In the Age of COVID-19: A Seismic Shift in Sports

2 min read

Sports Organizations such as the UFC have long catered to live-audiences. With the Outbreak of COVID-19, that may soon change.

Last night I watched UFC Fight Night 170 from a friend’s office space. In an otherwise energized atmosphere, the communal workspace was eerily quiet. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, I’d have been glad, relieved to hear the commentary and crowd reactions to an exhilarating bout.

Yet, there was none.

The UFC has remained one of the few large sports organizations continuing to hold widely watched events in light of the Pandemic outbreak. This is all the more impressive, considering leagues such as the NBA and MLB have cancelled events for the remainder of the season. With respect to the UFC, the caveat is that live audiences won’t be allowed to attend for fear of spreading a highly contagious virus. So on Saturday night, when Charles Oliveira submitted Kevin Lee in the third round adding a big name to the rising phenom’s now 7 fight win-streak, the arena remained eerily silent.

Oliveira’s fans at home celebrated I’m sure, but the charged atmosphere which brings events such as these to life was lacking. I felt as though I had watched two fighters in training camp. The loudest noise in the arena throughout the bout was the shouting of their cornermen, muddled advice which would have otherwise been drowned out by appropriate audience reactions.

For the casual mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fan like myself, the experience sucked.

Like millions of casuals, I primarily watch sports for the cathartic release doing so provides. The octagon is my arena. The fighters are my avatars. For the majority of fans not well versed in the technical aspects of martial arts, the atmosphere is a critical component of our experience. Without it, the build-up to an event has no appropriate release; anticipation fizzles out, leaving an unsatisfied customer.

The UFC and other sports organizations made the responsible choice, the right one. Now they’ll have to grapple with the financial realities of that choice.

In December 2013, the UFC launched Fight Pass, a subscription-based streaming service UFC President Dana White referred to as “Netflix for fight fans.” Additionally, through a partnership with ESPN, the UFC sells Pay­­­-per-View (PPV) access to events on ESPN plus.

Sports leagues have long sought to grow their revenues through live streaming events. Strategic partnerships have enabled them to roll out services to allow fans to relive old matches and watch new ones live from the comfort of their couches.

In fact, 59% of Americans prefer to watch sports from home than live, according to a Yougov survey from 2017. This sounds promising, though the same survey concludes Millennials (a large audience for sporting events) value experiences far above the costs of those experiences when compared to different age groups.

Sports leagues and promotion companies must tailor their offerings to their audiences. Adapting to the current situation will determine long-term success. For a long time, events were organized with the satisfaction of live audiences in mind. Now, organizations must focus primarily on the needs of their remote viewers.

I don’t know what that will look like. Audience interaction turns mediocre events into good ones and great ones into historical events. Substituting the experience of a live audience will be tough though I’m sure the UFC and other leagues will discover novel ways of exciting their viewers.

Like millions of other MMA fans, I’ll be waiting for the highly anticipated UFC 249, which will take place on April 18. Though there will be no live audience, the excitement of MMA fans around the world over the final bout between undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Interim champion Tony Ferguson is almost palpable. For the sake of sports viewership going forward, let’s hope the UFC can capture that.

Mohammed Siddiqui Studied Business and International Relations at Carnegie Mellon. Interested in geopolitics, political economy, technological innovation, markets, international development, and consumer trends. I enjoy investing, working out, and drinking Raspberry Hot Chocolate.

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