U.F.C. 249, a mixed martial arts show scheduled for April 18 in Native American tribal lands in California, was canceled on Thursday in response to the seizure of holding the event during the coronavirus pandemic. California state officials intervened directly expressing their concerns about the event to Disney, the parent company of ESP's broadcast partner, ESPN, according to three people familiar with the talks.
Dana White, U.F.C. President, said in an interview on ESPN that he had received calls from the "highest level" leadership from Disney and ESPN, asking him not to host the event, which reportedly featured 12 fights.
ESPN owns the rights to televise U.F.C. fights and to sell your pay-per-view events, a lucrative relationship that generates the vast majority of U.F.C. "The powers that be there asked me to give up and not do this event next Saturday," said White.
That request came after California governor Gavin Newsom called Disney officials, according to one of the people familiar with the talks. People spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to share the details of the calls.
Disney declined to comment and Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“ESPN is in constant contact with the U.F.C. in relation to the U.F.C. 249, ”ESPN said in a statement. "No one wants to see the sport return more than we do, but we didn't think this was the right time for a number of reasons. ESPN expressed its concerns to the U.F.C. and they understood."
An hour before White announced the cancellation, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California had asked that the event be postponed. In a statement, she said that "at best, this event links medical resources and sends a message that shelter orders on the spot can be violated" and that "at worst, participants and support staff can take the virus back to its home communities. and increase its spread. "
The cancellation occurred after the card, originally scheduled for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, was moved because it was banned by regulators who were trying to comply with public health guidelines to cut large meetings.
The fights took place at the Tachi Palace Casino Resort, on tribal land in central California, some 40 miles south of Fresno. When organizing the event in tribal lands, the U.F.C. he was trying to bypass home stay orders that were issued in almost every state, as well as state athletics commissions that refused to approve any fighting during the pandemic.
California state regulators refused to authorize the event, placing the U.F.C. able to provide their own referees, judges, medical staff and other services to make the fights happen.
But, because of a nearly 70-year federal law, Public Law 280, California state and local authorities have broad authority to intervene in criminal and civil matters in tribal lands, and key officials have made clear their discomfort with the event. .
White said Thursday that his efforts to keep the U.F.C. 249 intact had been "a battle from day one". He had already insisted that he was being cautious and that he could safely face fighting, even in the midst of a pandemic, but he faced several medical, legal and regulatory challenges.
Disney is headquartered in Burbank, California, and has extensive economic ties to the state, through its theme parks, film and television studios and subsidiaries of Pixar and Lucasfilm. ESPN does not control the U.F.C.'s fight schedule, but it has substantial influence, given the strong financial ties between the two organizations.
In 2018, ESPN agreed to pay the U.F.C. $ 1.5 billion over five years to show 30 fights annually on the network's cable channels and the ESPN + streaming service. This agreement was considered a success that, just a year later, was extended for two years and ESPN also purchased the exclusive rights to sell and broadcast U.F.C.
Although the value of the last deal was not announced, the U.F.C. pay-per-view events they usually earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The main fight for the U.F.C. 249 was originally a lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. But Nurmagomedov traveled from San Jose, California, where he trained, to his home in the Dagestan region of Russia, while organizers were still trying to find a firm place to fight. Then he withdrew when it became clear that he would have trouble traveling back to the United States to compete.
Earlier on Thursday, Brian Butler, manager of strawweight fighter Rose Namajunas, said he withdrew from his fight in the U.F.C. 249 because two members of his family had died. Their deaths, Butler said, "were related to the coronavirus."
Butler added on Instagram, "Your hopes are to return to the octagon as soon as possible."
White said U.F.C. 249 was part of a broader plan to maintain a regular fight schedule – starting with two months of casino events. He said on Thursday that he still plans to host events for fighters on a private island outside the United States.
"The fight island is real – it's a real thing," said White. "The infrastructure is currently being built."
Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.