Despite pandemic, live sports are back, thanks in large part to Dana White

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·6-min read

LAS VEGAS — As the coronavirus rebounds to levels that surpass what it was in March and April when nearly the entire country went into a lockdown, there is one significant difference.

There are live sports going on. The NFL and college football are underway. Boxing has gotten surprisingly good ratings on television. Dustin Johnson just set a scoring record en route to winning The Masters.

The World Series, NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final recently ended, and the NBA and the NHL are making plans to open their next seasons.

Go back to the early spring and it was vastly different. There was, quite literally, nothing going on.

That there is now is, in large part, thanks to one man.

The UFC has a pay-per-view set for Saturday at its Apex facility just west of the Strip, its seventh since it returned from a little more than a month off due to COVID-19 restrictions. It has run weekly shows, in Abu Dhabi or in Las Vegas, and television ratings have been strong.

There have been fighters and some of their team members who have had positive tests, but nothing that spread beyond the immediate person. Certainly, it’s far better than what we saw when baseball began and players on the Miami Marlins ignored the rules and forced numerous cancellations and delays.

Sports exist in the second half of 2020, thanks to UFC president Dana White’s determination to not surrender and his willingness to spend whatever amount of money it took for the show to go on.

It’s why when the numerous organizations give out their Sports Figure of the Year awards at year’s end, White’s name should be at the top of those lists.

We have sports to watch because White’s doggedness showed the way to get a return to play safely.

Numerous sports figures, from the athletes to the heads of leagues, did Zoom calls with reporters to keep their names in the news. White did his share of those.

But behind the scenes, White was doing far more than speaking with reporters on Zoom.

“He and I were here [at UFC headquarters] from 5 in the morning until midnight, or a little after, every day,” said Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer. “We did everything we possibly could to figure out a way to get this thing going.”

HENDERSON, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 13:  UFC President Dana White gestures as he walks onstage to speak at a campaign event for U.S. President Donald Trump at Xtreme Manufacturing on September 13, 2020 in Henderson, Nevada. Trump's visit comes after Nevada Republicans blamed Democratic Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak for blocking other events he had planned in the state.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
UFC president Dana White's willingness to stick his neck out and take the risk of being the first sport back proved that a return could be done safely and with minimal issues for its TV audiences. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

White went so far as to entrust Campbell to research the possibility of building a lab at Apex that could test for COVID-19. The cost would have been in excess of $5 million, but that wasn’t an issue.

The problem was the time it would have taken to get a license from CLIA, the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, and regulations that govern medical laboratories in the U.S. that would process items such as the COVID-19 tests.

When that wasn’t feasible, White was not deterred.

As of last week, the UFC had incurred $17 million in direct COVID-related expenses, and had done 38 events and administered 21,006 tests.

The return of the UFC all but saved ESPN, which was in desperate straits in the spring with no live sports to broadcast. Parent Disney announced that it had lost $1 billion in the second quarter and $3.5 billion in the third quarter as a result of the pandemic.

It’s why ESPN cut 500 jobs recently.

The pay-per-views have been highly successful, including at least one and perhaps more that have exceeded 1 million in sales. Neither the UFC nor ESPN release PPV sales figures.

But in its earnings calls, Disney executives have repeatedly praised the UFC for its performance and especially for helping drive subscribers to ESPN+.

White was under intense criticism in nearly all corners when he was trying to resume. He said he didn’t share information with the media because he believed many in the media were trying to short-circuit his plans and kill the events.

The company nearly settled on having shows in South Dakota, before that was scuttled at the last minute, and then worked on putting them in Oklahoma, before settling on Tachi Palace in Lemoore, California.

There was such a huge outcry, led by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, that ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro asked White not to hold UFC 249 there.

Eventually, the shows settled in Jacksonville, Florida, for three weeks before moving to Las Vegas and later to Abu Dhabi. They’ve been run safely, professionally and with little negative impact on the people involved or the community at large. There hasn’t been any surges where entire cards have had to be canceled, and the fighters and their teams haven’t left a trail of positive tests in their wake upon returning home.

White knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he was never among those who felt it was impossible to pull off.

“Everyone was going crazy and saying, ‘What are you trying to do? You’re going to create this huge disaster,’” White said. “But we have a lot of smart people and I knew that if we broke this down and looked at it step by step, we’d be able to pull it off.”

The UFC’s return served as a call to arms for other sports, many of whom used the UFC’s plan or some variation of it to get a return to play.

It was White’s willingness to stick his neck out and take the risk of being first that proved to leagues such as MLB, the NFL and the NBA that a return could be done safely and with minimal issues for its television audiences.

When the Dodgers broke their 32-year World Series drought by beating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games to become world champions for the first time since 1988, they owed White a debt of thanks.

So, too, did LeBron James and his Lakers when they won the NBA championship on Oct. 11.

No UFC employees were laid off or furloughed. The fighters earned their checks. ESPN got programming that, in all likelihood, kept its workforce reductions from being even larger.

There would be no sports in 2020 were it not for White.

That should be good enough for him to be the Sportsperson of the Year for this craziest of years.

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