The Slatest

UFC Reverses Course, Cancels Fights That Aimed to Skirt Coronavirus Stay-at-Home Order

Dana White points while speaking at a podium during a press conference.
UFC president Dana White is planning weekly fights on central California tribal lands.
Yifan Ding/Getty Images

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Update, Apr. 10, 2020: UFC president Dana White announced Thursday that the UFC event scheduled to take place Apr. 18 on tribal land had been cancelled, and that all of its other events had been postponed. White told ESPN in an interview that executives at ESPN and its parent company Disney, intervened to shut down the mixed martial arts competition’s end run around state health guidelines by hosting fights at a central California casino that sits on land belonging to the federally recognized Tachi-Yokut Tribe. “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 Thursday. “Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn’t feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons,” ESPN said in a statement. “ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood.”

Original Post: American sports leagues have paused and postponed their seasons due to the coronavirus outbreak, as have most competitions around the world, but the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts competition, says it will continue to host events starting with a pay-per-view title fight in California in just 10 days’ time. California is currently under a statewide stay-at-home order, but the New York Times reports UFC president Dana White intends to get around state regulations and federal guidelines on the pandemic by hosting the event on Native American tribal land. Tribal lands are not subject to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order shuttering nonessential businesses and keeping people home.

The event, UFC 249, was originally scheduled to take place on April 18 in Brooklyn. New York has been hit hardest so far by the virus, and the city and state have been on lockdown for weeks. The Las Vegas–based UFC was forced to postpone three events in March and April due to increasingly stringent coronavirus protective orders, but after searching for alternative hosting situations, including a private island, White says the April 18 event will now take place at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in central California. The casino is about 40 miles south of Fresno and sits on land belonging to the federally recognized Tachi-Yokut Tribe. The casino, however, has been shut down since March 20 in response to the coronavirus outbreak. “As we prepare and navigate through this uncertain time, we will continue to follow guidance from the CDC, WHO and other health authorities,” Tribal Council Chairman Leo Sisco said in a statement at the time of the closure. “We encourage people to follow these guidelines, as there is a great deal we can all do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to support all efforts that will protect the health and well-being of our communities.”

Over the past two weeks, however, that commitment to follow those health guidelines appears to have changed. White, a friend and supporter of President Donald Trump, has insisted that the UFC can host the events safely and vowed to host similar fights weekly at the venue over the next two months. The events, which usually have a live audience, appear to be going forward without any spectators. But ticket sales aren’t what drive the UFC; TV dollars are. “Behind efforts to keep UFC fights going are the company’s $1.5 billion contract with ESPN and $2.3 billion in debt the UFC took on in recent years,” the Wall Street Journal reports. To fulfill that contract to ESPN, which has the exclusive rights to the competition, UFC is obligated to put on 42 events in 2020. It has only been able to hold seven so far this year. Another motivating factor is that UFC is carrying around billions in debt from when it was bought by Endeavor PLC, a media company, and the private equity firms KKR & Co. and Silver Lake.