The punches and the kicks inside the octagon ended seven weeks ago.
But Jacksonville’s impact from UFC 261 isn’t finished.
The mixed martial arts card at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24 packed a financial punch in Jacksonville, including an estimated direct economic impact of $9 million and a total economic output of $17.6 million, as calculated in a report released by UFC in conjunction with Nevada-based research firm Applied Analysis.
In addition to the $9 million in “direct spending attributable to UFC 261,” the report linked an indirect impact of $3.8 million and an induced impact of $4.9 million to the event.
The 13-bout night marked a milestone of its own, the first major sporting event in the United States to be held indoors at full capacity since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
“There’s a reason why we came to Jacksonville,” said UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein, citing the efforts of state and local officials to make the event “as seamless as it possibly could be.”
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How did UFC 261 compare with Gators vs. Bulldogs and the NCAA Tournament?Kristi Sweeney, associate professor of sport management at the University of North Florida, said economic impact figures at a local level can be difficult to ascertain with precision, and are often presented as a range of figures. Whatever the exact value, though, UFC 261’s impact would appear to rank high among events on Jacksonville’s sports calendar.
“These MMA events have proven to be economic drivers in terms of revenue generated by the events,” she said. “It really indicates the effect of this growing industry.”
For comparison, Mayor Lenny Curry’s office in 2019 estimated a pre-pandemic economic impact up to $35 million from the Florida-Georgia college football game, which regularly draws more than 80,000 visitors to TIAA Bank Field.
The TaxSlayer Gator Bowl has estimated varying economic impact figures in recent years, ranging from $14 million to $30 million. That figure varies significantly depending on the number of visiting fans and the duration of their stay.
The city has previously estimated an impact ranging from about $5 million to more than $14 million for the NCAA Tournament for men’s basketball, which most recently stopped in Jacksonville in 2019. Those early-round contests include six games involving eight teams, spread over two non-consecutive days. And the University of North Florida in 2019 estimated an economic impact of $7 million to $9 million for the NCAA East Preliminary in college track and field, which brings more than 1,000 athletes to Jacksonville for a competition lasting up to four days.
“VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena was excited to learn about the significant impact UFC 261 had on the City of Jacksonville and the events industry as a whole during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a spokesperson for arena management organization ASM Global said in a statement to the Times-Union Wednesday.
UFC 261 brought record crowd to VyStar arena from across the US and worldThe fights drew heavyweight numbers in the seats, too: In all, 15,269 fans attended UFC 261, yielding the arena’s highest-ever gate receipts of $3.3 million (an average of more than $215 per person), and UFC recorded visitors from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The report found that nearly 60 percent of the fans came from the southeastern quadrant of the country, while more than 99 percent were from the United States. In addition, ASM Global estimated that 85 percent of tickets were sold outside the immediate Northeast Florida region.
The proportion of fans from outside the country, Epstein said, has changed from the pre-COVID norm. Before the virus began to hamper global travel, he said UFC fights periodically drew crowds in which international fans make up 25 percent or more, especially when the card included a particularly high-profile fighter such as Conor McGregor.
Wherever they were watching, the event turned millions of eyes, both in the United States and abroad, toward the First Coast.
“The world got to see all the things Jacksonville has to offer,” Epstein said.
Epstein declined to release figures for pay-per-view buys, but Sports Business Journal in April estimated more than 700,000 pay-per-view purchases for the UFC 261 main card. That card was headlined by the rematch of Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal as well as two women’s championship bouts, Rose Namajunas vs. Weili Zhang and Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade.
UFC also pointed to more than $655 million in the category of “total media value generated,” a figure that attempts to assess intangible effects like social network buzz and media exposure through the worldwide pay-per-view broadcast.
Sweeney said that while it’s difficult to translate the value of media impressions to a precise dollar figure, Jacksonville can derive real benefits from the worldwide exposure.
“Rather than buying TV time to run advertisements, it’s kind of a way to put the city in a prime-time spotlight,” she said.
UFC in Jacksonville set the stage for live sports crowds to returnThe fights represented UFC’s second visit to Jacksonville. The series held three nights of mixed martial arts at the arena on May 9, 13 and 16, 2020, marking the return of major sports to the United States after a halt of nearly two months because of COVID-19. However, those events, which included the pay-per-view UFC 249 and two UFC Fight Nights televised on standard cable via ESPN, were held without spectators inside an empty arena.
UFC President Dana White’s announcement that Jacksonville’s return trip would include a full house — without precedent for major indoor sports since the start of the pandemic — initially spurred concerns that UFC 261 might turn into a COVID-19 super-spreader event in Jacksonville.
Arena protocols did not require mandatory masking or a 6-foot distance, procedures recommended under Centers for Disease Control guidelines since 2020, and tickets for the night included a liability waiver in case of COVID-19.
Although it’s unknown how many individuals may have contracted the coronavirus during the fight weekend, Florida Department of Health statistics show no evidence that the feared super-spreader materialized.
During the week prior to UFC 261, Duval County had reported day-to-day new-case positivity ranging from 4.71 percent to 6.37 percent, with an average of more than 160 newly-diagnosed cases per day in Florida residents. That figure continued to decline during the following weeks; from May 8 to May 23, Duval County did not report a daily positivity above 5 percent. The county’s positivity edged upward to 5.2 percent in the Florida Department of Health’s latest weekly report, released June 11, but that rise was some six weeks removed from UFC 261.
In the nearly two months since, both indoor and outdoor events have steadily increased crowd sizes, including full or near-full capacity for arenas in the NBA playoffs, while Europe, more hesitant to reopen, has begun to relax crowd restrictions as well. The British government this week cleared the final weekend of Wimbledon tennis for full capacity, and a crowd of more than 60,000 fans attended Tuesday’s European Championship soccer match between Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and the host nation in Budapest, Hungary.
“Jacksonville didn’t just set a standard for Florida, for the United States,” Epstein said. “[UFC 261] really set a global standard for what can be done with respect to putting on events… I believe when people saw UFC in Jacksonville, it gave them the confidence and the motivation to do more things.”
Other figures included $8.4 million in salaries and wages — although the report did not specify how much of those payments went to Northeast Florida residents — and more than $400,000 in taxes.
When will Dana White bring UFC back to Jacksonville?In a press conference following April’s main card, UFC’s White said the circuit “absolutely” plans to return to Jacksonville as well as other cities in Florida, although he did not specify a timetable. UFC has scheduled its next three events for Las Vegas, including a UFC 264 card on July 10 highlighted by the scheduled lightweight fight between Dustin Poirier and McGregor.
Epstein said that even though the date isn’t yet known, there was “no doubt” UFC would return to the First Coast.
“When Dana says he’s going to do something,” he said, “he’s going to back it up.”