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‘Opening Up America Again’: The political implications of UFC 249

Karim Zidan delves into the political implications of the UFC’s decision to soldier on with an event during a global pandemic. 

On May 9, 2020, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will attempt to host the first of three scheduled MMA events within the span of eight calendar days. The events, which include a stacked Pay-Per-View show, are made more ambitious by the fact that they are set to take place amid a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people, including upwards of 75,000 Americans.

While the UFC’s stubborn pursuit of combat sports events during a global health crisis appears dystopian, the promotion has taken some important steps that will potentially ensure the safety of its fighters and staff. And while there are no guarantees that no one will contract the 2019 novel coronavirus during the events (or Fight Week formalities), the UFC has an opportunity to lay down a blueprint for future sports and entertainment events across the United States.

Beyond the promotion’s opportunity to cement itself as a trailblazer in event safety during a pandemic, the UFC’s upcoming shows also bring some intriguing political implications, especially if the events are successful. This article will attempt to explain how UFC 249 — and the two subsequent events — could accelerate various states’s plans to reopen the economy, while also being co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump as proof of the success of his controversial coronavirus response.

A Playbook for Event Regulation during a Pandemic

When the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak became a global pandemic in March 2020, the UFC — led by head honcho Dana White — was one of the few organizations around the world that attempted to defy government mandates and vowed to maintain a regular fight schedule.

In April 2020, the promotion announced that it planned to host its UFC 249 event in California, where there were state-wide stay-at-home mandates put in place to mitigate the spread of the deadly disease. While the UFC attempted to keep the location a secret, it was revealed that the event was scheduled to take place at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, which is owned by the Tachi-Yokut Tribe, part of the Santa Rosa Indian Community. The tribe has sovereignty over the land, so the UFC sought out that location to circumvent California’s stay-at-home order.

In an attempt to stop the UFC from holding a show during the height of the pandemic in California, Governor Gavin Newsom reportedly called Disney, which owns the UFC’s broadcast partner ESPN, and asked them to intervene. Disney, in turn, exerted pressure on ESPN and the UFC, and the event was subsequently canceled.

Despite the political pressure which caused the suspension of the UFC’s activities for the foreseeable future, White remained defiant in his interview with ESPN, claiming that the UFC will be the “first sport back.” This will indeed be the case on May 9, when the promotion returns to hold the previously ill-fated UFC 249 PPV.

However, much has changed this time around.

Instead of attempting to circumvent government regulation this time around, the UFC relocated its shows to Florida, a state that deemed professional sports “essential” services. Unlike its California show, which would not have been regulated by the state’s primary athletic commission, UFC 249 will be authorized by the Florida State Athletic Commission.

“It was more about the governor, the mayor, and the athletic commission working with us. We can do this safely. We’re willing to spend the money it’s gonna cost to make this as safe and this can possibly be. I want politicians and athletic commissions to work with us, not against us,” White said during his interview with Barstool Sports.

Dana White MMA News Max Holloway Hawaii Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC has also taken some significant safety measures, which include separating the broadcast team, eliminating post-fight interviews, and mandating N95 masks and gloves for all crew members. The promotion also procured 1200 coronavirus tests that will be administered to staff, fighters, their teams, and even to credentialed media. The UFC’s production crew, which usually involved approximately 130 people, has been reduced by 50. The promotion also claims that it will practice social distancing policies throughout the event and that individual medical screenings will take place every day.

White even revealed that the UFC submitted a 30-page document to the governors of Nevada and Florida which outlines the promotion’s preventative measures and emergency plans — something he is willing to share with other sports leagues, ”What I’m kind of hoping is this gives other sports leagues the confidence to get out there and do what I’m doing and figure this thing out in how to put on a sport as safely as you possibly can,” White told CBS Sports. “…I would be willing to share that document with any of the other leagues after we pull this thing off next week.”

While there are still some concerns about the UFC’s upcoming shows — including the exact protocols if someone tests positive for COVID-19 and what quarantine procedure is in place post-event — UFC executive vice president of operation and production Craig Borsari told ESPN that the promotion is “figuring it out as we go and taking on challenges and things that pop up in real time, making decisions in real time.”

“There’s no road map. There’s no blueprint on how to do this and how to do this the right way.”

There is no doubt that the UFC is taking a risk by holding these events during a pandemic, especially since the epicentre of the global health crisis is in the United States. However, if successful, the promotion will have laid out a blueprint of sorts for other sports and entertainment organizations to follow their lead. Even former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who is vocal about the UFC’s exploitative labor practices, seemed open to the idea of the UFC holding shows during the pandemic under the right circumstances.

“If you can imagine a sport that can continue in a pandemic, the UFC would be relatively high on the list because you don’t have massive teams.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Holds Coronavirus Press Briefing
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The success of the UFC’s events could also embolden U.S. politicians to push for a return to normalcy, even if at the public’s expense. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who defended his state’s decision to deem professional sports “essential” services alongside grocery stores, pharmacies, and law enforcement services, suggested bringing fans back to sports events within the next couple of months.

“I do think if the trends are good as you get into June-July. I think there is a window to have some fans. You’re not going to have everyone packed in…But man, in 90-degree weather in the state of Florida ... if you’re out there and someone’s 10 feet away from you and you want to watch a ball game or something? You may be able to do that.”

”Opening Up America Again”

Ever since the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed on January 21, Trump has maintained that his government has the matter “totally under control.” Eight days later, the White House started a coronavirus response task force headed by US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who declared the coronavirus a public health emergency on January 31st.

Yet despite ample opportunity to take decisive action prior to the disease becoming a pandemic, Trump did not declare a national emergency until March 13. And though the president tweeted that the “virus is very much in control” in late February, he later claimed that he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

As the number of confirmed cases continued to soar in the United States, Trump declared on March 24 that he wants the country to “open” by April 12 for Easter Sunday, making a case that the economic ramification of the closures would be devastating for the country in the long-term. By April 16, Trump had issued guidelines developed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that offer states a phased approach to reopening their economies based on reductions in COVID-19 cases.

President Trump Meets With Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

One of Trump’s main pursuits in his plan to re-open the U.S. economy was the return of sports. He took part in a conference call with the commissioners of the country’s major sports leagues in early April, including White and others like WWE’s Vince McMahon, and reportedly informed them that he hopes to have fans back in venues by the fall.

”They want to get back,” Trump said of the sports leagues at a subsequent coronavirus task force briefing. “They’ve got to get back. They can’t do this. Their sports weren’t designed for it. The whole concept of our nation wasn’t designed for it. We have to get back. We want to get back soon.”

Trump later enlisted numerous sports executives for an advisory group, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Vince McMahon, and Dana White. “In sports — we want to get our sports back, so importantly,” Trump said during a White House press briefing on April 14 when asked about the advisory group.

White has long been emboldened by his friendship with Trump, and has recently used it as a way to defy government mandates and soldier on with his UFC shows. When first asked about his decision to move forward with the UFC show in Brasilia during the outbreak in March, White referenced a conversation he had with Trump in which the president told him to “be cautious, be careful, but live your life and stop panicking.”

Given that the UFC boasts warm ties to the current White House administration, it comes as no surprise that the promotion is attempting to follow Trump’s plan for sports to “get back soon.” There were even reports that claimed that Trump was going to give a “shoutout to the UFC” during one of his press briefings when it planned to go ahead with its April 18 show in California because “it would have fit in with the president’s message about reopening the country.”

Donald Trump Holds A Campaign Rally In Colorado Springs Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

The White House released its ”Opening Up America Again” guidelines last month, which instructed state and local governments to reopen in accordance with federal and local “regulations and guidance”. The White House guidance also mentioned social distancing and encouraging working from home as preventative measures that should be maintained. However, the White House also shelved a 17-page report by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team, titled “Guidance for Implementing the Opening Up America Again Framework,” with step-by-step advice to local authorities on how exactly to proceed with the reopening of restaurants, events, and public places.

And yet despite the lack of transparency and constant confusion within the White House, Trump continues to push for sports to lead his “Opening Up America Again” plan, even as U.S. death rates remain the highest in the world.

“The President feels that sports should be first,” said White. “We should figure out sports, let them come out, give the people something to watch. How do you put people back in cubicles? How do you send kids back to school? Things like this are gonna be much harder than figuring out sporting events.”

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