Businesses all over the world are still feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many are shuttered, fortunes were lost and lives changed forever.
The pandemic was in a way, however, the start of a new, even more successful era for the UFC.
The UFC was the first major sports league in the U.S. to return to action after a shutdown caused by the pandemic. And it was the first to welcome full-capacity fans on April 24, 2021, at UFC 261, which was held in Florida at Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
The show was a sellout, with the crowd of 15,269 paying $3.3 million at the gate. Tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and UFC president Dana White each received fierce criticism for holding an event in the middle of the pandemic with no fan restrictions. Masks or negative COVID tests weren’t required.
DeSantis spoke to the crowd gathered for the pre-fight news conference on April 22, 2021, and boasted about Florida’s defense of freedom:
“Welcome to Florida. You guys aren’t the only ones looking to come to this oasis of freedom. This is going to be the first full-throttle sporting event since COVID hit, indoor, anywhere in the United States. I think it’s fitting. We wanted to be safe, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes at you from media, from social media, all this stuff. Some people don’t like to handle that. Dana White goes right into the teeth of that.”
White has made a lot of good decisions en route to building the UFC into a global powerhouse, but insisting upon returning even as the pandemic went on has turned out to be arguably his shrewdest.
The UFC returns to Jacksonville on Saturday with a stacked card for UFC 273. Unsurprisingly, the event is sold out.
Since the UFC’s return, Saturday’s event will be the 14th in which full capacity was permitted. All 14 of those, 12 of them pay-per-views, have sold out. Six times, the UFC set a record for highest-grossing gate for the arena, including at UFC 261, UFC 262 and UFC 263, the first three events upon return.
The fourth, UFC 264, set a T-Mobile attendance record of 20,062, though the $15.8 million gate was not a record. It was, though, among the UFC’s largest gates in its history.
UFC 267 is not included in the sellout streak because the pandemic in Abu Dhabi prevented a full-capacity arena.
“Believe me, this business is on fire,” White told Yahoo Sports recently, a comment he’s made repeatedly throughout the last year.
The seeds of the growth sprouted during the early days of the pandemic, when the UFC held events with no fans at its Apex facility on its campus in Las Vegas.
There wasn’t the usual amount of sports on TV then and the UFC in large part had the space to itself. With viewers hungry for content, many gravitated to the UFC.
“What happened was, we had pay-per-views doing three, four times maybe what we’d normally expect,” White said. “There was one where I think we projected around 250,000 and it came out just under a million, like 960,000. There was nothing else for people to watch, so they took a look at the UFC and we got a lot of new fans.”
Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer, said the success borne during the empty-arena days has sustained. Nearly every metric the UFC measures itself by has continued well above pre-pandemic levels: ticket sales, gate receipts, pay-per-view sales and sponsorship sales among them.
The thirst for live content was real.
“Everything has gone crazy,” Campbell said. “And it’s sustained. I think to understand the reason you have to look at two things which happened. First, during the pandemic, remember it was us, table tennis and Korean baseball [on TV]. People were craving live events and so we delivered content to them.
“And a lot of those people who tuned in weren’t hard-core UFC fans. It takes a while to understand [MMA]. It’s not instant usually that you can get your head around it, but when you do, it’s such a superior product. And once you get into the world of UFC, it’s hard to leave it.”
The UFC has been a boon for its television partner, ESPN. The UFC began drawing massive numbers at a time when the number of households ESPN reached had dropped significantly and its viewership levels were down.
The UFC was one of the keys in helping Disney, ESPN’s parent, build its ESPN+ streaming service into a viable entity.
A bantamweight title fight between Henry Cejudo and T.J. Dillashaw headlined a UFC Fight Night card on Jan. 19, 2019, before the pandemic began. It was a night, though, that showed the power of the UFC to ESPN.
The preliminaries aired on ESPN and ESPN Deportes and drew 2.08 million viewers, the most-viewed UFC telecast on cable in three years. The signups for the new ESPN+ were brisk, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro noted in a memo to his staff the day after the event.
“The 13 fights on UFC Fight Night on ESPN+ led to 568,000 new subscribers for ESPN+ on Friday and Saturday combined, with more than 525,000 on Saturday alone,” Pitaro wrote. “We served a wide array of sports fans, with nearly 5.1 million unique users consuming MMA-related digital content across ESPN digital platforms over the Saturday and Sunday period. And the 1.4 overnight rating on ESPN was the largest for a UFC prelims fight card on cable since 2013!”
At the end of 2021, ESPN+ had more than 17 million subscribers. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger credited the UFC on a Disney earnings call with helping greatly to boost ESPN+ subscribers.
‘The ceiling on this thing is so crazy’
That’s led in part to the UFC’s success since returning from the empty-arena days. The UFC set a record for the largest Fight Night gate on March 19 at the O2 in London. A UFC Fight Night is a non-pay-per-view event. It broke that record the following week on March 26 at Columbus, Ohio’s Nationwide Arena.
“We did $2.8 million gates for a Jon Jones [light heavyweight title] fight before the pandemic, and now we’re doing more than $3 million for a Fight Night,” White said. “It’s f***ing crazy.”
White said UFC’s research has determined the promotion has 650 million fans worldwide, so he said the growth opportunities are nearly infinite.
He expects a massive pay-per-view number Saturday despite the card being headlined by a featherweight title fight. The featherweight division historically isn’t a huge draw as the main event.
Champion Alexander Volkanovski puts his belt on the line against “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung. In the co-main, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling fights interim champion Petr Yan of Russia.
In the other fight getting buzz, Brazilian welterweight Gilbert Burns meets Russian Khamzat Chimaev.
“I’m in Jacksonville, Florida, with an Australian against a Korean in my main event and we’re sold out, it’s breaking records and the pay-per-view is trending off the charts,” White said. “We’re going to have one of the biggest [PPV sales] in the history of the featherweight division. We’ve got an American against a Russian in the co-main and in the other fight, I’ve got a Russian Muslim against a Brazilian.
“We’re doing all of this in Jacksonville f***ing Florida. It’s just beyond incredible what has happened to this business.”
Despite that success, White believes better days are ahead. He believes that just like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox dominated network television for several generations, there soon will be several worldwide streaming services which will do the same.
“How many people are there on Earth? Seven billion? Eight billion?” White asked. “It’s a lot of people. And we’re at 650 million people, so consider how many people we haven’t touched yet. Now, we’re near the day I’ve long dreamed of, when we have big streamers who become global. I don’t know who it is, whether it’s going to be Disney, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon or whoever, but some of them are going to go global and be dominant like the networks were here.
“When that day comes, I’m going to be the happiest guy in the world because the ceiling on this thing is so crazy, it’s difficult to wrap your head around what it might become.”