While most sports saw a jump in viewership in their return during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was short-lived for many. Several factors could be playing a role like so many sports taking place on television and streaming devices at the same time. There are so many options: the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, PGA, WNBA, NASCAR, UFC, Bellator, etc.
The first major sport to return to scheduled events was the UFC. Two months into the national lock down, the UFC returned with UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje on May 9 at in Jacksonville, Fla. The event was originally scheduled to take place on April 18 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The state of New York banned sporting events in early March and several UFC events were postponed and rescheduled.
The fight promotion moved their events to Florida after governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on April 9 declaring professional sports as an essential service. The organization held three events in eight days at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena between May 9 and May 16.
In front of an empty arena, the UFC returned and people tuned in. Since the three events in Florida, UFC president Dana White says that their viewership and social media footprint has grown tremendously.
“The UFC is on fire right now,” said White during the UFC 253 Post-Fight Press Conference. “Every time we’re doing fights now, they’re big. Our social media in the last year, the UFC social media has gained 8 million followers in the last year. 2.5 million since Florida. Mine has gained a million since Florida. The whole sport, it’s on fire right now. Our numbers keep going up. Our ratings keep going up.”
The fight promotion moved their events to Las Vegas following their run in Florida. The next five fight cards took place at UFC APEX. Enforcing social distancing and mask mandates, while employing regular testing, the organization successfully functioned during rapidly changing circumstances.
While the fights were taking place in Florida and Las Vegas, construction was underway in Abu Dhabi to create an isolated environment that could house fighters as well as host events and handle production needs. The Flash Forum aka “UFC Fight Island” held its first fight card on June 12. The venue hosted four events in 14 days.
The fight promotion has had several fighters and cornermen test positive to COVID-19, but they were able to quarantine those athletes and camp members and move forward without a major outbreak or disruption.
The UFC volunteered to be the litmus test for professional sports returning to the field, the court, the track, etc., and set the standard. It hasn’t been perfect, but it has worked.
Being the first sport to return was a calculated gamble and it paid off. Sports fans starved of sports for months tuned in that had never watched the sport.
“I didn’t listen to any of the bulls*** from the media, and I went. And I think people liked it and I think people who never watched the sport before got in to it and started to watch. The growth has been phenomenal,” White said.
“There’s no – it’s not a coincidence that all these numbers have gone up since Florida.”
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