COMMENTARY: What can the UFC tell us about the post-coronavirus return of sports?

With live sports action absent from the world’s TV screens, and as fans suffer through prolonged withdrawal symptoms, leave it to Dana White to be the first guy to seriously shake up the status quo.

White is president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the dominant league and brand name in the bloody world of mixed martial arts.

As a disrupter of the traditional sports hierarchy, White has used his own marketing genius and show-business flair to take the UFC to unpredicted heights.

Now here he goes again, vowing to stage a UFC pay-per-view event next month in Florida, where the governor has declared televised professional sports to be an “essential service” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I guarantee you, it’s gonna be fireworks,” White told Yahoo Sports. “You are not going to be disappointed.”

White had earlier tried, and failed, to get his ultimate fighting shows back on the air in California. He even vowed to beam UFC cards from a secret “fight island,” where pesky local authorities couldn’t shut him down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now that he has a friendly governor and co-operative state government in his corner, it looks like his next UFC extravaganza will really happen on May 9 in Jacksonville, Fla.

White’s foray into Florida could be just the start, said ESPN reporter Ariel Alwani.

“I can tell you that UFC is proceeding with trying to put on not only this event on May 9, but several events in the days and weeks following as well,” Alwani told me.

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Alwani, a Montreal native who has become the leading journalist covering the sport, said UFC fighters are clamouring to be part of White’s pandemic-defying shows.

“A lot of fighters are trying to jump on this bandwagon,” Alwani said, pointing out UFC fighters don’t belong to a union, like athletes in North America’s major professional team leagues.

“The worst thing that could happen is what happened in Japan,” Alwani said.

“The Japanese basketball league returned to action, but they returned too soon and they have been shut down again.”

But White seems confident that a closely monitored and tightly restricted group of healthy athletes and officials will be able to pull this off safely.

And it’s clear other major professional sports are watching closely as they plan their own returns to action.

The National Hockey League and its players’ association have formed a committee to discuss a potential return to the ice, according to multiple reports.

The plan could see the NHL resume its interrupted scheduled in July, with games played in NHL “hub cities” that show dropping COVID-19 caseloads.

For hockey fans in Canada, it could mean a return of NHL play in cities like Vancouver and Edmonton, although the arena seats could remain empty for games.

Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are also studying a return to play in neutral stadiums empty of fans.

But staging a UFC card with a small number of participants is one thing. Re-launching major sports leagues with hundreds of players, coaches and officials is quite another.

Other sports seem better-positioned to return to action sooner than the big team sports, Alwani told me.

“Sports like golf and NASCAR will have a better chance of returning sooner than team sports where you have contact with a lot more people,” he said.

“The idea that on July 1 we’re just going to flip the switch and there will be 20,000 fans in the arenas, that is very naive.”

But if White can start delivering his UFC events again next month, it could be a start back to a “new normal” for TV sports.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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