Professional Bull Riders welcome fans back into arena

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — As bull riders attempted to hang on for eight seconds Friday night, they were encouraged by something they hadn’t heard in months — the cheers of a crowd.

A little more than a thousand fans were on hand in the 9,000-seat arena to watch one of the first indoor professional sporting events since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The Professional Bull Riders event ends a month-long competition that until Friday has played out before silent stands. It’s a cautious step toward giving sports fans who have been cooped up for months a chance to leave their homes and watch a bull attempt to throw a man from its back as the rider tries to hold on.

Other professional sports leagues are watching the bull riding event to observe how fans may be allowed back into stadiums and arenas, competition organizers said. NASCAR will let thousands of spectators into a race in Texas on July 19, but English soccer’s Liverpool has played out its march to a first league title in 30 years in front of empty stadiums.

“It’s going to be very sparsely attended tonight,” Professional Bull Riders CEO Sean Gleason said. “There’s only so many seats that you can sell in this building and keep people socially distanced.”

PBR tried to keep both cowboys and fans safe from the spread of coronavirus infections by seating spectators apart from each other in a method they call “pod seating,” as well as regularly testing riders and their support staff. The tightly packed lines for the concession stand or bathroom were gone as well, with signs encouraging people to space apart.

As the number of COVID-19 cases topped 3 million in the United States this week, South Dakota has seen a relatively low number of coronavirus cases in addition to a governor eager to push reopening economic activity.

Gov. Kristi Noem has worked with event organizers and even welcomed the event as a way to “get back to normal.” The county where the bull riding event is being held had 230 active cases of COVID-19, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.

Stadium workers patrolled the hallways with cleaning supplies, and the arena offered masks to spectators. Most people in the crowd went without masks.

Sandy Hall drove three hours with her husband to attend the competition and said she was nervous at first about coronavirus infections, but enjoyed the show.

“We haven’t been out of town for a while, to come up here was a lot of fun,” she said.

Though the arena was far from packed, the bull riders, who wore masks with their cowboy hats, said having a live crowd for the first time in months provided motivation.

“It does feel a lot cooler when you get to ride your bull and step off and you’ve got people screaming your name,” said Ezekiel Mitchell, a 23-year-old rider from Rockdale, Texas. “It’s like nothing else, really. Just to be able to bring light to what a lot of people think of as a dark time in America just to be able to lighten the mood and make somebody’s day is amazing.”

The three-day competition, known as the Monster Energy Team Challenge, pits teams of riders against each other in a playoff-style competition. The winning team will be decided Sunday.