UFC president Dana White embarrassed himself and the UFC when he was forced (or was it asked?) to cancel UFC 249 by “the highest level you can go at Disney and the highest level of ESPN.” Not only that, the manner in which White handled the announcement of the cancellation of the event further embarrassed those high-level executives. In fact, nothing that went down around UFC 249 reflects well on White, who is accustomed to making decisions for the UFC with impunity.
White’s plan was to hold the April 18 pay-per-view card at Tachi Palace Casino Resort and have the promotion regulate the event itself. The Association of Boxing Commission and Combative Sports gave the UFC its blessing on that part of the plan.
What White didn’t have was the approval of two of the most powerful people in California politics — Senator Dianne Feinstein and Governor Gavin Newsom.
Not long before White announced the cancellation of the event, Feinstein released a statement regarding the fight card. That statement, among other things, said:
“I understand this event is scheduled to take place on tribal land and therefore is not subject to state law. However, at best this event ties up medical resources and sends a message that shelter-in-place orders can be flouted. At worst, participants and support staff could carry the virus back to their home communities and increase its spread.”
According to the New York Times, it was Newsom who spoke to Disney officials about the event. Newsom issued a stay-at-home order for California on March 19, an order the UFC was prepared to violate with UFC 249.
When it came time for the UFC president to deliver news of the fight card’s cancellation, White loused that up.
The UFC president, instead of falling on his sword — which is often the expectation in these type of situations — wasted no time in placing the blame squarely on ESPN and that companies owner, Disney. “Today, we got a call from the highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level at ESPN ... and the powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event (next) Saturday,” White told ESPN.
Not long after pointing the finger at ESPN and Disney, White stressed the only reason the event was scrapped was because of that call. “Everybody said I couldn’t do this,” White said referring to staging UFC 249 during a global pandemic. “I can do this. I can go next Saturday and if everything ever happened in California where I couldn’t, I have another place right now, with an athletic commission and the governor and everybody’s behind it. I can go April 18. Let’s make that clear.”
I doubt that’s how ESPN and Disney expected White to deliver the message of the cancellation, but he did, and that reflects poorly on White.
The handling of UFC 249 was White’s first big controversy since WME-IMG (now Endeavor) purchased a controlling share of the UFC in 2016. He did not handle it well.
Ideally, White and the UFC would have postponed all of its events because of the coronavirus pandemic at the same time as other major sports such as MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL. Instead, the UFC held an event in Brazil with no crowd and no coronavirus testing and then set about finding a location that would host UFC 249, despite the climbing COVID-19 death toll. That decision was foolhardy, reckless and could have resulted in catastrophe. White steadfastly refuses to acknowledge those facts.
That’s one of the big problems with White, he comes across as thinking he’s the smartest guy in the room. When criticized, he often gets his back up and wastes no time informing his dissenters they know nothing of the business and how they “don’t know anything about this (expletive) situation” and “definitely know nothing about the sport.”
With White blindly pushing forward with UFC 249, the promotion received unwanted attention from the mainstream press and interference from the top levels of ESPN and Disney. White’s decision to avoid state athletic commissions also opened the door for possible future issues with those commissions, especially the California State Athletic Commission.
White created those problems himself. White and Endeavor will have to deal with those issues again when the UFC tries to return because White claims the UFC will be the first sport to be back in action. Which is, of course, dangerous, reckless and rushed.
I know I’m not the only person who has wondered if White is the right man to lead the UFC into the future. His handling of UFC 249 was disappointing from the jump, but that is far from the only mistake White has made since the Fertitta brothers sold the promotion in 2016.
If Endeavor thought the sale and White’s reported pay structure — nine percent of the net profits of the company — would birth a more professional version of the impetuous UFC president, it didn’t. White still doesn’t hesitate to rant against his presumed enemies and tell fans of the UFC that he doesn’t care if they purchase the promotion’s pay-per-views. It’s hard to quantify if White’s presence at the helm of the UFC scares away potential big-name sponsors, but it’s doubtful that his hair-trigger temper helps in that matter.
White has also failed to move the company forward. His attitude that he knows best has resulted in stagnation. Yes, the UFC has changed some of its graphics and delivery during its broadcasts, but it’s been a long while since the promotion has rolled out anything that ups the “wow factor” of those broadcasts.
If the UFC wants to add fans it needs to figure out ways to capture the hearts and minds of the casual fans. Nothing of the kind has happened under White’s stewardship. Yes, the promotion signed a deal with ESPN and that was cause for celebration. However, the UFC didn’t do much to capitalize on that move. White seems satisfied to use an if it’s not broke, don’t fix it attitude, which has never been a good long-term business plan.
One significant White has done is build the UFC Apex. At the time the building opened, White described it as the “future of fighting.” It hasn’t been. As far as fans know, the only thing the Apex has been used for is the Dana White Contender Series cards.
“UFC Apex is going to be a massive game changer for combat sports and for UFC,” White said of the Apex. “This facility gives us the flexibility to try new things and push the envelope on producing and distributing combat sports all over the world.
“We are limited only by my imagination. When you think of where we started and where we are now, it’s pretty incredible, but we haven’t even scratched the surface of how big this will become.”
Then there was White’s much ballyhooed idea of Zuffa Boxing, an idea that has seemingly died a quiet death since White first spoke about it in 2017.
The UFC Performance Institute has been a big hit with the fighters who have been able to use it, but not all fighters have the means to train there. A 2019 report showed that only one-third of UFC fighters use the facility on a monthly basis. I also have some worries about what the UFC is doing with all the information it gathers from the fighters who do train at the Las Vegas facility.
Under White’s lead, the UFC has always promoted the brand — and White — over the fighters. That strategy has worked well, but it might be a limiting factor at this point in the promotion’s life. However, the UFC has shown an inability to do anything but promote the brand. When the promotion has a chance to build fighters into stars, it either fumbles that opportunity or doesn’t even try to promote the fighters. Is White to blame for that? He is the boss, so he should get the blame.
I don’t know if Endeavor is afraid to jettison White or if it’s happy with his performance, but it might be high time to give someone else a chance to run the promotion. White did a good job of getting the UFC to where it’s at, but he’s not the leader to get the promotion to the next level — if there is a next level to get to.
The UFC needs a business mind open to taking chances and trying new ideas. Someone who is not afraid to innovate and possibly fail. White comes across as a my way or the highway leader. That’s not what the UFC needs. The promotion doesn’t need an autocrat at its helm; it needs someone unafraid to collaborate with others. White is not that leader.
The UFC also needs someone who can speak to other leaders in the sports world on equal footing and earn the respect of the business world. White might be the cool boss who curses and goes to Rage Against the Machine shows, but I don’t think anyone outside the MMA bubble would put him on the level of an Adam Silver, Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred or Gary Bettman.
White and Endeavor learned a lesson when Disney and ESPN stepped in to scrap UFC 249. It’s hard to tell what each side will learn from that rebuke, but it would not be a surprise if the fallout lands White a much shorter leash from the bosses at Endeavor.