During the peak of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of live sport was highly anticipated as many leagues were postponed indefinitely. Several sporting events and properties remain either on hold or cancelled around the world due to the ongoing outbreak, with some still just beginning to restart more recently. One franchise that was keen to make their move back into the market was UFC, who put on their first live event on May 9th with another two following in quick succession on May 13th and May 16th. Being the first major sport back had its advantages and this article outlines the benefits that came with this early return.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that live sport had not made an appearance on our TV screens for almost two months, with many cancellations happening from mid-March onwards to control the spread of the virus and ensure public safety. Viewership trends showed that overall TV viewing increased during this time, with many people spending more hours at home due to the global lockdown that took place. Viewership of sports channels however, drastically declined. Sports viewership is heavily driven by live events and so with none taking place, UK audiences dropped by 86% in the second half of March vs. the first half. They began to pick back up again in early May as some sports restarted and most noticebly in mid-June which saw the return of Premier League football.
The determined team behind UFC were eager to change this viewership trend and thus UFC became the first major sport to make a comeback on May 9th. With no crowd present, UFC 249 was the first event to take place after several scheduling issues and fighter changes meant that it was pushed back from its original date of April 18th, with UFC not wanting to cease operations in the first place. UFC 249 was due to go ahead in Brooklyn, New York, but on March 12th the city governor issued an order restricting gatherings and sporting events. It was announced on March 18th that the event could not take place at its original venue and was subsequently moved to Jacksonville, Florida. This venue choice meant that headline fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov was unable to participate, with the travel bans not allowing him to make it to a US location from his hometown in Russia. Instead Justin Gaethje stepped in just one month before the event and fought against Tony Ferguson in the headline fight.
The return of UFC was controversial as it occurred so soon after the initial postponements and cancellations of live sport following the COVID-19 outbreak. But with multiple rounds of testing for the virus and a limited number of people involved in each event, UFC 249 went ahead in a safe and COVID-free environment. Some branded this a bad idea, but the impact of new viewers has been hugely beneficial.
New Viewers Watched UFC 249
UFC 249 was the only live sport taking place at that time, with most other leagues either still postponed or out of season. UK viewers had been deprived of live sport since around mid-March and the return of some sense of normality had been long awaited, with UFC 249 providing the perfect opportunity for many to get their sports fix.
The Preliminary Card started at 1AM locally in the UK with the Main Card following two hours later at 3AM on BT Sport 1. The late start times however did not deter live viewers with the Prelims having the largest live audience to date and the Main Card the 5th most watched (excluding BT Sport Box Office viewership), in the UK since monitoring began. The viewership for UFC 249 was boosted by new viewers – people who had not watched any UFC programming in 2019 or the first three months of 2020. 25% of the Preliminary Card and 26% of the Main Card audiences for UFC 249 consisted of new viewers, which was a large driver of the audiences ranking so highly.
This trend continued for the rest of the events that took place in May and June, with new viewers accounting for an average of 17% of the Prelims and 18% of the Main Cards. These were the same ‘new viewers’ that had not watched any UFC programming in 2019 and the first three months of 2020, so it’s possible that new viewers to ESPN 36 on May 13th had already watched UFC 249 on May 9th.
Average Audience Per Event, Split by Previous UFC Viewers and 'New Viewers'
UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje was the first event of a three-part Fight Week with UFC Fight Night: Smith vs. Teixeira (ESPN 36) taking place on the Wednesday and UFC on ESPN: Overeem vs. Harris (ESPN 37) on the following Saturday. This is a different format to UFC Fight Weeks that have taken place in previous years, which have included a TUF Finale on a Friday night followed by a Pay-Per-View event the next day in its usual Saturday slot. The international audiences for midweek events are limited due to the timing, with the events taking place in the middle of the night across Europe, and during a work morning throughout Asia, two key markets for the UFC outside of the US.
UFC 249 was the highest performing event of the 2020 Fight Week, given it was highly anticipated as the first live UFC event to return following the COVID-19 outbreak. Following this, ESPN 36 on the Wednesday received a global audience in line with TUF Finales that have been part of previous Fight Weeks, with ESPN 37 performing similarly to the following PPV events.
Global Main Card Duration Adjusted Average Audience
New Viewers Watched Tentpole Events
The trend of new viewers tuning into live UFC events in the UK is much more apparent when the event ticks all the right boxes to attract larger audiences. The event being hosted locally, featuring local heroes, title fights, and popular match-ups all add to the value of the event and the interest from not only fans but also wider audiences. These kinds of events also tend to gain more attention across web and social media platforms, and in turn have the ability to reach people who have not previously watched any UFC.
Of the events measured, UFC Fight Night: Till vs. Masvidal (ESPN 6) had the largest proportion of new viewers, with 63% of the main card audience accounted for by people who had not watched any UFC programming in the 18 months prior to the live event. ESPN 6 was headlined by local hero Darren Till, who was born in Liverpool, UK and fought in his first UFC event back in May 2015. Since then his popularity has grown and he has become the choice fighter for headline fights, especially for events hosted in the UK, his home country. ESPN 6 took place in London which also made it more accessible for live viewers, with the event starting at 8PM locally compared to US hosted events that start in the early hours of morning for the UK, usually around 3AM. The earlier start time combined with Darren Till headlining, meant that the live Main Card of ESPN 6 became the most watched Fight Night International event to date in the UK, on BT Sport channels.
Conor McGregor is another large driver of event popularity, with his growing social media presence as well as his successful MMA record meaning UFC fanatics and general sports fans are usually invested in his career and fights that he takes on. This popularity showed in UFC 229, which saw over half of its total audience made up by new viewers - 58% of the Preliminary Card and 61% of the Main Card. The event featured the return of McGregor, his first fight in almost two years, in a huge match-up against the undefeated Russian, Khabib Nurmagomedov, to fight for the UFC Lightweight Championship title.
Average Audience Per Event, Split by Previous UFC Viewers and 'New Viewers'
‘Fight Island’ Announced by Dana White
Following the travel issues surrounding UFC 249, the concept of ‘Fight Island’ was revealed by Dana White, UFC President, on April 6th, a month prior to the return of UFC. The purchase of a private island in Abu Dhabi would allow UFC to freely host their events, with fighters flying in on private planes to minimise contact and become exempt from many travel restrictions. The island remained closed to tourism and there were no audiences present at the events, which has been the case since ESPN 35 on March 14th. All visitors to Fight Island were tested for COVID before their arrival and every newcomer had to quarantine for 48 hours. Once the quarantine period was over and if the COVID test came back negative, only then could people mix with other guests and explore the island.
UFC 251 First Event to Take Place on Fight Island
Despite Dana White’s best efforts, Fight Island was not ready in time for UFC 249 and instead the first event to take place there was UFC 251. The card was stacked with two title fights, had three unbeaten records being put on the line, and of course, the big reveal of Fight Island. It was not one to be missed, and this was reciprocated in the global viewership for the event with UFC 251 currently the third most watched PPV Main Card since the start of 2017, behind only UFC 229 and UFC 246 which were both headlined by UFC fan favourite, Conor McGregor.
UFC 251 also attracted new viewers in the UK, with almost a quarter (22%) of the Preliminary Card accounted for by those who had not watched any UFC programming prior to the event taking place on 11th July. 7% of the Main Card was also made up by new viewers, with many people committing to watching the event late into the night in the UK following the local start time of 3AM for the Main Card and the Preliminary Card kicking off two hours earlier.
A UFC Welterweight Championship bout between Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns was due to headline UFC 251. Just over a week before the event on July 3rd however, Burns was pulled from the event after he and his coach tested positive for COVID-19. To make things that little bit more exciting, Jorge Masvidal took the title fight on just six days’ notice and following a 24-hour quarantine period and last minute COVID test, fought for the belt. He lost by unanimous decision, but there were large amounts of respect for him even taking the fight in the first place on such short notice and adding to the already compelling idea of Fight Island.
The viewership numbers show that the return of UFC was not premature and certainly gave them a head start against other competitors by capturing new viewers that had not watched any UFC programming in the past. The efficient comeback as well as the introduction of Fight Island has meant that they have also been able to reinvigorate previous UFC viewers to add to the already increased audiences. Following UFC 251, several other events have already taken place on Fight Island and many more are still to come throughout 2020. We expect these strong audiences to continue throughout the year as both the interest around Fight Island and consumers’ increased appetite for live sport after the breaks shows no sign of fading. With UFC’s creativity and determination, who knows what they might throw our way next!