First, a correction. In my summary post last week, I said that Saturday’s UFC fight marked the return of live sports. I was wrong! Credit goes to the PBR, who brought back live rodeo on April 25th. While we’re on the subject, a reminder that rodeo–and not football–is the official state sport of Texas. With this bit of trivia, you should be able to win a beer off a friend at the bar when things are back to normal. It’s also the state sport of Wyoming and South Dakota. If you need to go double or nothing on your bar bet, try Colorado, where pack burro racing is the state sport. Here’s what that looks like.
Back to the UFC, which felt like the return of sports to most of the viewing public. Justin Gaethje took down Tony Ferguson to claim the interim lightweight championship, while Francis Ngannou knocked out Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a mere 20 seconds.
But the event was not without controversy. The day before the fight, it was revealed that fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen had tested positive for COVID-19 and that his fight was cancelled. As social media clips of the fighter and his entourage suggest, they weren’t exactly holding a firm line on social distancing. The positive test suggest one of two scenarios, neither of which is ideal. The first is that the UFC dropped the ball, despite their ostensibly rigorous screening and testing plan. If this is the case, it’s a terrible look for Dana White and his organization. The second possibility is even scarier: if the UFC did adhere to all stated protocols and Jacare still tested positive, it is a bleak reminder of the contagiousness and aggressiveness of the virus, and the myriad challenges that lie ahead for all sports leagues trying to mount a return. Remember that the UFC was a bit of a test case in this regard.
The UFC also took heat for an extremely restrictive “non-disparagement” clause foisted upon all fighters and members of the media in attendance. Fighters could give up their prize purses for being critical of the organization, while journalists could be blackballed for the same. As the pandemic shines a spotlight on personal liberties, I wonder if we’ll see similar in other sports. Players’ unions will likely protect athletes in the major leagues; UFC fighters have no such union.
And why was the UFC so intent on the early return? The answer, is of course, dollars. UFC’s contract with ESPN requires 42 events in order to collect $500 million in fees, or roughly 70% of UFC’s projected revenues. Furthermore, parent company William Morris Endeavor is desperate for cash, seeking to recoup upwards of a quarter billion dollars in lost revenue due to the pandemic.