- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2020

It was quieter in the arena, but it was live sports all the same: Bull riding returned from a five-week, virus-mandated hiatus on Saturday and Sunday.

More popular sports such as basketball might not be far behind.

The Professional Bull Riders tour held an event in an empty arena in Oklahoma, in what appears to be the first professional sport to resume in the U.S. after the COVID-19 pandemic forced leagues to suspend play.

Although the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball haven’t settled on a path for returning, each league is kicking around plans for safely bringing back games. The NBA is even allowing teams to reopen their practice facilities this week.
PBR’s Las Vegas Invitational was moved from Nevada to Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where COVID-19 restrictions were more flexible. Forty-one riders competed Saturday and Sunday, but no fans were allowed to attend the event.

“We’ve had plenty of space to be safe and responsible as we get our PBR family back to work, and hopefully our process will pave the way for other sports,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said Sunday. “We stand united with those fighting coronavirus on the front lines, and with you at home, our dedicated and loyal fans.”

A PBR press release said the bull riding circuit had worked with city, county and state officials to develop a “comprehensive safety and wellness plan.” The athletes and crew members were told to follow the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. On social media, PBR posted photos of riders wearing face masks.

At the beginning of Saturday’s TV broadcast, Mr. Gleason said “we are in lockdown” at the arena in Oklahoma.

“We believe every American has an obligation to get our country and economy back on track — not by rushing ahead blindly, but in safe and responsible ways,” Mr. Gleason said. “We used cowboy grit, determination and ingenuity to develop a comprehensive plan to give our PBR family an opportunity to provide for their own loved ones during these challenging times.”

PBR plans to hold more events, also closed to fans, at Lazy E Arena May 9-10 and 16-17.

Bull riding returned as larger sports leagues started to move, tentatively in some cases, in the same direction. The NBA is allowing its teams to reopen their facilities beginning Friday, provided that local governments do not prohibit it.

The NBA ordered teams to close their facilities March 19, eight days after the basketball season was suspended, “in light of the rapidly-developing coronavirus situation, and consistent with evolving advice from health experts regarding how to promote individual and public health while minimizing the spread of the virus.”

But the move doesn’t mean the NBA season will resume soon. Commissioner Adam Silver said this month that the league couldn’t realistically plan the remainder of its season until after April.

“I told my folks over the last week that we should just accept that at least for the month of April, we won’t be in a position to make any decisions. I don’t think that necessarily means on May 1, we will be,” Mr. Silver said.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league has discussed a novel idea to restart the hockey season: playing the rest of the regular season in four NHL cities — one city per division — that are less affected by COVID-19. ESPN reported that Raleigh, North Carolina, and Edmonton, Alberta, are under consideration.

The NHL season was a few weeks away from starting its playoffs when play was suspended. The postseason format remains unclear.

The PGA Tour announced its intention to return June 11 with a tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. The tour’s revised schedule calls for 24 straight weeks of competition. At least the first four would be closed to fans. Golf, like bull riding, can be played while maintaining social distance and does not involve shared equipment.

Meanwhile, baseball has shown little movement. Weeks ago, it floated a plan for the entire MLB season to be played in Arizona, where players could travel only between their hotel and the stadiums. The plan drew criticism from some fans and players, including Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

The future of sports is not just an American problem. European soccer leagues are also feeling out what to do next. Germany appears to be closest to lifting its suspension, and some state governors hope to resume games on May 9. The Bundesliga is planning to have a maximum of 213 people in the stadium, counting players, photographers and everyone else. Premier League clubs in Britain say a return in late June is possible.

A Morning Consult poll found that sports fans are split along political lines regarding when sports should return in the U.S. Republican sports fans (41%) were roughly twice as likely as Democrats (21%) to say sports should return as soon as possible, even without fans.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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