How COVID-19 Regulations in Pro Sports Evolved From Professional Bull Riding

It’s easy to take coronavirus precautions for granted. Businesses from local gas stations to multi-national organizations have implemented coronavirus prevention procedures in recent months. But when sports first returned, commenters were skeptical about how sports could avoid coronavirus outbreaks. Sports leagues have come a long way in their coronavirus prevention measures.

And it all started with professional bull riding.

How Professional Bull Riding Set Response Foundations

Professional Bull Riding (PBR) was the first professional American sport to return to play after the country shut down in March. On April 25 and 26, PBR had a bull riding event in Oklahoma in an empty arena. Before the event, PBR issued the first set of coronavirus guidelines to be put into practice. The full plan is 29 pages, including appendices. It includes sections addressing:

  • How staff and players will be fed and housed.
  • Medical screening phases.
  • Cleaning, sanitation, and social distancing protocols.

These seem familiar now, but they were groundbreaking for sports leagues then. Staff and players were grouped into “functional groups” that were isolated from one another. Medical screenings included two rounds of screening questions and a final round of antibody and nasal swab tests. The cleaning, sanitation, and social distancing protocols also looked like current league standards.

However, the policy with the greatest variance has been crowd size.

PBR’s Crowd Changes From April To July

PBR’s bull riding event in April occurred in Lazy E Arena with no fans present. It helped staff and contestants maintain the bubble’s integrity. Medical professionals on staff also got control to implement PBR’s coronavirus plan.

Later that summer, PBR hosted a five-week competition. During the first four weeks, they played in empty arenas. However, the fifth week allowed fans into the stands. The Championship from July 10-12 was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. PBR allowed 35% of the arena’s capacity to watch the match live.

After the Championship event, coronavirus cases held steady in South Dakota. It didn’t seem to create a new outbreak.

How PBR Pulled Live Games Off Before Anyone Else

There were a few things PBR did to keep their championship game from becoming a super-spreader event.

First, it limited the number of fans allowed in the arena. That likely allowed the venue to accommodate social distancing and sanitation measures. Fans were also required to wear masks and only use credit cards for their transactions. Since the virus can survive on coins and bills, this closed some avenues for surface-to-surface spread. Finally, the event was in an outdoor stadium, which provided the ventilation that probably helped prevent coronavirus cases from exploding at the championship game.

Although the risk of catching the coronavirus was never zero, PBR designed a template that seemed to keep staff, fans, and competitors safe.

How Much Of That Plan Has Been Kept In Fall Sports?

Little has changed from PBR’s original coronavirus plan. Professional leagues have masks and social distancing requirements, health screenings, and different group interactions. However, the implementation of different coronavirus plans has changed from league to league. Some set standards for the whole league while others let each club decide on coronavirus plan specifics. This level of implementation seems to be one of the reasons some professional leagues have been more reliable sportsbook favorites than others.

Bubble Strictness

During training, PBR held staff and competitors to strict testing standards. It wasn’t quite a training bubble. However, rigorous testing and smaller crowd sizes may have acted as an early sports bubble.

Some leagues tightened restrictions on groups and training. The NHL pushed the bubble to its limits. Its Canadian and American teams had bubbles in two separate cities. Teams were confined to their hotels and training facilities. No one was allowed inside the bubble. Players and staff were separated into groups with varying degrees of access. No fans were allowed at games. Players also had daily nasal swabs. Anyone who left the bubble had to quarantine when they returned. The NHL was stricter than the PBR bubble and resulted in zero cases over the season.

However, the NFL began with a more relaxed attitude. The league issued guidelines for each NFL club. Although it offered guidance and some details, certain aspects of the plan were left up to each league’s club. That meant 32 teams could decide how strictly they wanted to isolate their players. This led to a few more holes in the PBR plan.

Consequently, some NFL teams fared better than others. The Tennessee Titans had an outbreak that infected about two dozen staff and players in October. In contrast, the Atlanta Falcons only had one player test positive for the virus on October 7. Different case numbers likely come from different implementation plans at the club level. That’s what happens when teams implement COVID-19 plans unevenly across leagues.

What PBR Got Right From The Beginning

One of the most remarkable features of PBR’s coronavirus prevention plan is how similar it is to current plans. PBR was the first professional sport to return and the first to test coronavirus prevention guidelines. It kept staff, players, and fans safe throughout its summer season. Three players tested positive, but there aren’t any other news stories documenting cases. It’s an advanced plan for such an early frontrunner.

PBR’s early success came from its adherence to CDC guidelines. It followed the science and created a blueprint for themselves and professional sports who returned to play next. The NHL used many of the same guidelines as PBR. However, the NHL tightened restrictions further into a notoriously effective bubble. The NFL also used many PBR guidelines but allowed more flexibility in how teams implemented their COVID-19 plans. Consequently, some NFL teams have struggled with coronavirus outbreaks.

These differences also affected sportsbook lines. PBR became a pandemic staple in some sportsbooks because it was available. The NHL and NFL had lines available, too. However, the NHL managed to finish its season without major coronavirus disruptions. But the NFL has canceled several games throughout the season. Sportsbooks like DraftKings and FanDuel only offer game lines a few days in advance to compensate for cancellations and reschedulings. When the next NHL season begins, Colorado sportsbooks may offer hockey game lines further in advance because of the NHL’s proven ability to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

PBR may not have set out to become pioneers in coronavirus prevention in sports. However, they stumbled into that role by returning first, and they set a strong example that’s been duplicated with minor tweaks.

About the Author

Chris Gerlacher

Christopher is a sports betting enthusiast and online gaming expert from Colorado Springs.