Lawrence Epstein interview: UFC 'want to be in business with Abu Dhabi for ever'
MMA company's COO discusses the success of Fight Island, what makes Dana White a marketing genius, and future ambitions in the capital
The UFC hopes to be in business with Abu Dhabi “for ever” as it continues to thrive off the back of Fight Island, according to senior executive vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein.
The world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion, who signed a five-year deal with the emirate last year, is currently in the capital for its second residency in less than three months. “Return to UFC Fight Island” has staged two of its five events, with the most recent taking place at Flash Forum on Sunday.
Following on from July’s hugely successful inaugural series, the promotion’s second run began on September 27 with UFC 253 and concludes on October 24 with UFC 254. It marks the first time in UFC history that consecutive numbered events are staged in the same city outside Las Vegas.
The brainchild of UFC president Dana White, Fight Island was created to allow the promotion’s international athletes to compete during the coronavirus pandemic. Abu Dhabi first hosted the UFC in 2010.
“We’ve been partnered with Abu Dhabi at various levels for over a decade now, so this relationship is deep and it’s long-standing,” Epstein told The National. “And it just continues to get deeper. The partnership we’ve got here in Abu Dhabi is really second to none as far as relationships we have around the world.
“What we’ve been able to do just this year in an incredibly challenging Covid environment to put on these two Fight Island series of events has been incredible. And we just couldn’t have done it without the cooperation and the partnerships we have here in Abu Dhabi.
“As far as I’m concerned – and I know Dana feels the same way – we want to be in business with Abu Dhabi for ever. They’re incredible partners and they do everything you could ever ask of a partner. And I feel really proud that we’ve delivered for them."
Despite the pandemic, the UFC has continued to host major events, be it in Jacksonville, Florida, at their base in Las Vegas, or in Abu Dhabi. White has stated that his business has gone from strength-to-strength, confirming during the first Fight Island that merchandise sales had already outstripped the intake for the whole of 2019.
UFC 251, which opened the July run, was reported to have generated around 1.3 million pay-per-view (PPV) buys, making it the company's most successful card since Conor McGregor took on Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018. Meanwhile, last week's UFC 253 is said to have registered more than 700,000 PPV buys – the third highest of the year.
The pre-event face-off, featuring middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and challenger Paulo Costa, broke numerous UFC records, including its most-shared video on Instagram. By the event's conclusion, it had more than 26 million views across the UFC’s social media accounts.
“One of the things that’s really exciting is we’ve built a real brand in Fight Island," Epstein said. "This is not just events we’re doing here in Abu Dhabi; we’ve built a permanent part of the UFC landscape in the Fight Island brand and that’s something that’s going to continue on for many, many years to come.
“It's been a huge part of the success that we’ve had the last several months. Dana, as we know, is a marketing genius – he figures out ways to get people excited and interested with a little bit of mystery and, of course, he does it with incredible promotion. And Fight Island is really going to rank up there at the top, if not at the top, of the ideas that he’s come up with over the years.
"He built the mystery of it, this interest, this excitement. And then delivering with this first-class infrastructure that we’ve got here on Yas Island. Supported, of course, by just some incredible fights, it culminated in a huge success for the UFC. Not just for our hardcore fans that love the sport, but for new fans that were coming in to sample UFC."
While UFC events continue to be staged without fans in attendance, Epstein said discussions have taken place regarding allowing spectators at UFC 254, which is headlined by Nurmagomedov’s long-awaited return. The undefeated lightweight champion, who has not fought since his appearance in September last year at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, takes on interim belt-holder Justin Gaethje at the top of another stellar card.
“This will be something that will be up to the local authorities here in Abu Dhabi,” Epstein said. “The local health authorities and a variety of others will have to ultimately make that decision. At the end of the day, we're really excited for the world to return back to normal.
“Having fans in the arenas for UFC events make the events in many ways. We’ll see what happens. We’re certainly willing to work with our partners here in Abu Dhabi and figure out what works for them.
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"Obviously the best-case scenario is to get back to full stadiums and the crowds that we were so used to. But we’ve got a new reality with Covid; we’ve got to deal with it and figure out ways to continue to move on.”
Epstein said a number of alterations were made between Fight Island series, including tightening the bubble on Yas Island – a 6 square-kilometre “safe zone” houses the entire operation – and increased testing for those travelling into Abu Dhabi. It is estimated that more than 18,000 Covid-19 tests were carried out at Fight Island 1, with the second residency expected to exceed 20,000.
Epstein said the greatest challenge remains the “incredible logistical puzzle” of bringing people in from around the world, adding significantly to an already substantial financial undertaking.
“I won’t get into specifics, but I can tell you that we’re making a huge financial commitment, as are our partners here in Abu Dhabi to put on these events,” he said. “As you can imagine, it’s not cheap to move people around the world on chartered airplanes and stay in first-class hotels and put on events. It’s definitely an expensive undertaking, but for us it’s absolutely worth it."
While not ruling out a third Fight Island run in Abu Dhabi before the end of the year, Epstein said for now the plan is for the UFC to see out the remainder of 2020 at its home in Las Vegas.
As to the UFC setting up a permanent base in the capital, given its frequent visits to the emirate, he said: “We’re open to any and all ideas potentially to continue to deepen this relationship with Abu Dhabi, whether that’s having some sort of permanent establishment or other types of arrangement.
“Listen, we’ve got a five-year deal, we’re only in Year 2 of that. I hope our relationship continues on for many, many decades to come. At the end of the day, we love this partnership, we love this relationship and we want it to continue in a lot of different forms.”
Updated: October 5, 2020 03:12 PM