UFC Becomes Latest Promotion to Take Money from Saudi Arabia
Sports leagues, especially in the United States, constantly chase the next revenue stream. There would always come a time when the UFC decided to take money from Middle Eastern investment. There is too much money on the table for them to try and ignore that avenue completely. MMA news sites have announced that the UFC will hold its first fight night card in Saudi Arabia in March 2024 this week.
This has been a significant week of news for the UFC, which saw its relationship with USADA for drug testing be dissolved. The deal with Saudi Arabia is big for the UFC, helping expand its fan base toward the Middle East. Unlike other sports that have taken heat for taking Middle Eastern money, the UFC likely won’t face as much criticism. While the UFC has made many strides toward being seen as a legitimate sport, many people in the United States still view the promotion as a fringe sport. Fighters for the Saudi Arabian event haven’t been announced yet.
Ties With Pro Wrestling Likely Helped Get Deal Done
Regarding the latest MMA updates, the UFC has made significant waves in 2023. During the promotion’s 30th anniversary, the UFC entered into a deal with the WWE to merge under the title of TKO Group Holdings. The WWE has been promoting events in Saudi Arabia since 2014.
WWE had a $50 million deal with the General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia. The WWE has two marquee events in Saudi Arabia every year. The WWE faced a lot of criticism for doing business with the country.
Female spectators weren’t allowed to attend the events until 2017. Due to the dress code for women in Saudi Arabia, a women’s match wasn’t held in Saudi Arabia until 2019. When the women’s match was held, they wore full bodysuits instead of their usual ring attire.
Natalya Neidhart ended up defeating Lacey Evans in the first-ever women’s match. In 2020, the WWE would put on a high-profile women’s match in Saudi Arabia. Bayley defended her SmackDown Women’s Championship against Naomi.
UFC Couldn’t Afford to Fall Behind
The merger with WWE aimed to keep both publicly traded bands more viable. When the Saudia Arabians got involved with other MMA organizations, the WWE saw its value drop. Back in August, the PFL sold a minority stake in its company to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The deal was reportedly for $100 million.
The thought was that the WWE’s value suffered due to increased competition. The Saudis were already involved in the boxing match between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou this October, which will be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While this fight is an exhibition, it got much fanfare due to the two athletes involved.
UFC Already Made Some In-Roads in Region
The pandemic forced the UFC to be creative to sustain its business. Many countries had restrictive lockdown procedures, which made it difficult to put on fights. UFC CEO Dana White decided to head to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in 2020 and 2021 to put on several fight cards.
The UFC put on nine fights in a bubble environment from July 12, 2020, to October 24, 2020, at du Forum. Once restrictions eased up, the UFC held a number of fight cards at Eithad Arena. These fight cards weren’t just regular events either.
During the first event at “Fight Island,” Kamaru Usman defended his welterweight championship against Jorge Masvidal. The UFC held two more pay-per-view events at the venue in 2020. In 20201, the UFC had five events at the Etihad Arena.
The biggest of those events was Connor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 on January 24, 2021. Poirier got revenge by knocking out McGregor in the second round.
Other Leagues Have Seen Major Saudi Interest
Saudi Arabia’s major investment in professional sports has seen a lot of hand-wringing from people suspicious of the nation for being involved with sports leagues. Where the Public Investment Fund upset the world order was in golf. With Saudi investment, the LIV Tour was able to sign many of the top golfers on the PGA Tour.
Instead of worrying about making a living by winning purses at events, the Public Investment fund promised large salaries to golfers regardless of how they finished. This set off a battle between the two organizations and the ethics of taking money from the PIF. While the PGA tour initially wanted to wait out a new tour to see if it would work, there has already been a proposal for a merger between the PGA, European. and LIV Tours. While that legal battle is ongoing, Saudi investment undoubtedly shook up the sport.
How Will UFC Be Impacted?
The UFC wants to promote itself as the best brand worldwide. Anyone looking at MMA news websites will see the UFC trying to put on shows in as many locations as possible to reach its fans worldwide. Building a strong following in the Middle East would benefit the sport.
While the UFC is based out of the United States, a significant portion of its lineup comes from places outside the United States. Having more events outside its home country may inspire fighters who hope to fight in the world’s largest promotion in front of a home crowd. The UFC was also smart to get involved before the Saudis backed another promotion. While White is a character who is often feuding with people and can be cruel, there is no denying he is an excellent businessman and a strong promoter of combat sports.
The UFC stomped out most of its competitors during its early days. With Bellator appearing ready to fold soon, the UFC didn’t want to see the Saudis throw their weight behind the PFL or another brand that may threaten the UFC’s market share.
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