In the short term, the UFC’s pay-per-view event this Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., acts as the proverbial Band-Aid on a gunshot wound for sports fans and sports bettors. For a few hours on a weekend evening, hardcore MMA fans, casual MMA fans, and anyone who likes to wager on sports involving athletes they’ve heard of will find comfort in the scratching of an itch — one that hasn’t been scratched in about eight weeks.
That will pass by the early morning hours on Sunday, after lightweights Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje have exited the Octagon.
Then the focus shifts to the long term. For general sports fans and sports bettors, whether they care about Ferguson vs. Gaethje or not, whether they’ve ever ordered a UFC PPV or not, Saturday night is about trial and error. And it’s about hope.
The UFC is trying to prove that, with full precautions in place to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19, it is possible to stage a sporting event in the spring of 2020. Fans of every other sport should be hoping they pull it off … and then calculating what elements of the UFC protocol are transferable.
The most responsible thing to do, with regard to saving human lives, is to cancel everything until the pandemic is under control. The least responsible thing to do is to just proceed with life as we used to know it. Somewhere in between lies the path American society and American sports are, for better or worse, attempting to follow.
Whether the UFC can walk its particular charted path on Saturday night successfully, from an entertainment perspective, from a health perspective, and from a financial perspective — and, on a far lesser scale of importance, whether the sports betting handle is appreciable — will go a long way toward determining what the next few months look like.
Particulars of the protocol
In one regard, MMA is an ideal sport for this particular time: Only three people — the fighters and a referee — need to be in close quarters. Then again, MMA just might be the worst possible sport for this particular time: The fighters will be bodied up against one another, breathing and likely spitting and drooling on each other.
The UFC’s plan to avoid spread of the virus includes the following:
- Fighters and their corner people will have mandatory medical screenings and tests — both the diagnostic COVID-19 test and the antibody test — when they arrive at the host hotel.
- Participants will be asked to self-isolate as best they can until the test results come back.
- All will undergo daily temperature checks from the day they arrive through Saturday.
- The hotel will be rigorously sanitized, workers will wear personal protective equipment, food will be available without leaving the property, and contact with the outside world will be minimized.
- Each fighter will weigh in at a scheduled time, staggered to avoid having numerous people in the room at once.
- At the local hospital, additional beds will be prepared in case they’re needed for fighters after the card.
- In the arena, fighters will only have their licensed corners with them and everyone outside the cage will follow social distancing rules — face masks required. Referees might wear masks and eye protection.
- With May 13 and 16 cards also planned, the referees and judges are mostly expected to remain in Jacksonville the whole time.
Different sports, different challenges
Some sports will have a better chance of following this blueprint than others.
Though not technically a sport, pro wrestling, deemed an “essential business” in Florida because, well, Florida, has actually been setting a partial blueprint for spectator-free “combat” throughout the pandemic.
Boxing should, in theory, be able to duplicate whatever MMA can do, as the personnel needs, medical needs, and number of athletes involved are the same as for MMA. Though major boxing cards might wait longer because of the value of the live gate, promoter Top Rank, which has a contract with ESPN, has been talking about getting mid-level events rolling by June.
The fewer participants a sport requires, the easier it should be to test them, isolate them, and proceed with competition. That’s why, if all goes well with UFC 249, fans of golf and tennis should expect their sports to ease back into action soon. The PGA has announced plans to return June 11, while tennis tour organizers have been decidedly less ambitious about going public with dates.
Team sports are more complicated across the board. The number of tests — and re-tests, and temperature checks — required would obviously be greater. For the NBA, with 12 players per roster, maybe that’s manageable. For the NFL, with more than 50 players on each team, it’s more challenging.
Then there’s the travel issue. Saturday’s UFC card (and the next week’s scheduled events) brings everybody to one location. If baseball or football is to keep teams on the road, traveling from city to city, isolation and tracking becomes a massive undertaking.
That’s why ideas like an entire MLB season taking place in a couple of host cities have been broached.
That sort of approach seems more feasible for the NBA and NHL in 2020 because both leagues could skip straight to their postseason tournaments (or at least come close to doing that, playing a handful of “warm-up” regular-season games first). Bringing 16 teams to one city for about six weeks, with the number of teams still needed getting cut in half every week or two, isn’t unthinkable, provided the city has enough basketball courts or hockey rinks to go around.
But of course, the instant one player tests positive for COVID-19, the whole operation could be shut down again.
That’s why UFC 249 is such an obvious candidate to get this started. If a fighter tests positive, that fight is off … and a 12-fight card becomes an 11-fight card.
The bigger danger is if UFC 249 attendees start testing positive in the weeks after the event. If, despite all the testing and precautions, the virus spreads as a result of Dana White pushing forward with this fight card, sports and sports betting will be stopped in their tracks.
So you might want to continue studying Korean baseball, just to be safe.
Sports betting swoon
In all seriousness, while Korean baseball is better than nothing in the eyes of the sports betting public and the sportsbooks, the industry has been suffering badly since mid-March.
Nevada sports betting handle fell from $596.8 million in March 2019 to just $141.2 million this March, and the drop was nearly as precipitous in other states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And it will only get worse in all of those states when April’s figures are released.
UFC 249 will help on that front. But May is still shaping up to be another dark month for the sports betting business. There’s hope that it might start to pick up in June. And to a large degree, that hope rests on the UFC fighters getting through this Saturday night with nothing worse than the usual bumps, bruises, and broken bones.
Photo by Jasmin Frank / USA Today Sports