I’m glad 2020 is over, and I’m not alone. We’ve all been tested in every aspect of life in the last year, right down to the cancellation of sports. There was only one shining exception: the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). They took the drastic step of moving the ring all the way to Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, aka Fight Island.

We’ve written countless posts on COVID-19 and how it has impacted various industries. Quite frankly, the posts got pretty heavy towards the end. We were all sick of writing them because they depressing.

With that in mind, we’re starting a new series: Weird Marketing Lessons. We’re shifting our focus to businesses we love and admire. Given a wide open topic like that, I knew I had to talk about the UFC. And when talking about the UFC, what better place to start than its coronavirus-defying Fight Island?

I. Sports Are Cancelled, Spread the Word

It’s a big cultural in-joke at this point. We all agree 2020 flat out sucked. I know I feel that way.

But even still, I believe it’s important to try as hard as we can to shift our thinking for our own well-being. After all, sometimes, that is all you can do to make it through tough times.

No one embodied this adaptable mentality in 2020 more than the UFC and its president, Dana White. COVID-19 struck professional sports really hard in the beginning. Contact sports were replaced with contact tracing.

Take the Olympic Games for example, the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics were going to take place in Tokyo in July. Despite the best efforts of the Japanese government, it was clear there would be no way to safely hold the Olympics.

The Olympics were expected to draw over 600,000 foreign visitors to Japan. We all know how that turned out. The Olympics were the first major sporting even I remember to fall, which left behind a crystal clear message for everybody in the sporting world…

No sport was safe.

COVID-19 didn’t stop at the Olympics. It forced every single sports organization and league to completely rethink and restructure how they kept games going and money rolling in. I personally lost hope for live sports early in 2020. With COVID running rampant around the world, there was just no way that things could continue as they were.

Just think about it! In your own long days in quarantine, have you seen an image of an arena or a live event and thought, “I can’t believe that we used to pile up in arenas on top of each other like that…”

But you can’t just do away with the messiness of sports. That’s part of what makes them fun! It’s loud, it’s messy, and you get to show up in a stadium and cheer on your team.

Sadly, that just was not even close to being a reality in 2020. With a month-long hiatus from all live sports, Dana White and the UFC decided that sitting on the sidelines was not going to be an option for them. 

What made COVID-19 so damn frustrating, especially early on, was just how much we do not know. Nobody knew then (or frankly knows now) how long this pandemic will continue. So you can imagine it’s really hard for the top brass of these organizations to try to plan events and matches. And you can’t just totally cancel them either – people’s livelihoods depend on them, remember!

II. The UFC’s Unexpected Solution

With all of this uncertainty in mind, let’s rewind to the terrible April of 2020, when many of us were quarantining.

Take a look at this passage from ABC 7 Eye Witness News NY from last May. It’s about the first live UFC event in Jacksonville, FL. Really let these words sink in and think about the magnitude of the decisions that Dana White, had to make.

The UFC came up with a 25-page document to address health and safety protocols, procedures that led to Jacaré Souza testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday. His middleweight bout against Uriah Hall was canceled that night. Souza’s two cornermen also tested as positive, the UFC said… “The whole world is weird right now. Everything’s weird. This event’s weird,” White said. “It’s different. We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is the system worked. What you don’t want to do is two days after the fight say, ‘Awe, Jacaré tested positive.’ So it worked. The system worked that we put in place.

Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do. We’re very, very good at what we do. We’ll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology’s going to get and the faster it’s going to get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.” White didn’t want to postpone any fights. He tried to host the event on tribal land in California and still hopes to create a “Fight Island” for future cards. He settled for Jacksonville for at least a week – without fans and with social-distancing rules in place. Judges and broadcasters worked from separate tables. Fighters, trainers, referees, judges, UFC staff and even outside media had to undergo COVID-19 testing to get inside Veterans Memorial Arena.

Many of those in attendance Saturday wore masks and gloves, although several were seemingly exempt from the mandate. Referees, ring announcer Bruce Buffer, other officials inside the octagon and the ring girl were unmasked. Play-by-play commentator Joe Rogan, who initially was supposed to interview winners remotely, ended up doing them inside the octagon. The cage floor was disinfected between bouts, and the padded parts of the octagon were wiped down between rounds.

ABC 7 Eye Witness News NY
Making Decisions in an Uncertain World

Let’s break that passage down just a bit. Off the bat, the UFC is faced with a huge obstacle – putting on a live sports event while adhering to the countless guidelines and regulations in place due to COVID-19.

They caught the tests that came back positive and made some last-minute changes. The event went on without a hitch. Dana White has honed his skill for pivoting since the UFC’s formation in the early 90’s, largely due to the apprehension to allow MMA as a professional sport. It’s always been an uphill battle for him. That came in handy last year, though.

White has never shied away from a challenge, or completely breaking the mold of what a sports organization is known to do to put on events. 

At the time, I was so impressed with the feat they had just accomplished. A live sporting event in the middle of a pandemic!

Little did I know what was to come later. Fight Island was going to make the event in Jacksonville look like a cakewalk. 

III. Enter Fight Island 

I know, I know.

Fight Island sounds like something straight out of a comic book.

While it might sound a bit far fetched, it is as real as it gets, and played host to some of the biggest sporting events of the year in 2020. You might find yourself asking, “why is Fight Island even necessary?”

If you haven’t noticed by now, the UFC operates a little differently than many other professional sports organizations here in the US. For starters, it is a contest between two fighters in a closed cage. Granted, these fighters train with coaches, teammates, etc., but when it comes to competing, it is an individual sport.

On top of this, the UFC has fighters contracted from countries around the world. To give you a little bit more context, of the eleven UFC Champions, only one hails from the United States. The UFC truly is a global sport. 

This created another dilemma for putting on fights. Many fighters were unable to make it to the US due to travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19. Dana White could continue to put on fights in the US, but he would burn out all of the talent here, leaving all international fighters stuck in their native countries without a fight.

That’s where things become fun. To combat this problem, Dana White secured Yas Island, located in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Thus, Yas Island became Fight Island. 

IV. The Challenges of Running a Fight Island

When I was first heard about Fight Island, I laughed. Like many people, I doubted Dana White’s ability to make such a huge feat happen. After all, did the NFL or the MLB secure a private island halfway across the world? No.

The UFC did not make this happen without being faced with major adversity. The UFC took EXTREME measures to make sure every person was safe and secure from the moment they arrived on Fight Island. 

Amidst the scramble to try to keep UFC 249 together, White announced to ESPN that he had secured a private island to stage fights during the pandemic.  The location has been called ‘Fight Island,” and the UFC moved forward with applying for a patent for it and is selling “Fight Island” merchandise on the official UFC website. The plan for “Fight Island” is to be a location that will host international fights. With travel restrictions preventing fighters from other countries from entering the United States, White concocted the idea to hold UFC events at the undisclosed location to get around those travel issues.

Yas Island has all of the necessary infrastructures to hold a major event, and White delivered on his promise to have an Octagon on the beach. In a press release for the events in July, the UFC said there will be a safety zone within the nearly 10-square mile Yas Island that will include an arena, hotel, training facilities, and dining establishments. The safety zone will only be open to UFC athletes and their coaches; UFC staff and other event personnel; and Yas Island employees who are necessary to ensure the operation of the facilities.“Fight Island” events will take place without fans in attendance.


V. How Fight Island Maintains Safety Against All Odds

If you’re still scratching your head wondering how a Fight Island could possibly be safe during a pandemic, I don’t blame you. Yet this excerpt from a SportsNet article might change your mind.

In order to be as safe and responsible as possible, the UFC is being extra cautious when it comes to coronavirus testing. An expected 3,300 COVID tests will be administered during the UFC’s time on Yas Island. Fighters and corners/coaches will arrive via charter flights four days prior to their scheduled fight and all will be tested four times during their stay. Fighters and their corners are tested prior to their flight and upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Then they will remain quarantined in their hotel rooms until results from the second test come back, at which point they will be tested a third time. The fourth test will be administered on weigh-in day, more than 24 hours before their scheduled fight.

The UFC is providing the athletes with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as facemasks and gloves. All fighters and their corners will be provided a private workout area and there is a hotel gym as well. They are required to wear PPE when they leave their rooms and/or workout rooms and fighters have been encouraged to social distance whenever possible. UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN they administered more than 2,500 tests between May 30 and June 27 for the five events in Las Vegas with only 0.4 percent coming back positive. He added there will be a 32 percent increase in the number of tests they administer while in Abu Dhabi.

Everything you need to know about Fight Island before UFC 251, SportsNet
Some people were still understandably skeptical

On top of all of the technical challenges of putting on a live event that was safe for those who were there competing, White and the UFC faced intense scrutiny for putting on events in the middle of such a devastating global pandemic.

To be fair, I do see where some of the criticism came from. After all, almost 2 million people have passed due to this terrible pandemic. We can’t forget that.

Yet even still, you must remember: sports aren’t just entertainment. They’re people’s livelihoods too. This forces you to ask tough questions:

  • At what moment do you try to continue your business?
  • How do you do so safely?
  • How do you communicate to the world that you’re taking adequate precautions?

VI. The UFC’s Record-Setting Year

Following the opening fight card which featured three championship matches, the UFC went full steam ahead in 2020. They alternated between their state of the art complex in Las Vegas, Nevada, known as the UFC Apex, and Fight Island in UAE. The UFC would put on a series of events in Vegas, then fly over to Yas Island to put on another stretch of events.

It gets weirder. The UFC actually went on to have one of its most successful years to date! Even during COVID-19, the UFC continued to break countless records.

Dana White on UFC’s Record-Breaking Year

Check out this quote from Dana White when speaking to TSN. It really drives home just how good 2020 was for the UFC.

In 2019, UFC broke their financial records and reportedly had around $900 million in revenue. According to Dana White, the promotion did even better in 2020, breaking company records despite many others struggling during the pandemic.

“For us personally, it’s the best year we’ve ever had. Crazy to say that, but we broke just about every record we have, except for live gate, obviously,” White told TSN. “It was a very challenging year for us, to pull all this stuff off. It was without a doubt the hardest year of my career.”

“During the pandemic, we were up 30 percent on ESPN, then as soon as it starts to average out, we’re up 18, 20 percent this year,” he said. “Our social media growth was massive this year. We surpassed 10 million followers on YouTube, earning us a diamond play status. Second only to NBA among sports organizations worldwide. Our Instagram growth in the US went up 31.17%. We’re number two only to the NBA again. Second most video views on Instagram compared to all US sports, number two to the NBA.”

“And the Joaquin Buckley thing was massive, broke all kinds of records. We broke the record (for revenue). Consumer products were up 166% this year. The list goes on and on. We killed it this year.” According to the UFC President, with their growth and success, it raises the company’s current valuation to “probably nine or ten (billion).”

Dana White: UFC ‘killed it’ in 2020, ‘broke just about every record,’ including revenue, Bloody Elbow

VII. Lessons the UFC Taught Me About Running a Business During Tough Times

1. If you set ambitious goals, you can often make them happen.

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” This is something that many of us have been told since we were children.

Dana White showed intense determination. That helped him keep his business not just afloat, but thriving in a global climate full of businesses folding to COVID-19. His goal from the start of this was to keep the UFC running even during the pandemic.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard interviews of White saying something to the tune of “this has been my most challenging year in business to date.” On the other side of those challenges, came tremendous rewards and a newfound respect from many who doubted his ability to make Fight Island happen. 

And he did this all while keeping fighters and staff safe from COVID-19.

2. When faced with adversity, do not give in.

I am sure Dana White felt like giving in plenty of times. Who wouldn’t be sick of the choas?

At the same time, White has been fighting to bring the UFC to the world since the early 90’s, and has faced challenge after challenge. To him, maybe this was just life’s next curveball. Regardless, he made some changes, and kept trekking full steam ahead to keep his business thriving. 

3. Do not let the “norm” stop you from breaking barriers. 

Acquiring an island across the world to host fights is a bold move, to put it lightly. One that many would say goes against the norm in business. The UFC showed me this past year that sometimes taking risks is necessary, and can lead to success in the end.

No, you don’t have to buy a literal island for your business. But don’t be afraid to dream big, and fight to make that reality happen. Sometimes it’s riskier not to take risks.

The UFC continued to reshape the climate in pro sports, and with Fight Island now a legitimate venue for events, they have opened their doors to new ways of generating revenue. So in the end, this risk paid off.

VIII. Final Thoughts 

I am so thankful for the opportunity to write about something I love as much as the UFC. The UFC gave me a tremendous amount of hope for the future. I saw the lengths that they were willing to go to in order to bring us live sports.

Continuing business in the face of adversity is a day-to-day struggle in the COVID-19 pandemic. We can all take a lesson from the UFC, knowing we can fight to keep what we love afloat during trying times. 

The numbers White shared speak for themselves. Could this be a result of being the first live sport back in action in 2020? Very likely.

White went on to set the new standard for live sports in 2020, and proved to the media, and everyone else, that there is a safe way to move forward in sports.