When the global pandemic crippled businesses across the globe, Endeavor—the parent company to the UFC—was no different.
Initially a talent agency that eventually transformed into a global media company, Endeavor saw its bottom line crushed under the weight of COVID-19. With Hollywood essentially shut down, Endeavor, which owns sports operations like the UFC and Professional Bull Riders, lost almost all of the company’s ability to generate revenue. But the UFC served as a life raft after UFC President Dana White defiantly promised to return to action faster than any other major sport on the planet.
White delivered on his guarantee with live events returning one year ago, weeks ahead of other leagues like the NBA or the NHL. But the UFC couldn’t just stay in the United States, where restrictions surrounding the pandemic were constantly shifting and changing, not to mention there is a roster of fighters who were from international locations where travel into the U.S. wasn’t guaranteed.
According to Endeaver CEO Ari Emanuel, it was during this time that he received a call from his friend Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who is a partner in Abu Dhabi and an influential adviser to de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Emanuel and Al Mubarak had been close for many years as Endeavor took on major investors from Abu Dhabi. But as the company was hemorrhaging money during the pandemic, he pushed for a solution to get events back up and running to generate cash flow.
That’s when Al Mubarak gave Emanuel the idea to bring the UFC to Abu Dhabi for an extended stay.
“Khaldoon said, ‘Why don’t you have the UFC come here? We’ll create a bubble for you.’” Emanuel relayed in an interview with The New Yorker. “And then everything got started.”
That was the beginning of what eventually became Fight Island, a cordoned-off part of Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, filled with luxury hotels, a state-of-the-art arena, training facilities, restaurants and every other possible amenity to provide for the UFC that also cut down on any potential risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
As the UFC continued to plot a return to action, Emanuel turned to his brother Ezekiel, a noted bioethicist and oncologist who served on President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board. Prior to that, he first offered advice to his sibling about putting on events during the pandemic after previously advising leagues such as the NBA on similar matters.
“In sports, they’re all lemmings,” Ezekiel Emanuel told the New Yorker. “No one wanted to be out there first. And that’s why the UFC was first. Because there is a guy [in Dana White] who is not a lemming.”
After promoting several events in the United States in Jacksonville, Fla., White introduced plans for Fight Island with a series of events in Abu Dhabi in July 2020. The first show was a smash hit with Kamaru Usman defending his welterweight title against Jorge Masvidal in the main event. Pay-per-view sales reportedly reached over one million buys.
White has often talked about the overall cost of bringing events to Fight Island. But according to the new report, it was actually Abu Dhabi who picked up the tab after building the arena as well as providing “private planes, food, housing, testing facilities, and medical staff.”
Abu Dhabi also reportedly paid the UFC for each fight card “at rates that compensated for the absence of ticket sales,” which was a major revenue loss for the promotion.
The UFC continued promoting cards on Fight Island throughout 2020 and traveled there as recently as January with a series of events that included Conor McGregor’s return to action in a fight against Dustin Poirier. White has said the UFC will eventually return to Abu Dhabi this year even with restrictions being lifted and the promotion starting to put on cards with fans in attendance again.
Thanks in part to Abu Dhabi and the UFC’s tireless efforts to put on events during the pandemic, Endeavor President Mark Shapiro called the promotion the “saving grace” for the company.
Now with Endeavor’s financials back in order with productions in Hollywood buzzing again, not to mention a recent deal struck with the Writer’s Guild of America, the company is once again preparing for an initial public offering that is expected to provide a huge injection of cash with estimates around $500 million generated from the stock.
(Editor’s Note: The Vox Media Union is represented by the Writer’s Guild of America.)