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

PBR is an old hand at staging competitions in the pandemic era, having put its Be Cowboy Safe protocols in place to unleash its Unleash the Beast series in late April without spectators and doing the same for the team event in June in Las Vegas. The nature of the competition helps, said Kosha Irby, the organization’s chief marketing officer.

“It’s an individual sport in nature that can be segmented in such a way that allows for us to do things that other sports can’t do,” Irby said. “We’re not like team sports, i.e., hockey, football, basketball, where not only do you have to regulate contact between those players but then (also) everybody else.”

But in its preparations to have fans back in the stands, PBR had to take on issues that it shares with virtually any other event — what percentage of capacity to use and how best to arrange the spectators with safety and social distancing in mind — with help from South Dakota’s preference for personal choice over state mandates.

PBR also was able to consult with UFC, which like the bull riding organization is owned by Endeavor. UFC has been another sport on the front end of the return from the shutdown, running events without audiences in May at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.

PBR has capped sales at 50 percent of Denny Sanford’s capacity of about 10,000 for PBR events. Rather than basing sales on seating groups of two or four, it will achieve social distancing in the seating bowl using “pods” of seats ranging from one seat to eight in size, which Irby said would give everyone from a single person or a couple to a large family a way to sit together comfortably but adequately distanced from others.

“I always talk to fellow promoters and tell them, ‘Show me the average family of four,’ or ‘Show me the average party of four,’” Irby said.  “It doesn’t exist.

“In our business our average ticket buyer is 3.2 to 3.6, depending on market and show. So that .4 point swing can make it a three party or in some cases is going to make it a five, six, seven party.”

Executives monitor the sales daily and adjust the size of the remaining pods based on sales trends that they’re seeing.

Beyond seating configurations, Irby said PBR was strongly encouraging fans to buy ahead and use mobile ticketing for the event to reduce touches at entry points and lines at ticket windows, and foresees a rise in the percentage of mobile tickets sold for PBR events.

Among events with mobile ticketing options, “We’re on the lower end of that,” Irby said. “We’re traditional, a typical bar code printed on a typical piece of paper.”

Mike Krewson, general manager of the Denny Sanford Premier Center for facility manager ASM Global, is working with PBR to create a safe environment, and he said ingress and egress is one focus. That will start with communication to ticket holders starting several days before the event up to when they are walking into and out of the building.

ALL HANDS ON DECK: Chief Marketing Officer Kosha Irby does disinfecting duty at PBR’s first closed-to-fans event in Oklahoma in April. (Courtesy Bull Stock Media)

“There’ll be increased signage and announcements as you approach the facility,” Krewson said. “To get (3,000 or 4,000) people in a facility, technically, it’s almost impossible to social distance as we know it, so I’ve changed our message to social consideration, social responsibility.”

Inside the arena, “we’re reducing by about 80% the number of portables that we have on the concourse,” he said, which will give attendees more room and make crowding less likely.

Also part of the plan, said both Irby and Krewson, is more grab-and-go food at concession stands. Spectra handles food and beverage for the arena.

Like PBR, the arena has a link to the UFC events in Jacksonville, which were held in an arena also operated by ASM Global. The facility operator’s environment hygiene program, VenueShield, got an early test at the three events there.

“Those guys are actually good friends of mine,” Krewson said of the Vystar arena staff, and he said that, in addition to regular company calls, he had been in contact with General Manager Bill McConnell and Assistant GM Zane Collings to discuss their experience hosting events with the new safety protocols.

A little more than three weeks out from welcoming fans back, Irby didn’t give sales numbers but said he liked what he was seeing, especially given a shorter-than-usual sales runway leading up the event.

“We are very pleased with the progress that we’ve displayed given the conditions that we’re in and the uncertain times, so we’re bullish on where we’re going to end up for this event,” he said.