The UFC this past Saturday (May 9) held its UFC 249 pay-per-view event, becoming one of the first sports organizations to hold a live event in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ESPN+-distributed PPV fight card from Jacksonville, which featured no fans in the auditorium, generated in the neighborhood of 700,000 buys according to Sports Business Daily, and set the stage for two other live UFC events this week -- one on Wednesday (May 13 on ESPN+) and Saturday (May 16 on ESPN).
I had a chance to speak to UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein regarding the operational strategy behind the mixed martial arts outfit’s successful UFC 249 event -- including dealing with a fighter on the undercard that tested positive for the COVID-19 virus -- as well as whether the UFC has created a blueprint for other sports to follow in the midst of the pandemic. An edited version of the interview appears below.
From your perspective, did Saturday’s UFC 249 event meet expectations?
Absolutely. It was really a product of five plus weeks of work as we drafted and re-drafted an operational health and safety game plan for the event. All things considered we had tremendous cooperation from the Florida State Athletic Commission as well as a robust testing plan, and our fighters delivered what I thought was one of our best cards in UFC history.
Can you confirm published reports that the fight generated 700,000 PPV buys?
I can’t confirm it, but I will echo what (UFC president) Dana White said, which is that the fight did incredibly well and exceeded our expectations. Our partners are really happy.
Is UFC 249’s strong PPV performance due to a pent up audience demand for live sports programming in general or UFC fights in particular?
I think it's definitely both. In this new world that we live in it's so hard to figure out what the consumer is going to do and what expectations should be. Maybe we were a little conservative in our projections, but clearly the event exceeded those expectations. I do think people are starved due to the lack of live sporting content, but I know our fans were really, really hungry for live UFC action because they’ve told us so.
Did you have to make any technical tweaks in how you presented the fights due to the lack of a live audience?
Sure there were some things that we did, but we do have experience in producing fights with limited or few people in the audience, from Dana White’s The Contender series to The Ultimate Fighter. With those shows you could hear the announcers and a lot of things that were said in the corners because of the limited audience. So we had the experience producing those types of events, and we use that experience to produce quality content for UFC 249. Overall even though the experience felt different in the arena, it still had that UFC energy.
Did the UFC ever consider cancelling the event when one of the undercard fighters (Ronaldo Souza), tested positive for the COVID-19 virus?
No. The procedures we put in place worked properly -- we got the test results back before the event took place. We prevented an athlete that tested positively for COVID-19 from participating in the event, so things worked out well. He was isolated for the vast majority of the time he was in Jacksonville -- we feel it worked out exactly as planned.
Do you know when the next big UFC PPV event will take place?
We’re working on a number of different dates and locations … I’m going to leave it to Dana White to make those announcements. I’m just focused on executing the fights tomorrow and Saturday.
Based on the success that you had for UFC 249, do you feel that the UFC has created a template for other sports to follow as they get back to live events?
Absolutely. We are already sharing our experience and plan with regards to COVID-19 testing with all of our partners and friends in the entertainment world. We’ve had a tremendous amount of teams and organizations reach out to us, and we’re looking to share everything we’ve learned. We’re incredibly proud of our plan, but we also want to share our experiences with everybody in the sports world so they can get back to work as well.