At the other half, we have been eagerly anticipating the return of sport, even if it is going to be different from the way we left it, and for good reason.
Only a month ago, the prospect of staging safe sporting events, for the most part, was a logistical nightmare. From fixtures to festivals, all dates were scrapped without any expectations of when they could return.
However, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and its president Dana White managed to stage UFC 249 on 9th May, just three weeks after the event’s original date which was wiped due to COVID-19.
With a lot of intelligence, and a little bit of luck, UFC brought mixed martial arts back to sports fans in the thick of unprecedented adversity; the behind-closed-doors showcase drew a staggering 700,000 pay-per-view purchases.
A miraculous feat, down to the miracles of change management.
UFC had already revolutionized the fight business and today stands as a premium global sports brand, promotional content company, and the largest pay-per-view event provider in the world.
UFC 249 was scheduled for 18th April in New York, but one of the first, and arguably most poignant issues due to coronavirus arose when lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov refused to leave Russia due to his country’s lockdown and border closures in their fight against the pandemic, cancelling the event’s headline bout.
Fortunately, Justin Gaethje agreed to replace him and fight Tony Ferguson for the interim title, just one amendment in a series of fight rewrites to give UFC 249 the best possible chance of being successful.
Despite calls from ESPN and Disney to cancel the event, and it no longer being possible to stage it at Barclays Center, the UFC continued preparations, with White seeking to secure a private island that could host the bouts in a safe environment away from regulation.
White soon announced in late April that UFC 249 and the following two cards set for 13th and 16th May would take place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
From closely following the steps of UFC 249, we have identified three key qualities of pioneering change that were displayed by White and the team.
Being brave means having the confidence and courage to take chances. Bold leadership embraces dynamic and competitive landscapes and takes calculated risks in striving for success.
The UFC had been pushing hard to bring back fight sports during the pandemic, seeing the vast opportunity of being the only high-level live sports on the air, capitalising on the pay-per-view opportunity and growing their fan base – an outlook that, albeit, attracted criticism from mainstream media outlets.
Nevertheless, the UFC was fearless in challenging the status quo to pursue excellence and new opportunity.
Due to the high-stakes nature of what it was they were undertaking, the UFC were meticulous in how they planned their operation to maximise success and minimise risk.
The event took place with no fans at the weigh in or the arena, strictly administering tests for athletes, trainers, staff, and the few select media who travelled to Florida to cover the fights.
Every journalist had an individual table already set up, including a microphone to prohibit a singular one being passed around the room during interviews. They rode the shuttle to the arena socially distanced, and masks were required at all times. The production crew was also scaled-down, reduced from 130 members to approximately 80.
More nuanced tactics were adopted to help the fighters prepare for the event, such as changes to room service – a 24-hour protocol with deliveries left at the attendee’s front door – and gyms, as fighters and team members had individual workout rooms at hotels, as well as a personal sauna for weight cutting.
A strong sanitisation plan was adopted throughout, from headsets to workout mats, for athletes and trainers, all thoroughly cleaned.
UFC 249 did not go off flawlessly.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his cornermen tested positive for coronavirus, his fight with Uriah Hall consequently scratched from the cards. This showed how the UFC was ready and prepared to adapt to inevitable problems along the way.
Furthermore, the UFC had proposed the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California as a new venue for the event, whilst keeping the 18th April date unscathed. By trying to host on tribal land, the UFC was not subject to California’s stay-at-home order, but state regulators still opposed the event plans. Florida officials, however, took a different stance.
Importantly, the UFC was publicly open about the need to adapt, shaping the narrative of the press by positioning the event as a learning experience for the sport.
White and his PR team worked relentlessly to push out tailored content to shape the message around the event, communication being an integral tool through change management.
Was the event a success?
On reflection, it is fair to say that UFC 249 was a triumph for sport, with the sheer amount of pay-per-view purchase and no further reports of infection caused as a direct response to the event.
Furthermore, many important lessons were learnt that can be applied across the sports industry. White and co. have been pioneers in conducting live sport in a new era.
Global Partnerships Director at the other half