UFC fans hoping to catch this weekend’s fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, one the biggest MMA events of the year, might be surprised by the event’s start time.
Prelims for UFC 254, held in Abu Dhabi, start at 10:30 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, with the main event likely finishing around 5:30 p.m. That’s a departure from the promotion’s other fights in the United Arab Emirates capital this year—UFC has held eight events on “Fight Island” during the pandemic and all eight have started well after midnight locally, so as to air in the U.S. primetime.
This event, however, is taking a different approach, one that will likely cost UFC some money in the short term. The reasons are two-fold, according to UFC COO Lawrence Epstein. First, UFC was hoping to host a select number of fans at the event, which won’t end up happening. Second, and more importantly, UFC is satisfying its local broadcast partners in Europe, Asia and North Africa, which would obviously prefer to have a fight of this magnitude start in their evening, as opposed to the middle of the night.
“This year has been unique because of COVID; we’ve done all these events since March all in primetime in the U.S.,” Epstein said. “But as we talk to our partners, and we care about those partners around the world, we wanted to deliver to them some great content, in their markets, in their primetime.”
Nurmagomedov, an undefeated champion and one of UFC’s top draws, is tremendously popular across the Middle East and parts of Europe and Asia. Born in the Republic of Dagestan in Southern Russia, he was the promotion’s first Muslim champion. Recent wins over Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier have cemented his legacy, and at 28-0, given him the longest active unbeaten streak in UFC.
But while hosting the event in primetime for parts of Russia and the Middle East might draw more eyeballs in aggregate, it almost definitely won’t maximize revenue. The fight is only available in the U.S. through a $64.99 ESPN purchase, but its distribution in other parts of the world is more complex. In the Middle East, the main card is on UFC Arabia, an OTT platform. In Russia, it’s on a major broadcast network. Neither are pay-per-view.
The short-term losses might be offset by the benefits of keeping UFC’s global partners happy. “In the long term,” Epstein said, “the more you deliver for your partners from a ratings standpoint, the better off you are at monetizing that going forward.”
A solid UFC pay-per-view does about 500,000 buys globally, with the U.S. as the largest market. Three of the five UFC pay-per-view events since the pandemic have sold more than 700,000, including a July event in Abu Dhabi that sold more than a million.
Epstein declined to provide estimates on what this event might do (he said early sales are “excellent”) but there’s some precedent. Nurmagomedov’s last fight, in September 2019, was also held in Abu Dhabi in local primetime. His third-round submission of Poirier drew approximately half a million global buys, according to a source familiar with the number.
In some ways this is a return to UFC’s pre-COVID approach. UFC generally holds about 44 events per year, and 20% of them are held in non-North American time zones. Those events are almost always held during a time that accommodates both local broadcasters and the thousands of fans buying tickets. The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously changed that calculus a bit, with tickets coming out of the equation.
UFC, which is owned by Endeavor, was one of the first major U.S. sports leagues to resume competition during the pandemic. It has held 31 since the U.S. sports calendar went dark—23 in the U.S., and eight in Abu Dhabi.