By Brandon Walker EBS SPORTS EDITOR
OKLAHOMA – Sports fans have been left clamoring for almost any form of competition that they can indulge in due to COVID-19 cancelations. The Professional Bull Riders tour provided a welcomed sight for athletics junkies on April 25-26 as they returned to action. While no spectators were in attendance, viewers were provided the opportunity to tune in and watch a live sporting event from their homes for the first time in five weeks.
Prior to the April 25-26 competition in Oklahoma, bulls and riders hadn’t taken to the arena since March 14 in Georgia, just as COVID-19 was beginning to cause event cancelations nationwide. Returning to action was no small task as PBR officials strategized for nearly six weeks creating a plan that would responsibly allow them to resume competition. The plan was given the nod of approval from various Okla. government entities before commencing.
“We won’t do anything until we can assure that we can do it in the safest possible manner that we can carry out,” said PBR chief marketing officer Kosha Irby of the safety plan PBR compiled. “We worked obviously to bring together a safety plan that we felt comfortable with, that we could rely on, and when we were in doubt we could ultimately lean on and lean into to make sure we were doing the right thing and carrying out the process in the proper manner.”
The list of safety-related precautions was extensive, including: medical screenings of all parties involved in events from riders to staff prior to setting foot in the arena, all individuals involved providing their own means of transportation and recreational vehicles for housing, and scaling back the amount of production members, even deploying robotic cameras to limit the number of people involved. On top of the aforementioned precautions, many more were taken by the sport, all in the name of returning the arena.
“We’ve kind of tackled a lot of the gargantuan issues,” Irby said. “It’s allowing for us to fine-tune this plan in such a way that we become even more comfortable with it as we develop it as time progresses.” PBR will share their strategies with other major sports as they begin their return to play.
When it came time for riders to mount their bulls, Fabiano Vieira prevailed as he was the only rider to successfully complete all three of his rides, finishing with an event aggregate score of 262.75. Vieira was followed by Colten Jesse and Jose Vitor Leme, who finished second and third respectively with event aggregate scores of 177.50 and 176.50. Vieira raked in $11 thousand for his efforts.
Even without spectators in attendance emotions ran high. PBR’s return marked a monumental step in a slow return to pre-pandemic life. “Tears and emotions are not something that kind of go synonymous with the cowboy, but when we bucked that first bull after, you know 41 days of not being able to do it because of this pandemic, you saw a lot of emotional people in that arena and I will never forget that feeling,” Irby said.
He also described that the absence of crowd noise allowed viewers to appreciate the fine details of PBR riders performances, such as the fashion in which they mount a bull and left-handed riders tactics vs. that of right-handed ones, to name a few, even calling it ‘educational’. “For the first time, you can take novices like me and I can learn more about the sport because you can see the intricacies of what these guys do day in and day out,” he said.
There is no timetable for when spectators will return to arenas, but Irby said PBR will bring back their fans as soon as they believe it is safe. “We’re working to make sure that we can bring the PBR experience to as many people as we can because right now, I think a distraction and a return to normalcy is what America needs,” he said.
Competitors will remain in Okla. for the PBR Cooper Tires Invitational, slated to take place on May 9-10, followed by the PBR Lucas Oil Invitational, May 16-17.