Reopening the UFC after the coronavirus lockdown : Planet Money Mixed martial arts is the first major spectator sport in the U.S. to host live events since the coronavirus lockdown. Other sports are watching to see whether MMA could point the way.
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Reopening Sports: Does MMA Point The Way?

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Reopening Sports: Does MMA Point The Way?

Reopening Sports: Does MMA Point The Way?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: NPR.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The UFC is back on ESPN.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

That right there is ESPN heralding the return of mixed martial arts. Last Saturday night the UFC, which stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship - the biggest promotional organization in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts - hosted UFC 249, a night of fights at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. It was a pay-per-view event. You could watch on ESPN+ for 64.99.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Personally, I've never watched a mixed martial arts event. It's, like, kicking and punching - right? - I'm assuming. But you're, like, a big fan, right, Cardiff? This is, like...

GARCIA: I've watched enough for both of us, yes.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) The arena in Jacksonville has the capacity for up to 15,000 seats, but they were empty. Because we're in the middle of a pandemic, there was no audience, no crowd. There was just the fighters, the teams that support the fighters and other people who worked the event.

GARCIA: And without the usual noise of the crowd, some things were different. Like, if you were watching on TV, you could hear it - and I mean really hear it - when lightweight Justin Gaethje landed a right-cross-left-hook combination to the face of his opponent Tony Ferguson.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God. How do you watch this?

GARCIA: Yep.

VANEK SMITH: How do you watch this? I don't even know what a cross left hook combination is, but that sounds awful.

GARCIA: But there's more to the sport strategically than you might think, Stacey, but never mind all that. The fact that UFC 249 took place at all is kind of remarkable. No other major sport in the U.S. is hosting live events right now, and of all the sports to be first, a combat sport where two fighters are striking each other, grappling, bleeding all over each other - the extreme opposite of social distancing. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, and this is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, what happened at UFC 249, and what lessons - if any - did the event have for other sports across the U.S. as they try to think about restarting their own games and matches and events?

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GARCIA: Just looking at it financially, UFC 249 - well...

JOHN NASH: It sounds like it was a big hit for them.

GARCIA: That is John Nash. He analyzes the business side of mixed martial arts, or MMA, for the website Bloody Elbow.

NASH: They made a lot of money on the pay-per-view sales. The estimate Sports Business Journal came up with is that supposedly, it's a little over 700,000 pay-per-views on ESPN alone.

GARCIA: And that's not bad for a UFC event. It's good to be the first sport hosting televised live events. There's just less competition.

VANEK SMITH: The UFC, though, is still taking a big risk hosting events again, especially given how contagious COVID-19 is, because even without an audience for the fights, a UFC event is still a very social atmosphere. There are promotional activities in the days leading up to the fight like weigh-ins, and there are just, like, you know a lot of people milling around the fight venue and the hotels and the fighters and the fight teams running into each other. And there's media there.

GARCIA: Yeah. So the UFC did have a safety plan to try to prevent the spread of the virus at the event.

NASH: They tried to socially distance the people there. They eliminated the amount of people that came to work - less cameramen, used some automated cameras so people can be next to each other, separated the tables, the broadcasters, tested everybody when they showed up - I think both an antibody serum and a test for the virus itself.

GARCIA: The safety plans for the event, which were published by The New York Times, were pretty detailed. People at the event did not always follow them. Some people were shaking hands. Some were not wearing masks. Some were even hugging. In fact, UFC president Dana White himself did all three of those things. And there were side-by-side interviews between announcer Joe Rogan and the fighters, and he also shook their hands.

VANEK SMITH: One fighter - this middleweight Jacare Souza - and two of his cornermen did test positive for COVID-19 before his fight. They were all sent home, and the UFC claimed that Souza had been following safety protocols.

GARCIA: Just one problem - a video showing Souza the night before his fight, having a quick chat - a totally not social-distance-conforming chat - with another fighter, who did later fight on Saturday night.

NASH: I thought if they were going to do the test, they would want to isolate the people till the results came back.

GARCIA: Of course.

NASH: But it doesn't seem like - yeah. But it doesn't seem like that happened.

VANEK SMITH: Because of the incubation period for people who get COVID-19, we won't know for a few weeks if someone actually might have contracted the disease at UFC 249.

GARCIA: But it is at least fair to say that those safety plans were violated repeatedly, sometimes quite publicly and unapologetically. The other controversy that emerged UFC 249 was about the UFC effort to protect itself from legal liability if someone at the event did get sick. The UFC required all people attending the event to sign a participation agreement in which they would basically release the UFC of liability if they got sick.

VANEK SMITH: Steven Bank is with UCLA's School of Law, where he teaches courses that include comparative sports law. And we showed him the agreement to get his reaction.

STEVEN BANK: Someone worked really hard to think about all the ways that they could restrict liability. It was pretty impressive in that sense.

VANEK SMITH: So Steven says it's totally understandable that the UFC would want to limit its liability because even if it is really careful and takes reasonable steps to protect everyone, there is just no way to completely eliminate the risk that someone could get sick.

GARCIA: Plus, Steven says, the agreement was clear and specific. It was not a generic waiver. It had clauses specifically for COVID-19. The controversy was in the language of the agreement and especially in the ways that the UFC tried to shield itself from basically all liability.

BANK: It's typical to waive negligence, but they're waiving gross negligence. And what gross negligence means is blatant disregard of known safety hazards - reckless, careless.

VANEK SMITH: For example, negligence could be that a COVID-19 test was administered badly. Testing procedure was in place, but something happened - maybe an accident.

GARCIA: Whereas gross negligence, Steven says, is if the UFC just didn't bother to test at all or if it deliberately didn't bother testing some people because they just didn't feel like it. That would be an example of blatant disregard and therefore gross negligence. The UFC did not want to be held liable even for that.

BANK: They're clearly just waiving gross negligence in the hopes that nobody will sue them for gross negligence, so that's a big overreach.

VANEK SMITH: And the agreement also included language that severely tried to restrict the extent to which anybody attending the event could even criticize the UFC for safety protocols. And this overall approach - it comes with a potential tradeoff, Steven says.

BANK: When you start overreaching on a waiver, I mean, and get really comprehensive, there is a possibility that a court could throw the whole thing out as unconscionable.

GARCIA: And so one big question here is, why would the fighters themselves voluntarily sign an agreement that puts all of the burden for staying safe on them? Well, for one thing, a lot of them have said that they really do want to get back to fighting. It's what they do. But there is another possible reason. Unlike baseball players or basketball players, UFC fighters are not represented by a union that can bargain on all their behalf and accept or reject parts of a liability agreement like this one.

VANEK SMITH: The UFC has almost total discretion over when they can fight and, therefore, when they can make money. Also, the share of revenue that the UFC gives to its fighters is much smaller than what other athletes in other sports get.

GARCIA: So UFC fighters might feel like they just don't have much of a choice about whether to sign legal agreements like this one, and that is something a judge can take into account. John Nash says he thinks UFC events can have some lessons for how other sports might reopen, but in this one way, the UFC is singular.

NASH: I think there's lessons, probably, to draw from production and what not to do for the other sports that they can look at and say, OK, this is where the UFC made mistakes, and this is how production, you know, could look and how it can be different without an audience. But I don't think the major leagues - if they come back, it's not going to be anything like this because the players associations are just not going to accept whatever the league - you know, whatever the owners want them to do.

GARCIA: We contacted the UFC, and a spokesman sent us a written statement saying the UFC believes its plan, quote, "provides a roadmap for a prudent, safe and responsible working environment." The statement also said the UFC would be updating its plan regularly with, quote, "key learnings from each event going forward."

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR's editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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