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Abu Dhabi to use UFC ‘Fight Island’ as a pilot project for sealed spectator events

The UFC training octagon on Yas Beach in Abu Dhabi.

  • Strict testing and quarantine regime aim to keep ‘Fight Island’ free of Covid-19
  • City wants to scale up ‘safety bubble’ model to include spectators
  • Abu Dhabi looks to position itself at the ‘forefront of the revival of sport in 2020’

Abu Dhabi will use this weekend’s hosting of UFC 251 as a pilot project to determine whether it can allow limited numbers of spectators to watch sports events in the eleven-square-mile safety bubble it has created in the Yas Island area of the city.

The emirate has strictly controlled entry to the island for the mixed martial arts promotion in an attempt to turn the area into a Covid-19-free zone for athletes and local and international event staff.

Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing for Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism says that, provided the stringent quarantine and testing regime allows the event to pass without any of the 2,500 people locked into the zone falling ill, the city will seek to expand the ‘safety bubble’ model to include spectators.

“The idea is first to test the capability from an operational point of view. Can we handle it with the staff, with the athletes to be with no fans? And then we will learn from this, and we will decide later if we can do it with a limited number of fans, or restricted number of fans, to be able to attend the next event in the bubble,” Al Shaiba tells SportBusiness.

The sports infrastructure in Yas Island and the city’s ability to seal off the area and implement the rigorous testing and safety regime at short notice are understood to have been key to UFC’s decision to host the event in the region.

Although Abu Dhabi is not currently open to international visitors, Al Shaiba says DCT will use the event to promote itself as a safe pair of hands for sports rights-holders and to promote tourism to the region in the longer term.

“As an international sports event watched by many viewers worldwide, we believe that Fight Island will help position Abu Dhabi at the forefront of the revival of international sport in 2020,” he says.

Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing for Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism.

Hosting fee

The emirate will host four UFC events on Yas Island from July 11 to July 25. SportBusiness understand Abu Dhabi will pay UFC a hosting fee and underwrite all of the logistical costs for the four events, including transport, testing, accommodation, training facilities and catering.

Al Shaiba refuses to reveal how much DCT has spent bringing the events to the region but says the bill will fall below the $100m reported in some parts of the media.

Under the terms of the deal, Abu Dhabi will receive two peripheral branding opportunities on the UFC octagon canvas and one vertical bumper position. It will use these to promote the city’s official hashtag #inAbuDhabi; Go Safe (a new hygiene certification programme for tourism facilities); and Stay Curious, a new platform which allows people to view the city’s attractions virtually. The emirate has also secured some programming commitments from the MMA series.

“They [will] do a couple of productions on the island showcasing all of the massive operations, starting with the Covid-19 testing and also following the guidelines and showing the measures and precautions of health and safety that we implement… [They will] promote everything that is available on the island,” says Al Shaiba.

This includes building a training octagon on the beach at the resort to advertise the area as a tourist destination. The emirate will also seek to highlight the hotel facilities, golf course and amenities at the Yas Marina motoracing circuit, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

To gauge the success of the event, DCT has an in-house team that will monitor online and offline media exposure, gathering data from social media, together with information gleaned by UFC and its broadcast partners.

The emirate has created an eleven-square mile safe zone on Yas Island.

Younger audience

DCT’s hosting strategy is to identify desirable tourist groups and then establish the best sports events to attract them. The decision to expand a pre-existing hosting agreement for one UFC event a year into the new four-fight deal is consistent with a strategy to target Millennials and younger audiences.

“Today we are looking for adventure seekers, sports seekers, we are also looking for luxury travellers,” says Al Shaiba.

He believes plans to introduce a five-year tourist visa for all nationalities, announced in January this year, will boost tourism to the region when travel restrictions are eased.

“We’re looking into different markets where they needed a visa to get to Abu Dhabi as a first stage,” he says. “These will be the first markets that we are going to target and make sure that we will have a better market share.”

Specifically, Al Shaiba says he wants to encourage more Indian visitors to attend events after Air Arabia and national flag carrier, Etihad, announced the launch of a new airline, Air Arabia Abu Dhabi, to increase capacity and connectivity with the country.

“We have seen a few travellers [from India] came for the UFC last year,” he says. “They also come for the F1 as well. The target segment is not a mass audience, but a niche segment that would come for the luxury travel offering of Abu Dhabi.”

The perception is that UFC has also helped Abu Dhabi to project a more inclusive image to the world after hosting its first ever all-female bouts last year. But Al Shaiba argues that the region has been welcoming women’s events for a long time.

“I think that perception that we don’t have women’s sports in Abu Dhabi is wrong,” he says. “We have been hosting many events that includes women’s sport in Abu Dhabi [for] 10 years. We started with a Volvo race at that time – we had some women that were participating in that event. Also, we have a lot of community events for woman happening in Abu Dhabi every year. We have golf competitions for women, we have tennis competitions for women.

“This is part of the lifestyle of Abu Dhabi, a woman has the right to go out to the beaches, do activities, do sports or work, and do whatever they want.”

Visitors

Al Shaiba says UFC 242, the last event to be hosted at Yas Island before the Covid-19 pandemic, attracted 16,000 attendees, 55 per cent of whom were from overseas, and 7 per cent of whom were from India.

Figures from DCT suggest the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix remains the city’s biggest draw, attracting an estimated 135,000 attendees, 80,000 of whom were foreign visitors, last year. Overall, DCT estimates the event has attracted over 1.4 million visitors to the capital over the 11 years the race has been held there.

Tourism to Abu Dhabi grew 10.5 per cent between 2018 and 2019, but Al Shaiba thinks it will be some time before visitor numbers bounce back from the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Today, we are seeing ourselves in a recovery phase where we are setting plans with all stakeholders [to plan] how to return back and promote Abu Dhabi as a destination of choice,” he says.

“I think things are getting much better than the beginning of the pandemic, but we won’t get back to the same [tourist] numbers [achieved in] 2019 very fast. It will take another two years to reach that number.”

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