Dana White has stepped it up during the pandemic to hold UFC fight shows while sports leagues face uncertain futures. Photo credit: J. Tyge O'Donnell/LVSportsBiz.com
Former Hotel Valet and Ex-Trainer, UFC’s Dana White Powers Through Pandemic With MMA Fight Shows While Sports Leagues Still Have Not Played Games In COVID-19 Age
By Alan Snel of LVSportsBiz.com
He quit his hotel valet job decades ago, went on to become a workout trainer and even ran gyms. He doesn’t have law degrees like cerebral NBA Commissioner Adam Silver or Ivy League Cornell grad and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. And his public business attire of choice is jeans, a V-neck T-shirt and sneakers.
He’s the ultimate outlier in a sports industry of analysts, suits and numbers crunchers.
Love him or hate him, Dana White, a 50-year-old reported to be worth half a billion dollars, is his own man. And when a novel coronavirus pandemic brought the sports industry to a screeching halt in mid-March, White’s DNA guided his business path — UFC fight shows will go on, pandemic or no pandemic.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: Workers sanitize the Octagon between fights during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
White’s unrelenting passion for staging fight events powered his way to staging the first major sports event during the pandemic in May. It wasn’t in UFC’s home base of Las Vegas. White found a partner in the Florida State Athletic Commission, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville for three UFC events in eight days that began May 16.
“These fights will happen. Whatever it takes,” White told ESPN as part of the build-up to the May 16 fight show. A few days after the May 16 event, White spoke to LVSportsBiz.com about the logistics of staging a fight show during the pandemic.
Two weeks later, White then staged the first live sports event in Las Vegas May 30 when UFC held the first of five consecutive Saturday night fight show events at its Apex facility a block from the Las Vegas-based MMA promotion’s campus headquarters off the 215 beltway about five miles west of the Strip.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 30: A general view inside the UFC APEX prior to the UFC Fight Night event on May 30, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
By sports industry standards where sports commissioners wear business suits and answer questions with careful statements, White is in his own silo with a brash, in-your-face personality that belies the fact that his UFC sold for more than $4 billion in 2016. Zuffa, LLC was sold to WME-IMG, which changed its name to Endeavor. Interestingly enough, Endeavor also owns Colorado-based Professional Bull Riders (PBR), which also held live sports events in Las Vegas in June and is scheduled to stage a PBR event with fans in South Dakota this month.
White forged ahead when the NBA and NHL were just working on Return-to-Play plans in May and Major League Baseball was ridiculed for its farcical player-league talks of starting a season that all along was destined to last only 60 games.
Granted, UFC’s cage matches feature individual fighters, while team sport leagues like the NBA, NHL, WNBA, MLB and MLS require more COVID-19 testing and bigger “bubble” environments to accommodate many more athletes for competitions.
But White’s love for the fight game and the loyalty exhibited by UFC’s staff to White’s aims allowed the MMA promotion to stage events relatively incident-free. White said he was tested at least five times for the coronavirus. And while he said UFC lost more than $100 million in gate revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic, White did crow about the number of PPV buys and ESPN viewers from the Jacksonville event and the Apex fight shows.
There were no fans or spectators in the UFC Apex building on fight nights in June. The raw, unvarnished sounds of fists striking flesh and coaches screaming instructions were easily heard at the UFC event May 30 when I was among three journalists inside the Apex witnessing the first live sports event in Las Vegas during the COVID-19 pandemic.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JUNE 27: (R-L) Dustin Poirier punches Dan Hooker of New Zealand in their lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on June 27, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
White was nowhere to be seen inside the Apex venue because state regulators required masks to be worn at the fight shows and White — a buddy of President Donald Trump — is known to not wear face coverings in this age of COVID.
White is proud that he didn’t lay off a single UFC employee during this economically stressful time. White said it was important to him that he keep everyone on the payroll for working their asses off to help him put on these MMA fight events.
And he had his doubters. Nearly three months ago when White was hunting for a location to host UFC 249, the Association of Ringside Physicians said, “It is our recommendation that all combat sporting events be postponed until further notice. This includes any and all events, regardless of the number of people involved. Any combat sport taking place during this global pandemic places the athletes, officials, and anyone else involved in the event under unnecessary risk of infection and transmission of Covid-19.”
White has only backed off once during his pandemic run in April when Disney and ESPN officials asked him to “stand down” from staging UFC 249 on April 18.
These days, White has shed his reputation of being an outspoken f-bomb dropper to exhibiting public signs of being a caring sports industry executive who now moves from the UFC Apex in Las Vegas to a goofy-sounding “Fight Island” locale in Abu Dhabi where the MMA promotion will stage four events at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, one of the emirate’s popular entertainment destinations.
UFC’s four events on Yas Island will be one Pay-Per-View for UFC 251 and three other Fight Night events. UFC 251 is set for July 11 and fight night events on July 15, 18 and 25. UFC worked with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT). The Fight Island concept was designed to include UFC’s international fighters, so that they could travel directly to Abu Dhabi on a private airline.
Several NBA and MLB players have dropped out of playing in these 2020 pandemic games, while the NHL looks to hold a postseason tournament in bubble environments in the host cities of Edmonton and Toronto. But those sports face more uncertain futures during a pandemic compared to UFC, which is poised to hold another round of fight shows in July even before the games begin in MLB, NBA and NHL.
Las Vegas-based Top Rank also dared to stage fight nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays in June when founder Bob Arum and boxing promotion president Todd DuBoef created Top Rank’s own “Bubble” at MGM Grand that housed fighters and trainers before the fights.
But it was White who went first in the sports industry during the COVID-19 health crisis, absorbing lots of criticism for surging ahead with MMA fights into the teeth of a pandemic that has now claimed the lives of 130,000 Americans.
“It would be much easier for me to sit back and say, ‘Let’s wait this thing out.’ Waiting this thing out is a good option for a lot of people,” White told reporters a few weeks ago.
Maybe for others. But not for White, the Manchester, Connecticut native who came to Las Vegas to put on fight shows.