Risks, Rewards of Moving Forward with UFC 249

By: Patrick Auger
Mar 26, 2020
John Brannigan/Sherdog.com illustration

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 249 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

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What has felt like the longest month in recent history has been arduous for everyone, as the world tries to keep up with the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic. In the sports industry, every major league imaginable has shuttered its operations and suspended play, as a growing number of countries go into lockdown and impose strict social distancing rules to curb the spread of the virus. The NBA, NHL, Champions League and numerous other organizations have halted their seasons due to the pandemic, while those leagues that are in the off-season, like the NFL and MLB, have weighed their options on how best to move forward. In collegiate sports, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled—the first time that has happened since its inception in 1939. The global health crisis has grown so dire that the 2020 Olympics have been postponed until 2021, marking the first time that the modern games have ever been delayed in their 124-year history.

Despite it all, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White has insisted that UFC 249 will go on as—somewhat—planned on April 18. After the promotion was forced to postpone its last three scheduled events due to the coronavirus, most fans and pundits believed UFC 249 would follow suit, especially considering the New York State Athletic Commission’s decision to remove the card from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. White has been adamant that the company’s next pay-per-view will proceed, however, indicating that a new venue is set for the show and that extra precautions will be taken in light of the ongoing health emergency. With the event headlined by a highly anticipated yet snakebitten matchup between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson for the UFC lightweight title, the choice to hold the card during a global pandemic struck a nerve with several media outlets. Many called the move irresponsible. According to White, he could not care less about what the MMA pundits think.

Media backlash aside, there is no doubt that the decision to hold UFC 249 comes with a great deal of risk for the promotion. While White has stated that safety measures will be in place for fighters, officials and all those in limited attendance, he has stopped short of saying that tests for the COVID-19 virus will be part of the card’s medical procedures. If anyone at the event, let alone a fighter, were to test positive for the virus immediately following the pay-per-view, the ramifications for the UFC would be massive. Not only would it derail any plans the organization had for continuing events after UFC 249, but it could expose the UFC to a growing wave of lawsuits that are expected once the epidemic is contained, not to mention the public-relations nightmare that would ensue. Whether it comes in the form of public rebuke or new litigation raised against the company, the last thing the promotion wants to see is someone who was at the arena test positive on April 19.

That’s not to say there isn’t great reward to be gained by the venture, either. Not only is the main event one of the most exciting matchups on paper to happen in modern MMA, but with virtually every other sport being shut down, it’s a chance to draw in a large number of casual viewers who are willing to watch just about any sort of competition at this point. The combined storm of an extremely appealing fight and no other sports alternative being broadcast could result in a surge of pay-per-view buys for UFC 249, giving the promotion and media rights partner ESPN a much-needed boost during the athletic drought. If the event ends up delivering the type of action that many diehard MMA fans are hoping to witness, it also opens up the possibility of converting a portion of that new, casual audience into hardcore fans themselves, which would pay dividends down the line for the promotion.

The biggest question, of course, is whether or not the risks outweigh the rewards when it comes to the UFC’s decision to hold the event. The promotion has had its fair share of controversies throughout the years, from criticism of the Reebok sponsorship deal to the handling of the most recent troubles involving Conor McGregor, and managed to come out predominantly unscathed. Should a worst-case scenario occur where it is determined that those in the venue were exposed to or contracted COVID-19 at UFC 249, it’s not a far cry to say that any condemnation in the media or court of public opinion would eventually blow over, even if it took longer than issues the UFC has dealt with in the past. From a legal perspective, while the decision to move forward is unsettling, as long as the promotion has made a good-faith effort to take precautions and clearly explained the risks to all those involved, it’s possible that the company could fend off any serious litigation, especially if any coronavirus cases to arise from the event were mild or asymptomatic. In either scenario, the UFC would still receive the pay-per-view revenue from the show, meaning it could still come out ahead after legal costs, depending on how well the card did from a PPV buy perspective.

While this isn’t a full cost-benefit analysis on whether or not to go forward with UFC 249, it highlights some of the biggest risks and potential gains for the promotion. The UFC is most likely facing external pressure to host the event from parent company Endeavor, given its extremely high debt load and the fact that almost all of its live-event subsidiaries have been forced to suspend operations themselves. It’s also important to note that while White won’t confirm if fighters on the card are being tested for COVID-19, heavyweight standout Francis Ngannou said that the organization recently tested him for the virus in case he were to fight on April 18, leading one to wonder if all athletes set to compete will receive similar treatment. For now, it certainly seems like UFC 249 will indeed happen as currently scheduled, but if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that three weeks during this health crisis can be a lifetime.

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