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As the Ultimate Fighting Championship departs from Fight Island following a successful quartet of events in the United Arab Emirates, UFC President Dana White has good reason to strike a triumphant tone over where things stand with the promotion amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Uncertainty has encircled all the major sports this year, and there remain great health and financial risks to all organizations trying to run events at this time. However, the UFC has stood out positively in the system it has set up to minimize risk.
While there will continue to be positive tests and fights that fall through, the UFC seems better suited than just about any other major sports organization to continue running events indefinitely. It wasn’t that long ago when it was an open question as to whether or not the UFC would be able to continue running shows the way it wanted. Now, the biggest question is whether team sports’ inability to run safely will once again provide MMA with a relatively open slate that has led to increased visibility this year and strong interest in UFC 249 and UFC 251.
Part of the UFC’s success in cranking out cards is a lesson for COVID-19 prevention, in general: testing early and often. After the embarrassing early situation with Ronaldo Souza mingling with other fighters before his positive test came in, the UFC has caught fighters and corners with COVID-19 early, isolating them before they can spread the virus within the sport. The UFC took particularly strong precautions for Fight Island, with so many fighters traveling from around the world to the UAE.
Arguably an even bigger factor than the UFC’s system is the nature of the sport. In a team sport, if one athlete doesn’t take coronavirus seriously, it can quickly spread throughout the team and the opposing team. By contrast, if each fighter and their corners are kept separate, the only likely risk is between two fighters. There’s a much greater margin for error. Additionally, MMA can handle positive tests much more easily than team sports. If a fighter cannot compete, his or her fight can simply be postponed for a few weeks. In team sports, the time athletes are gone affects the standings. If it happens during the playoffs, the playoffs have to go on.
This could create a terrible dilemma down the line. Let’s say for the sake of a hypothetical that one of the top NBA superstars gets coronavirus right before the playoffs because an opposing player left the bubble. If the NBA continued and the superstar’s team was eliminated in the first round by a No. 8 seed, the eventual champion would be viewed by many as illegitimate. There’s nothing resembling that risk in MMA, where the worst-case scenario would simply be the UFC scrambling to set up a late-notice main event as it has done so many times in the past.
The UFC is also largely inoculated from the dangers of the current out-of-control spread in many parts of the United States. That threatens other American sports, but the UFC has already demonstrated it can effectively run shows from Abu Dhabi. If a worst-case scenario transpired and the UFC was unable to run events in Nevada or Florida, it still has that backup plan. Back in March and April when the UFC was forced to stop running for nearly two months, it was unclear whether the promotion was going to be able to continue running with so many uncertainties. Things now are much clearer. Positive tests will continue to pop up, but the system is in place to keep going.
The biggest question for the UFC at this point may be how other sports leagues react. The UFC unquestionably benefitted from a lack of sporting competition in recent months. Sports-hungry viewers found the UFC to be a regular presence on ESPN and ordered pay-per-views in strong numbers. Now, the UFC has much more competition with MLB back, the NBA and NHL coming next and the NFL and NCAA football hoping to join very soon. It could be the most crowded sports calendar we’ve seen—if these leagues can pull it off.
Serious doubt arose about that question on Monday when Major League Baseball announced there had been an outbreak on the Miami Marlins, with at least 11 players and two coaches testing positive. Baseball is a sport that naturally has more social distancing than other sports like football and basketball, yet the number of positive tests was dramatic. If the next few days produce even more positive tests, it could collapse baseball’s plans and leave one fewer sports competitor.
Basketball is better positioned than baseball to run safely with its bubble, but it is still a team sport where many players compete in close proximity. It’s also an open question how seriously the NBA, with its larger-than-life superstars, will take the bubble. It’s not an encouraging sign that Lou Williams, a veteran who ought to know better, was caught visiting a strip club before the games even started. If one of the NBA’s biggest stars tests positive, all bets are off.
The biggest factor on the sports calendar for the rest of the year and the biggest question mark is football. Given the number of players on the field at the same time and the numbers of players on a team, it will be hard to contain outbreaks. The NFL and NCAA also don’t appear to have been maximizing the time they have now to prepare. Still, the demand for football is strong and the demand to produce football because of the money involved will also be strong.
Since football became the top sport in America, there has never been a fall without it. If that happens this fall, and that’s entirely possible, alternative sports content will be more valuable than it has ever been. The UFC and all other MMA organizations would be in a tremendous position. That position could be even stronger if the NBA, NBA and/or MLB also give up on running seasons. At worst, the UFC is in position to run business as usual, albeit without live gate revenues. At best, it could find itself as a primary beneficiary of a nation starving for content stuck at home in the winter. The UFC’s in a much stronger position than it was two months ago, and it could find itself in a much stronger position still two months from now.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.