Khabib vs. Tony has to happen, no matter the cost. Here's how the UFC can not only deliver for fight fans, but shine on the world stage
Thanks to the novel coronavirus and the worldwide panic spread by news agencies and select health care officials in response to it, large gatherings and now even crowd-less events have been cancelled and banned outright.
Businesses are shutting down or severely limiting their operations, people are working from home if possible and if not are simply unable to work at all, and a thriving economy has been reduced to rubble in a matter of days.
In stark contrast to much of the world are a few outliers amongst the herd - South Korea did not impose internal lockdowns and was one of the four hardest-hit countries by the virus, yet boasts a very low death rate and a quickly declining rate of new infections.
Countries that closed their borders early, such as Russia, have registered extremely few cases of the virus and no deaths - others like Singapore have limited large gatherings but otherwise have let their population continue their daily lives, with a relatively small number of infections and zero reported deaths.
The Netherlands, home of some of the most respected epidemiologists in the world, have chosen not to lock down their population and have espoused a herd immunity tactic.
There is plenty to suggest that the panicked response from around the globe based on wildly inaccurate data has not only been excessive, but may even make things worse - I suggest taking a look at this article which delves into the numbers that we currently have and how they compare not only to past outbreaks but other coronaviruses and the flu, and just how flawed the statistics we currently hear touted on the news really are.
Indeed, the "softening the curve" theory may simply prolong the crisis and result in far more deaths as a result of the system being overwhelmed for a prolonged period. As an example of an overlooked consequence of these restrictions, just look at the worsening blood bank shortages and the amount of preventable deaths that will come as a result that won't be included in any stats related to the coronavirus epidemic.
Now to shift the focus to the topic at hand - the UFC and their now-postponed upcoming events.
One of the only major sports leagues worldwide that continued trying to follow through with scheduled events in any capacity, the UFC and its divisive leader has scrambled in the past few weeks to try and hold their scheduled cards.
The UFC successfully managed to carry out their event in Brasilia, Brazil this past Saturday by staging a closed show with no crowd. Despite seemingly having the entire sporting world's attention, they posted dismal viewing figures - given that it was available on both ESPN and ESPN+ (the streaming service which we don't have viewership numbers for) the actual number of viewers may have been larger than a regular Fight Night, but it would appear that even without any live competition that a card airing in the afternoon in North America on a Saturday simply doesn't pull in strong numbers regardless of circumstances.
Of course, that can easily change - only days following the last major live sporting event broadcast in North America, people on social media have already taken to rather extreme measures to get their sports fix. Just take a look at the latest "sport" which has gone viral thanks to the lack of live sports available.
With the UFC's next three events being cancelled, and no major sporting events taking place anywhere before it, if Endeavor can somehow host UFC 249 on April 18th as planned, it will capture the attention of the sports world and satiate their growing thirst for competition without the UFC even needing to pay for any additional advertising.
Dana White has remained steadfast in his resolve - the fans have been clamouring for Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson to fight for years, and after four failed attempts to see the fight actually happen between bizarre injuries and weigh-in failures, he'll be damned if a pandemic is going to derail the fifth attempt.
With it currently being virtually impossible to stage the event in the United States, a short list of other countries comes to mind in terms of ability and willingness to host the event.
The most viable and lucrative options are easily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
With Khabib being such a massive star in the middle east, the UAE has already shown they're willing to pay a premium to host an event featuring Nurmagomedov, as was shown at UFC 242 which saw the UFC earn an undisclosed fee for bringing the event to Abu Dhabi, one that was obviously lucrative as the UFC signed away the revenue from the live gate as part of the deal.
With Khabib's historic match up against Tony Ferguson, there is no doubt that the UFC could fetch a premium from either the UAE or Saudi Arabia to host an exclusive event for the rich there (even possibly an extremely small group), and with either country's hot climate, the risk of spreading coronavirus is already lowered - multiple health officials and experts from various countries have stated that COVID-19 doesn't survive long at all when exposed to temperatures above 26-27 degrees celsius.
After a month without sports and the press that would come with going through with such an event at this point in time, the card might even fetch a higher bid than if the coronavirus situation had never occurred.
Obviously, even if they can successfully manage to move the event to Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Riyadh, precautions have to be taken to ensure the safety of the fighters and their corners, the UFC's staff, the officials, and any potential audience.
Private companies have been more than willing to provide tests for COVID-19 to celebrities and professional athletes so securing testing for the fighters and all involved both before and after the event shouldn't be a problem, especially given the test kits themselves aren't expensive.
Assuming that the UFC can not only secure a willing venue for the card but can arrange adequate safeguards and protection to make the fighters and staff comfortable with moving forward, the next hurdle that the UFC faces when hosting an event in the middle east is the time difference - pay-per-view revenue is generated almost exclusively in North America and afternoon cards have trouble drawing cable audiences let alone paid buyers.
Now that isn't saying a Saturday afternoon PPV in the US isn't viable - it's been done successfully before in boxing and the UFC even sold over a million units for Abu Dhabi's UFC 112, which aired in the morning in the US. If the card is good enough, it will sell, and without any other options on the table for such a long period, fans will take whatever they can get.
UFC 249 is already a great card featuring one of the best fights (on paper) in UFC history as its main event. But with everything that's gone on, why not take advantage of the cards you've been dealt.
Here's what I propose Dana White and Endeavor do: a two-day UFC mega event, with the first day of action showcased on ESPN and the second featuring an extended, ridiculously stacked PPV card.
With people stuck inside the afternoon becomes a more viable option for a PPV, but Sunday may be the sweet spot - late Sunday morning/early Sunday afternoons are a great spot for most sports (see the NFL) and more people have free time on Sundays as opposed to Saturdays - without a US evening time slot being a viable option for an event held in the middle east, Sunday is the next best option and becomes the best play for the UFC 249 card.
As for Saturday, taking some of the exciting fights that have been postponed in the coming weeks and putting them on an ESPN/ESPN+ Fight Night is a great way to recoup some of their losses - the UFC's ESPN deal sees the UFC given roughly $10 million per event on their networks so it would be assumed here, but with no other sports at the table and ESPN desperate for content, Endeavor may very well be able to secure a higher than normal payment from ESPN to recoup more of the losses incurred from the three axed cards.
The Saturday Fight Night would take many of the postponed fights (those fighters that are willing and able of course) as well as some of the prelims from UFC 249 to fill itself out.
Then on the Sunday, a few good prelim bookings on ESPN would prime the stage for an extended main card of seven or eight fights beginning in the late morning featuring the biggest scheduled fights from 249 and the three postponed events.
The UFC may spread itself thin when it comes to the amount of events they put on throughout the year, but when three cards are lost and their best matchups can be thrown onto the same event, all of a sudden a great opportunity presents itself.
To look at what this could look like:
Saturday, April 18 UFC Fight Night on ESPN/ESPN+
Main Card (ESPN and/or ESPN+)
Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar (Lightweight Main Event)
Raphael Assuncao vs. Cody Stamann (Bantamweight)
Islam Makhachev vs. Alex Hernandez (Lightweight)
Danny Roberts vs. Nicolas Dalby (Welterweight)
Louis Smolka vs. Davey Grant (Bantamweight)
Vicente Luque vs. Randy Brown (Welterweight)
Prelims (ESPN and/or ESPN+)
Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson (Women's Strawweight)
Lyman Good vs. Belal Muhammad (Welterweight)
Sam Alvey vs. Khalil Roundtree Jr. (Middleweight)
Molly McCann vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith (Women's Flyweight)
Marc Diakese vs. Jai Herbert (Lightweight)
Tecia Torres vs. Mizuki Inoue (Women's Strawweight)
Matt Brown vs. Miguel Baeza (Welterweight)
Then of course on the Sunday, a shortened prelim card would lead into a supremely stacked PPV event that could look something like this:
Sunday, April 19 UFC 249
Main Card (PPV)
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson (Lightweight Title Fight)
Tyron Woodley vs. Colby Covington (Welterweight)
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (Heavyweight)
Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas (Women's Strawweight)
Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris (Heavyweight)
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba (Light Heavyweight)
Derek Brunson vs. Edmen Shahbazyan (Middleweight)
Niko Price vs. Muslim Salikhov (Welterweight)
Prelims (ESPN and ESPN+)
Marlon Vera vs. Eddie Wineland (Bantamweight)
Uriah Hall vs. Jacare Souza (Middleweight)
Ben Rothwell vs. Gian Villante (Heavyweight)
Khama Worthy vs. Ottoman Azaitar (Lightweight)
Obviously many of the above matchups may be wishful thinking - a lot depends on the fighters from the cancelled events being able and willing to compete under the current circumstances and willing to travel there and back, as well as self-quarantine (which most people have essentially been forced to do anyway) following their return home. The extended main card especially would depend on the fights that can be made - if some of those big names fall through, a standard 5-fight card would likely remain the best option.
The UFC and their hosts would also need to take a lot of caution in their handling of everyone during the event, and of making their precautions known to not only the fighters and their camps but the media as well to make sure everyone is aware of the measures taken and they aren't targeted by the vultures that are MMA "journalists".
Another effort to earn more goodwill from the fans would be to compensate all of the fighters on those three "postponed" events - at the very least paying them the majority of their purses, especially for the London card since it was cancelled less than a week out from the event and many fighters were in the middle of travelling or had already arrived in London for their bouts. Some of that damage was mitigated by the UFC putting several of the scrapped fights on the local Cage Warriors card there which is broadcast on Fight Pass and thus they'll be paid their regular purses by the UFC, but that only applies to a handful of the fighters.
This would of course be costly, especially when the UFC is short on cash - with the company leveraging massive amounts of debt and recently using up much of their cash on hand to pay out dividends to investors (unwittingly putting themselves in a terrible position for this economic crisis), the UFC is likely against spending any money they aren't legally required to, but in times like these and with fighter relations being rocky as is they need all the good will they can get.
For those that had their fights cancelled and opt to compete on the revamped UFC 249 weekend, the UFC would be wise to offer bonuses in the form of a large chunk (or the entire amount) of their purse that they missed out on in addition to their regular purse for the April event.
Should the hosting country/city pay a solid sum to host the event, that will at least be enough to cover much of the costs the UFC incurs for their added precautions and possibly some of the fighter purses - if the UFC can inspire an inflated number from ESPN for hosting the Saturday card that's somewhere north of their usual ~$10 million, that would at least enable the UFC to afford to pay the fighters appropriately for the added trouble and inspire goodwill amongst fans and fighters alike.
Of course the success of the PPV is paramount, but even this is highly mitigated thanks to ESPN's exclusive PPV deal in the US - if you don't know, ESPN pays out a standard amount for all UFC pay-per-view events in order to be the only PPV provider for the UFC in the US. Should the PPV surpass a certain amount of buys, the UFC is then given bonuses based on the buys over that threshold.
As such, the financial risk of holding this event falls more on ESPN than the UFC - the UFC will be paid even if the PPV were to absolutely flop, and thus they'll be able to pay their fighters and staff and at least earn a marginal profit even after the extra costs from the situation are all accounted for - if they can't hold the event, they'll continue to incur losses, so it's really their only viable business option.
There is however no reason to think that UFC 249 will be anything other than a success on PPV. Even a month from now, assuming the massive economic impact that the lockdowns are expected to have, a $50 PPV of high quality will still sell.
Escapism in a time of unrest and extreme stress is a powerful thing and after a month without major sporting events, sports fans of any magnitude will undoubtedly spend money (even if they don't have it) to scratch that itch.
For a stacked PPV card as described above, the UFC would normally be smart to jack up the price for such a massive event - as we've seen from boxing for certain fights (or in this case, the quality of many fights), people are willing to spend even double what the UFC typically charges for a PPV. In these circumstances however, that would obviously not be a wise decision - the optics alone would be horrendous to say the least and they'd be skewered in the court of public opinion.
The failings of a price hike would also be exacerbated by the lockdown, as the UFC relies heavily on a social model - after all, very few people spend $50 to watch a fight themself, and typically friends and/or family gather together and split the bill or simply take to sports bars and restaurants to see the fights there. With the lockdown, the social factor in the fight business is extremely hindered if not demolished entirely, so sticking with the standard price is a neccessity.
All this being said, a stacked main card including Khabib vs. Tony and some of the fights listed above would surely come close if not surpass one million buys even in the current circumstances, and may even far surpass that milestone given the lack of sports over the coming month.
Dana White has never been one to shy away from a challenge and right now the UFC needs that stubbornness to not only plow through unforeseen obstacles but for a chance to thrive during a difficult and unprecedented situation.