How The Pandemic Birthed A New Team Sports League…
It turns out that Professional Bull Riders’ (PBR) comeback from COVID-19 — as the first sport to resume competition while the pandemic surged in 2020 and first to host fans back inside indoor arenas safely — will have a greater impact than providing the safety protocols influencing all other sports’ eventual return to competition.
Two weekends ago during its World Finals in Las Vegas, PBR announced the most significant news since its founding when 20 cowboys broke away from the rodeo to form a standalone bull riding league nearly 30 years ago.
The organization unveiled plans for PBR Team Series — a new league comprised of 8 teams of five bull riders each playing games during a 10-weekend regular season culminating in a playoff and championship in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena next November.
The current individual competition, title-sponsored by Monster Energy and known as the Unleash The Beast (UTB), will have its Finals moved to Dickies Arena in Fort Worth in May. That UTB season will run January to May. PBR Team Series picks up in the second half, going from June to November.
None of this would have happened — at least not this fast — had it not been for the pandemic.
With only some areas of the country allowing sporting events, PBR had to completely revamp its schedule to keep the sport going, including successfully relocating the UTB World Finals to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas in 2020 while Las Vegas remained closed to sporting events.
For several years, PBR Commissioner and CEO Sean Gleason and his leadership management team had eyed expanding with a team format. Coronavirus accelerated PBR’s schedule realignment, catalyzed the development of new ways to hold bull riding events, and created the conditions for a major test that proved teams could work.
When the virus hit US shores in full force in March 2020, prompting government-mandated restrictions on public gatherings, PBR came back to competition 41 days later with closed-to-fans, TV-only events in Oklahoma that rolled out new protocols to physically distance and medically test everyone competing or producing the event. Then, in June — which would have been PBR’s traditional summer break — with all other sports sidelined, the organization created a brand-new team competition.
PBR built a saloon-themed TV set at South Point Arena in Las Vegas to hold closed, televised events throughout the month. The Monster Energy Team Challenge, which put bull riders on teams, was a big success.
Fans had already seen enhanced rider enthusiasm and camaraderie when these athletes joined teams at previous PBR Global Cup events and a charity bull riding on top of the USS Lexington aircraft carrier docked in Corpus Christi, Texas. In a sport that already provided its share of thrills, there was new electricity in the air at the “Pendleton Whisky Saloon” constructed at South Point. It became clear to PBR leadership that a separate team-formatted league could work.
More so, complementing individual competition with teams could supercharge growth for a sport that had seen steady expansion in its first 28 years.
Over the years, PBR had formed tours in Australia, Canada and Brazil. In the U.S., it had launched the Pendleton Whisky Velocity tour, a very successful expansion series to the UTB. Corporate sponsorships grew; in fact, in 2021, ten new national partners came on board, while a TV deal with CBS runs until 2028.
Yet growth opportunities were limited to finding ways to better execute the existing model. PBR Team Series changes that dynamic, first by bringing equity-bearing teams to the market. Sports Business Journal’s Bill King reported PBR is offering the team sanctions for $3 million each.
Basing bull riding teams in home cities will create new rooting interests for the sport. These teams are expected to create dynamic local partnerships to develop fan fests, concerts, and other entertainment around their respective event weekends. Think 10 mini-Super Bowls across the regular season as America’s Original Extreme Sport comes to town amid a giant party everyone knows about.
With the league format now announced, PBR plans to introduce the new team owners and their respective home markets at the new season’s traditional soirée that starts the UTB event weekend at Madison Square Garden (Friday, January 7). A team draft lottery will also be held at MSG.
It will be interesting to observe the launch of a new sports league that will be carried, as the UTB is, on CBS and CBS Sports Network along with Pluto TV, the leading free ad-supported television service with 50 million global users.
PBR has already shown its expertise in promoting and producing bull riding events for 28 years. What remains to be seen is if a sport that’s been an individual Man vs. Beast competition for so long can, through team competition, stoke new rooting interests at scale, continue to attract new partners beyond western endemic brands, and truly storm into the mainstream.
We hear the team names and jerseys – still under wraps for unveiling at MSG in January – are pretty cool.
Over three decades, the cowboys at PBR have proven to be adept businessman in making bull riding a popular, successful sport. With the Teams concept already tested successfully on the dirt, and sports team ownership being a highly desired yet finite investment opportunity, it’s hard to bet against them.