- Abu Dhabi paying UFC for right to host Fight Island, along with covering costs
- Four-event deal completed in May, smoothed by existing hosting and media rights deals
- UFC, despite criticism, has balanced risk and reward under lockdown
On April 6, Dana White made a statement that seemed outlandish, even for him.
Speaking to TMZ Sports, the UFC president said: “I’m a day or two away from securing a private island… I have a private island that I’ve secured. We’re getting the infrastructure put in now so we’re gonna start doing international fights too. I won’t be able to get international fighters into the US, so I’m gonna start flying them all into a private island and start doing the fights from there.”
TMZ’s reporter, incredulous, responded: “What are you gonna call it, Fight Island?”
White laughed: “Yeah, island fights…”
On June 9, the UFC announced Fight Island™, a fully trademarked, four-event stint on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi that begins on July 11 with UFC 251 and includes three UFC Fight Night events on July 15, 18 and 25.
Yas Island – formerly part of Abu Dhabi’s mainland until a canal was dredged around its perimeter – is perhaps not the original private island White had in mind. Regardless, there are few places in the world more suitable for a rights-holder to escape the clutches of Covid-19 than Abu Dhabi.
Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer at the UFC, tells SportBusiness: “We certainly looked at a variety of locations around the world, but it needed to have a certain level of infrastructure – the ability to get people there, the ability to do comprehensive testing and implement a health and safety programme.
“Once we got into the nitty gritty of what it was going to take to put this on, it was pretty clear that what Yas Island and Abu Dhabi delivered was frankly something no one else in the world could, certainly on short notice.”
Safest place on the planet
The Abu Dhabi government has turned the majority of Yas Island into a ten-square-mile safe zone just for the UFC, with each of the 2,500 people on site being tested for Covid-19 on five separate occasions during their stay – once before flying to Abu Dhabi, twice at the hotel prior to a 24-48 hour quarantine, once prior to the event and once before departure.
All roads leading into the safe zone were closed from July 4 and Abu Dhabi workers have rehearsed the arrival of official UFC delegations at the nearby Abu Dhabi International airport.
The UFC has staged eight events in the US since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and its experience of operating Covid-19 testing, as well as Abu Dhabi’s desire to prevent a single Covid case reaching Yas Island, has produced an incredibly stringent testing programme. Multiple fighters and cornermen have tested positive before boarding the plane to Abu Dhabi, preventing them from travelling.
Those who test negative prior to the flight will be tested twice before being allowed to leave their hotel, decreasing the chance of a false negative slipping through the net.
“One thing we knew when we put together the plan with experts in infectious diseases and medical practitioners was that from day one, we’re going to have people test positive,” Epstein said. “The spread of this virus is such that we’re going to have people test positive and we have to be ready for that from both an organisational standpoint and a health and safety standpoint.”
Fighters that test positive before the events in Abu Dhabi will be replaced by reserve fighters kept on standby by the UFC in case of positive tests. This means that all four events in Abu Dhabi will go ahead as planned regardless of fighter dropouts.
These four events are a crucial part of the UFC’s plan to reach 42 events in 2020 – the amount it is contractually bound to deliver to its broadcast partners around the world. The UFC will need to use as much of its contracted roster as possible in order to deliver all 42 events this year, but many of its fighters are based outside of the US and will have great difficulty travelling to and from the country in order to compete.
Furthermore, the UFC is under pressure to deliver a certain number of international events – usually seven, eight or nine international events in any given year – to broadcasters in major markets outside the US. This is to ensure they receive at least some UFC events in local primetime.
Securing an international venue at relatively short notice during a pandemic is difficult to say the least, but it was vital for the UFC to maximise its earnings in 2020. Doing so was made easier by its existing business relationships with the Abu Dhabi government.
It struck a five-year media rights deal with government-owned Abu Dhabi Media in April 2019, accompanied by a five-year hosting rights deal with the Abu Dhabi DCT that ensures one UFC event is held there each year.
The UFC agreed another four-event deal with the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism office two months ago and Epstein confirmed that while it is separate from any existing deal between the two, it provides a valuable extension to an existing relationship.
The Abu Dhabi government is paying for the logistics of four events on Fight Island including transport, testing, accommodation, training facilities and catering. Asked whether it is also paying a hosting fee to the UFC on top of value in kind, Epstein said “it’s definitely both”.
He continued: “The value in kind they’ve provided to put these events on is incredible, something nobody else in the world could have done. We’re going to deliver them four events in US primetime, generating a significant amount of exposure for Yas Island and Abu Dhabi.
“The primary goal of the Abu Dhabi tourism authority was to let the world know about the all the great stuff going on in Abu Dhabi and Yas Island, and the idea is that when the world goes back to normal, people can come and check out what they’ve seen.”
Risk and reward
The UFC was the first major sports property to make its return, staging its first spectatorless event in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis on May 9. It is still the only active major US sports property two months later.
That the UFC’s owner, Endeavor, was and remains under significant financial pressure was perhaps the primary factor behind the UFC’s early return. By doing so, the promotion risked its hard-fought reputation by setting itself apart from the legacy sports leagues it was once desperate to emulate.
The promotion was criticised for this – and for Dana White’s seeming indifference to the crisis – but that criticism has mostly subsided now that European football leagues have also returned to action without fans, normalising the practice.
Hindsight is 20:20, but Epstein is proud of the UFC’s achievements during the crisis.
“Dana White said it time and time again that we’re going to be the first sport back in business and he delivered on that,” Epstein says. “Yes, there was a bit of that maverick spirit of the early UFC, but it’s more consistent with our key brand maxims, one of which is ‘be first’. We want to do things in a safe way and we want to make sure people are protected, but we also want to be first and I think we’ve balanced those two competing sentiments very, very well. We’re very proud of the eight events we’ve put on.”
The UFC’s testing programme has not been perfect – a fighter and his two cornermen tested positive for Covid-19 while at the UFC’s first event back on May 9. Epstein describes this as one of many “learnings” over the past two months.
“After each event we sat down and spent very little time focusing on what went well,” he said. “We focused all our time on where we can get better, what we didn’t anticipate, what could happen in the future. That’s been the progression.”
The UFC has held its past five events at UFC Apex, its own production facility in Las Vegas. This has enabled the promotion to practice its health and safety protocol in the same environment each week, allowing repetition and refinement.
Epstein believes the UFC’s trip to Abu Dhabi will enable the promotion to strengthen its testing operation when it returns for a nine-event stint at Apex.
“As high a level as we’re operating at Apex, Abu Dhabi have taken it to another level,” Epstein says. “The amount of testing, the frequency of the testing, the tight quarantined areas… it’s been incredible. As we go through these events in Abu Dhabi, the same process will take place and then when we do nine events at the Apex, we’ll have a tighter, better, stronger plan.”