How did Salt Lake City land two UFC pay-per-views within a year?

After two previous attempts at an MMA event in Utah fell short of expectations, shifting demographics and economics, plus a pinch hit from a new face with some juice wound up creating the perfect storm.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People line up outside of Vivint Arena for the start of UFC 278 mixed martial arts title bouts in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

A UFC fight card is a destination event, with plenty of prominent and sizable locales vying to host pay-per-view events from the premier combat sports organization in the world.

Las Vegas. Los Angeles. New York City. Miami. Houston. Phoenix. London. Rio de Janeiro. Abu Dhabi.

So how is it — with UFC 291 coming to the Delta Center this Saturday — that humble little Salt Lake City has managed to host two pay-per-view events in a span of less than 12 months?

When UFC president Dana White came to SLC in June 2022 to promote UFC 278, his organization’s first-ever PPV-level fight card in Utah, he made it sound as though it was a fait accompli, that they had no choice but to stage an event here.

“This place is on fire right now. It’s continuing to grow, it’s booming, and becoming one of the better global destinations in the world,” White said at the time. “… “It’s that place now. Listen, Salt Lake City is on the map.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC president Dana White, left, and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith conduct a news conference ahead of a mixed marital arts event UFC 278 at Vivint Arena, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

While UFC 278 did turn out to be a hugely successful endeavor, propelled by a headline-grabbing shocker of a welterweight title match between Leon Edwards and Kamaru Usman, giving the go-ahead to staging that card at what was then Vivint Arena was not quite the no-brainer decision it’s been portrayed as.

“Last year — and I don’t blame them — they still felt like it was a huge risk,” Mark Powell, the Delta Center’s Senior Vice President of Events, told The Salt Lake Tribune this week.

The city had some basic numbers and a bit of history working against it.

For starters, with less than 3 million people living along the Wasatch Front, the greater Salt Lake City area simply doesn’t have the demographic drawing power of other metro markets.

Concurrent with that, two previous lackluster forays into SLC had not made the company entirely confident that it could stage a successful event here.

Lawrence Epstein, UFC’s Chief Operating Officer, told The Tribune that when the organization is assessing potential markets, it looks at a variety of factors: a viable and quality venue, areas with an established track record of staging successful sporting events, local business entities to partner with, and the demographics of the potential fanbase.

Around 2010, the 501(c)3 nonprofit Utah Sports Commission, which plays a key role in attracting sporting events to the state, believed that recent success in branding itself to the action sports world — motocross, supercross, Dew Tour, et cetera — would translate well to attracting a then-emerging entity such as the UFC, and its personnel started reaching out and making some inroads.

Some other demographic factors within Utah, however, did not play well with an unfortunate scheduling quirk.

“We bid on one [event] in [2010] and we were awarded it, but they wanted to have it on a Sunday night,” said Jeff Robbins, President and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission. “We kept telling them we don’t think Sunday will be a good night. It didn’t sell well, and so they moved that one to San Diego.”

Indeed, two weeks of tepid sales were all that was needed to pull the plug here. (In fairness, the event — UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko — which was ultimately held on Aug. 1, 2010 only wound up drawing 8,000 fans at the San Diego Sports Arena.)

Still, Robbins & Co. kept trying to make it happen here.

Six years later, a joint bid from the Utah Sports Commission and the Utah Jazz’s arena proved enough to get the UFC to actually stage an event, in the form of a second-tier “Fight Night.”

However, a middling fight card devoid of any of the company’s biggest stars or brand-name fighters resulted in an arena was less than half-full and a mediocre atmosphere.

“A Fight Night back then [with] 8,000 people probably was OK. You know, it didn’t set the world on fire, but it certainly wasn’t bad,” said Robbins. “Today, that would not live up to their standards at all. So we had a little work to do.”

Powell was less diplomatic.

“I think we sold about 6,000 tickets,” he said. “I’ve been bugging them nonstop since 2016 to come back.”

Though both men had a receptive audience in Peter Dropick, UFC’s Executive VP of Event Development & Operations, owing to years of relationship-building, they still were facing an uphill battle.

Robbins believes that even though the failure of the 2012 event was due, in part, to the UFC’s own poor scheduling decision, the stigma of surrendering an event had become “a real big hurdle” to overcome. Powell, meanwhile, points to the poor performance of the 2016 appearance as the primary roadblock to getting the UFC to give them another chance.

“I think their reservations were based on 2016 — Pete said [it was] sort of underwhelming. It didn’t perform to our goal. So he had reservations about that. And I had to convince him, ‘That’s because you didn’t bring us a pay-per-view,’” said Powell. “And they had reservations about our overall population — they’re looking at it like, well, Phoenix has 10 million people and Salt Lake has 2.8.”

Dropick apparently offered to stage another Fight Night in Salt Lake City. His Utah counterparts insisted on hosting a pay-per-view.

So, how did they land UFC 278? And subsequently UFC 291? What changed?

Well, a few important things.

“Look, what’s happened in Salt Lake City between 2016 and 2022 and ‘23 [is] a radical transformation in the economy, tremendous growth,” said Epstein. “The Salt Lake City market has completely transformed for the better, frankly, from an economic standpoint over that six- or seven-year period.”

Powell added that, despite Utah’s population skewing young owing to couples having relatively large families, the presence of Silicon Slopes and the burgeoning tech sector in Utah County have resulted in a significant uptick in the expenditure of disposable income.

He points to the state’s growing concert scene, with every major touring act now coming through Salt Lake, and ticket sales comparing favorably to such markets as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Phoenix, and Denver.

“Our economy, and the way people in Utah are supporting live events, is a night-and-day difference between 2023 and 2016,” Powell said. “There’s just no comparison.”

Beyond that, the UFC bid got a boost from a heavy hitter with juice when Ryan Smith purchased the Jazz and the arena in 2020.

“He asked me at the time, ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, call your friends at [UFC parent company] Endeavor and see if we can get a pay-per-view,’” Powell said with a laugh.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith speaks to media at Vivint Arena, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

And indeed, Smith reaching out to Endeavor Holdings Group CEO Ari Emanuel helped grease the wheels.

Utah becoming one of the first states to “open up” as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed also played a role.

Once the UFC made the decision in the spring of 2021 to quit alternating between zero-capacity crowds in its UFC Apex facility and its so-called “Fight Island” shows in the United Arab Emirates, and to once again stage events in American arenas full of fans, Salt Lake City was “within a whisker” of landing one of those shows, according to Powell.

UFC 261 at VyStar Arena in Jacksonville drew 15,269. UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston brought in 16,005. And UFC 263 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., had 17,208 in attendance. Powell said that UFC 264 was slated for SLC, but that a week before tickets were to go on sale, Nevada eased its restrictions, and the event headlined by megastar Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier wound up being held in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.

Still, Dropick sent a text to Robbins in August 2021 with a simple but encouraging message: “We want to talk.”

Salt Lake City was suddenly ticking a lot of Epstein’s boxes. Viable venue? The Delta Center’s 2017 renovation and 2022 upgrades sufficed. Check. Track record of well-staged events? The Jazz have sold out every home game for three straight seasons. Check. Local partnerships? The Utah Sports Commission paid an undisclosed sum in sponsorship fees to entice the UFC, and Smith Entertainment Group put the cherry on top by guarding against low-ticket-sales fears with Smith putting up some of his own money in a multi-seven figure gate guarantee.

“If it wouldn’t have sold, it was a huge risk that Ryan and the Smith Entertainment Group, me and the Delta Center, and Jazz took on this fight last year,” said Powell. “But we believed in it. And we were so confident, we thought there’s no way we’re going to lose here. And we didn’t.”

The Aug. 20 event included a sold-out crowd of 18,321, and a then-Vivint Arena live gate record of just under $4.3 million. UFC 278 generated an economic impact of $19.3 million. It created 250 unique jobs and approximately $7.7 million in wages for arena, hotel, and restaurant workers.

And White told anyone and everyone who would listen how much of a success the night was, culminating his evening-ending media session by noting he expected the UFC could return sometime in 2023.

Powell noted that Salt Lake City had plenty of competition for hosting UFC 291, including five NBA arenas, plus NHL venues in Seattle and Long Island. And Robbins revealed that some of those entities actually reached out to him looking for advice, not knowing that SLC was making another bid.

All of those aforementioned UFC 278 successes wound up leading to a quick turnaround in bringing yet another PPV to Salt Lake City, as well, with this one headlined by a “BMF” bout between Poirier and Justin Gaethje.

“Actually, the discussions [for UFC 291] began before the [UFC 278] event took place,” said Epstein. “We saw the success of ticket sales, we love the partnership with Smith Entertainment and the Utah Sports Commission, so we were already talking about how do we make sure we get back to Salt Lake City next year.”

Now, the sides are discussing a three-peat, though everyone acknowledges that staging a pay-per-view event in a non-marquee city three years in a row simply may not be doable.

As for down the road?

“We’re hopeful we continue can continue that relationship,” said Robbins. “It’s always negotiations, it’s got to be a fit for everyone. But we’re certainly hopeful, and it’s our goal to continue bringing them.”

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