Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) parent company, Endeavor, is doing pretty darn well these days, to the point where it just bought a controlling interest in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in a multi-billion dollar deal. It is in the process of wrapping the wrestling promotion and fight promotion into a new entity that will be represented as, “TKO Group.”
According to Endeavor CEO, Ari Emanuel, the whole empire almost collapsed during the COVID pandemic. And it was UFC that saved the company with its aggressive plan to continue throwing fight events while the rest of the sports world shut down.
Emanuel discussed what happened in a recently-released episode of Freakononics Radio.
“It was bad,” Emanuel said. “I’d never had to fire that many people ... Keeping the UFC on, you know, we did about — I might be wrong here — but I think about 70 percent of our revenue in the COVID year. We had our ESPN deal. We then started making deals for writers. So we stored all the cash. We didn’t let anything out. We let people go, which was horrible, or furloughed them.
“There was three months there I was like ... you know, I mean, it was bad,” he continued. “And we were just counting cash. Like, how do we make sure the cash can last?”
“Dana White’s a genius,” Emanuel said. “‘Hey, get me an island.’ We make all the calls, and we do the thing. And he willed it. And this was a crazy — we had to get planes and testing, and isolate the island. The logistics were insane. And Dana just muscled up and did it. And that permitted us to, I think, get a whole new generation, and changed our sport.”
The ESPN deal was simple: it paid UFC for 40 shows that year, and the promotion just had to deliver. Easy enough ... until the pandemic hit and everything was shut down in North America. White attempted to run events at venues on Native reserves, but was shut down by political pressure. Enter “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where 12 events were held over the course of two years.
UFC went on to create its own bubble venue at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, one which the promotion hasn’t fully left even as pandemic restrictions have lifted.
For more on UFC’s response to the global pandemic click here.