Writes Barry Grainger
The UFC promised to be the first US sporting promotion to return with sold out arenas. On April 24th they will fulfill that promise at UFC 261. Is it too much too soon? UFC president Dana White has never done things by half measures. In a world where many sporting commissioners are characteristically robotic and dull, White’s bombastic style stands out and has set his organisation apart from the promotional competitors in the field. When the world first shut down in March of last year White assured UFC fans that the promotion would return before they knew it. As huge global brands such as the English Premier League and the NBA floundered in trying to facilitate a safe return to play the UFC returned to action less than two months after the pandemic began. On the 10th of May 2020 the UFC held its first pandemic fight card at the Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida in front of an empty arena. In the intervening months the UFC has staged fights across the world as the pandemic raged. Including multiple cards on the much publicised ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi, a purpose built bubble facility housing hotels, gyms and an arena to facilitate fights involving international fighters. For over a year the UFC has continued behind closed doors, fights that once took place in front of crowds of thousands of rowdy fans instead take place in uneasy silence with less than two dozen people in attendance. That changes next month. In March, Dana White announced the UFCs return to Jacksonville with a card headlined by Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and journeyman Jorge Masvidal. That card, White gleefully announced, will take place in front of a capacity crowd. The first of its kind anywhere in the Western hemisphere in the era of Covid.
White and the UFC are not averse to risks or going out on their own. The UFC President has always insisted that the promotion would lead the sports world in reintroducing the pre-pandemic fan experience and he stands on the cusp of delivering that achievement. But at what cost? The Memorial Arena in Jacksonville holds 15,000 spectators. Social distancing is impossible. Tickets are on general sale with no pre-fight testing or screening necessary. Even for Dana White, a notorious gambler, this event is pushing the envelope. Covid rates in Florida have fluctuated throughout the course of the pandemic, however with politicians desperate to relax restrictions and potential superspreader events such as the annual college Spring Break and this UFC event there are fears that cases may skyrocket once again. Critics of the UFC President say White is being overly reckless and overstepping the mark in order to make good on an ill-advised promise. That hasn’t stopped White taking a triumphant victory lap, keen to advertise the fact that UFC is once again leading the sports world. Pre-pandemic sporting events have shown frightening potential as superspreader events. From the Cheltenham Festival of 2020 to the final Champions League fixtures pre-lockdown, large crowds at sporting events have led to an increase in cases in cities across Europe and the United States. What makes the upcoming UFC riskier is the fact that the event will take place indoors. Less ventilation, less space.
Nor does the event come with an applicable precedent. The NFL hosted the Superbowl in February in Florida at Raymond James stadium in Tampa with 25,000 fans in attendance, however crucially the vast majority of those fans were vaccinated, socially distanced and in an outdoor arena. As such, the UFC enters unknown territory. A single positive case within the arena on fight night could spell disaster, not just from a health perspective but from a sporting one too. Any adverse impacts could set potential capacity sporting events back months.
At this moment the UFC seems set on ploughing ahead with their plans. This comes despite the barrage of criticism from journalists and experts alike and whilst multiple fights continue to be pulled from UFC cards weekly due to fighters and employees contracting Covid-19. None of these concerns look likely to stop the UFC however and when April 24th rolls around a full slate of fights will be on deck in a petri dish of partially vaccinated fans. Anybody who has been to a UFC event would tell you that such events are hardly tranquil affairs. Intoxicated fans screaming for vicious knockouts are hardly the most concerned about catching or spreading a potentially deadly disease. Risk and reward are two concepts that have rarely scared Dana White. In the past however those risks were squared solely on his shoulders and that of his company. In putting the health of so many fans in potential peril for financial gain and personal recognition the UFC president may have just made his riskiest gamble yet.