Coronavirus: Bull riding, America's only live sporting event, soldiers on alone

Yahoo Sports

DULUTH, Ga. — Colten Jesse hails from Konawa, Oklahoma. Wiry and lean, he’s the perfect image of a modern-day American cowboy. He’s a bull rider, and a good one, too; he’s ranked 10th in the world, and he’s already cleared nearly $60,000 on the Professional Bull Riders’ highest circuit this year.

Sunday afternoon, he climbed aboard a bull named Gangster Boy to lead off the Gwinnett Invitational, the only professional sporting event in the continental United States. This wasn’t the NBA, or the NCAA tournament, or NASCAR, or even golf. This was as primal as it gets, man versus nature.

And it took about two seconds for Gangster Boy to fling Jesse to the dirt like old laundry. 

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The bulls were bucking and the riders were riding, but the fans weren't there. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The bulls were bucking and the riders were riding, but the fans weren't there. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Why ride?

On a weekend where every other college and professional sporting event in the country had shut down or postponed its competitions, PBR — for one brief moment — reigned supreme over the American sports landscape. One municipal arena 30 miles north of Atlanta hosted the only American competition outside of the Iditarod in Alaska. (UPDATE: There was also a Professional Bowlers’ Association event in Las Vegas that had been moved up three days.)

The surreal nature of the moment wasn’t lost on any of the 150 or so people present, many of whom walked through Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena with the kind of disbelief you feel when you’re waking up from a particularly vivid dream. 

Driving through Atlanta on a Sunday morning and passing churches with empty parking lots is a surreal enough experience. The strangeness continued at the doors to the arena, where neon pink signs taped to the door read STOP: DO NOT ENTER IF … and then listed a number of disqualifying categories (had contact with anyone suffering from coronavirus, have traveled from a high-risk country, currently have fever or cough, et cetera). Anyone entering the arena had to sign a four-question CDC questionnaire verifying their state of health. 

Inside, riders were getting loose, stock contractors were wrangling bulls into their proper pens, a skeleton broadcast crew was preparing the unlikeliest possible broadcast. Overseeing it all was Sean Gleason, PBR’s CEO, greeting everyone with a mandatory elbow bump. 

Gleason is a big guy — over 6-feet tall, with an imposing black cowboy hat, black blazer and boots — but like everyone at the arena, there was both anticipation and weariness about him. He confessed that he hadn’t slept much in the past few days, and cans of Monster Energy Drink were close at hand for nearly everyone in the arena.

Every other sport in the country has closed down for the foreseeable future. Why, then, does PBR continue to operate? Gleason said the answer comes down to a single word: family. 

“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.” 

Gleason detailed the many ways in which PBR has sought guidance on safety, and the ways in which the Duluth event is running very differently than any other PBR event: more locker rooms for the riders to allow for more distancing; fewer people in-house; more distances between crew members inside the arena. PBR based its decision on the best available information at the time, per CDC guidelines in effect when Gleason made the call on Friday to keep out fans.

“If there are new guidelines, we’ll follow those, and we’ll follow them until we can’t implement them safely,” Gleason said. “Safety isn’t going to be compromised.” (Gleason made these comments before the CDC recommended cancelling any gatherings of larger than 50 people.)  

He knows, too, that there will be a critical segment of observers that sees PBR’s decision as reckless or, worse, opportunistic. 

“If anybody knew the challenges that our team and I had to go through to make this happen, nobody would think that it’s opportunistic,” Gleason said. “We take the whole coronavirus situation very seriously. We’ve taken every precaution we can, now and as we look forward to the plan post-this weekend. We’ve never made a decision that wasn’t in the best interests of our fans, our riders and our industry.” 

In other words: The show will go on as long as it can, but no longer. 

‘Arm’s length apart!’

Like any sport clawing for attention amid behemoths like the NFL and the NBA, PBR relies heavily on shock-and-awe flash — towers of flame, music cranked to spine-rattling levels, announcers positioned at the midpoint of preacher and pro wrestler, all shot through with a rich dose of patriotism. Under normal circumstances it’s a hell of a show. Under the shadow of a pandemic, and without fans in attendance? It became a stripped-down, bare-essentials broadcast, PBR unplugged. 

Gone were the pyrotechnics and dry-ice smoke billows. Gone was the earsplitting intro music. Gone was the live national anthem. Anything that could be left behind, was. 

Thirty-five riders — all but one agreed to go through with the event as scheduled — walked out onto the dirt for introductions just before the start of the noon ET broadcast, forming a V that led back toward the main chute. 

“Arm’s length apart!” Gleason called from the top of the chute. He didn’t need to shout; the arena was so silent — and the dirt soaked up so much ambient noise — that speaking-voice conversations were audible all over the empty arena. 

The goal of bull riding is simple: Stay on a raging, rampaging bull for eight seconds. If you can do that, you’ll get points based on how well you (and the bull) performed out there on the dirt. If you can’t, well … sorry, no points. And, in effect, no pay. 

On Saturday night, the riders had started slowly; the first eight riders were thrown off in quick succession. Gleason realized what the problem was: The music was too low. So, in an attempt to restore some kind of normalcy, he ordered the music to be cranked back up. Sure enough, the next four riders hung on for the full eight seconds. 

Sunday, the music was rolling right from the start, but the vibe still felt off. Without an audience to play off of, this had the feel of what bull riders call a “practice pen” — with the notable difference there was a $100,000 purse at stake in this particular practice pen. 

“It’s all your buddies, it’s fun, but it’s also $40,000 on the line [for the winner],” Jesse said before his ride. “There are points on the line. They’re going to give away a million dollars at the end of the year. You can be relaxed, but don’t be too relaxed.” 

In an empty arena, you can hear sounds you won’t hear anywhere else. You could hear the bulls bellowing as they tried to throw riders off their backs. You could hear the bull fighters talking and chirping at the bulls as they tried to distract them from thrown riders. You could hear the hard clang of steel gates as bulls were routed through chutes on and off the floor. You could hear the judge reviewing instant replay and making calls — rapid, non-deliberative, non-NFL-style calls — of whether a rider stayed on the full eight seconds.

Up above the action, CBS announcer Craig Hummer had to generate his own enthusiasm for the fans at home; he couldn’t rely on the momentum of the crowd or the theatrics to carry any of the load.  

“With television, you’ve got to be ready when the gun fires to do anything and everything, whether you’re an athlete trying to win or a broadcaster trying to tap into that emotion and energy,” Hummer said. “If it isn’t there, you better figure out some way to raise the level.” 

The Gwinnett Invitational entertained the fans who were watching via CBS Sports Network or RidePass, PBR’s own OTT carrier. They pinged the announcers in attendance on social media, thanking them for sticking it out and bringing them a dose of normalcy in a suddenly unclear world. 

But inside the arena, everything still felt detached, like that half-remembered dream. 

Riders prepare to compete in an empty arena. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Riders prepare to compete in an empty arena. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

When ‘Be Cowboy’ isn’t quite enough

PBR has built an entire marketing campaign around the motto “Be Cowboy,” and you know what it means even if you’ve never seen it: be self-reliant, be tough, be steadfast. 

All noble virtues … but not necessarily the most effective in a pandemic. Gleason knows this, and he knows exactly how some people might misread both that motto and PBR’s motives in continuing to compete. 

“I don’t want anybody to think that we took this cavalierly and said, ‘Let’s buck up and Be Cowboy,’ ” 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.” 

And if someone in the PBR family tests positive for coronavirus? 

“We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there,” Gleason said. “If we have to shut down because of that, we’ll shut down. Immediately. I’m hopeful it doesn’t happen, but there’s probably a good chance that someone we know is going to contract the virus.” 

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. 

Going forward, PBR cancelled its event next weekend in Glendale, California, and will reroute its entire operation to its Pueblo, Colorado, headquarters. There, in a controlled, no-fan environment, it will run shows for at least the next two weekends. PBR will cordon off entire floors of nearby hotels, allowing riders to practice social distancing while still gearing up for competition. 

“We all chose to be here. We all have loved ones who could be at risk. We know what could go wrong,” Hummer said. “We were all given that choice. This was not, ‘This is your job, you have to be here.’ This was, ‘If you’re comfortable, we’d love to have you here.’ ” 

An uncertain future

Dener Barbosa reeled off three strong rides, staying on the full eight seconds for all three, and strolled to the Gwinnett Invitational title. The moment he leaped off his final bull — named “Bullseye” — he whooped and slung his helmet, knowing he’d won the day. His cheers echoed in the empty arena. 

After most events, PBR riders will hang around and sign autographs for any fan that wants them. The event has the feel of an afterparty, where the house lights come up, music comes on, and everybody exhales a touch. 

Sunday had none of that. While Barbosa, Gleason and a couple of Monster Girls posed for PR shots, crews began stripping stickers off gates and dismantling rigging. Others unplugged computers and hoisted backpacks onto their shoulders. Elbow-bump goodbyes — which got less awkward and more natural with every bump — were the rule across the arena. 

Outside the arena, the skies had opened up, turning the dirt in the loading dock into bright brown mud. People gathered behind the pink signs and looked out at the showers. 

Nobody seemed to want to leave. But one by one, they braved the rain, hustling away from the dark arena and back toward home. 

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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