CEOs like Chatri Sityodtong of ONE Championship, one of the largest mixed martial arts promotions in the world, have their hands full trying to steer the sports industry back on track during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Singapore-based company was among the first major sports organizations in the world to face the coronavirus outbreak. It hasn't held an event with fans since Feb. 7 and, like all of sports, is trying to figure out what comes next—and when.
We spoke with the ONE founder and chairman, who said he is committed to keeping athletes and fans safe while finding a way to keep the show going on.
"In a situation like this, you're juggling many different priorities," Sityodtong told Bleacher Report. "Different countries are changing their policies on a daily basis. Very quickly, you have to prioritize what's most important. For ONE, the safety and health of our athletes, fans, staff and general public was the priority."
ONE was the first global sports organization in the world to host events with no fans in attendance when they did so on Feb. 28 in Singapore. Despite the company's attempt to keep the atmosphere of the show as energetic as they could with the entrance music of their athletes blaring through the empty arena and a plethora of lights and lasers to accompany it, obviously something was missing.
There was nothing that could replace the sound of a crowd cheering. Even when Janet Todd shocked Stamp Fairtex in the main event to win the atomweight championship in one of the biggest upsets in ONE history, there was no one there to react besides the competitors and their teams.
And of course, Chatri Sityodtong, who strapped the title around Todd's waist after her victory.
"Funny enough, because everything in Asia was closed down, the TV viewership numbers were very, very strong for that event," the Thailand native said. "In many ways, fans rallied behind us because we're still going on with the show and yet still keeping everyone safe."
Going on with the show despite trying circumstances has always been a part of the MMA world. Just look at the UFC, which, despite a plethora of political skirmishes, legal confrontations, regulatory battles and financial struggles in its early existence, only cancelled four previous events before having to postpone their next three shows planned for the coming weeks. Long after sports organizations around the world halted operations due to the virus, the UFC attempted to fight on as has always been its instinct.
"Unless there's a total shutdown of the country where people can't leave their houses, these fights will happen," UFC President Dana White said on SportsCenter on March 15 after carrying on UFC Fight Night 170 in an empty arena in Brazil. "We're going to move on. These guys will compete. We will find venues, and we will figure this thing out."
Two days later when the Trump administration called for gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people, that was the final nail in the coffin for UFC's hopes to carry on with an event in London last weekend and two events in Las Vegas this Saturday and April 11. Despite being direct competitors with the UFC, ONE's Sityodtong respects White's drive to carry on even in the worst of times.
"I appreciate Dana White's unbreakable spirit and desire for the show to go on," Sityodtong said. "I have the same mindset. He wants to make the fans and athletes happy. This is just what we do. We also want the shows to go on, but safety and health is our biggest priority."
After postponing an event originally scheduled for last Friday, ONE added four closed-door events from April to May in hopes of making up for lost time. However, it's getting even more challenging for the promotion to schedule events now as nations impose travel restrictions for their citizens. This includes fighters from countries that make up a sizable portion of ONE's roster.
Australia declared just last week that none of its citizens could leave the country, effectively barring all Aussie fighters that were supposed to be on upcoming cards to participate. In Singapore, which is scheduled to host the four closed-door ONE events in April and May, a 14-day quarantine went into effect for all international arrivals. This likely means that any fighter living outside Singapore, a city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia, would need to arrive two weeks earlier to go through the quarantine process.
Sityodtong is working with the Singaporean government to come up with alternative solutions but says it might have been wishful thinking to add events over the coming months.
"We're trying to refill cards," Sityodtong said. "We have to work with a variety of national governments though. We've had a lot of late nights and emergency meetings called with my leadership team to get everyone's input across various constituents. I don't want to comment prematurely, but I will say that the April events are looking very tough. We're scrambling because of all the changing conditions.
"Right now, our schedule stands as is. However, there's a lot of shuffling going on behind the scenes. Everyday life is being impacted in many different countries day by day. We have global media rights and athletes all around the world, so we have to be on top of every policy change in every country. Plus, we need to be able to put these events on safely. It's a very fluid situation and still too early to come to any decisions."
One of those fluid situations is stateside, as Sityodtong admits he's considered that the U.S. could go into a nationwide shutdown of its own soon. This would rule out some of their most marketed athletes like Eddie Alvarez, Demetrious Johnson, and Angela and Christian Lee from competing for at least the next couple of months. If you think this virus would dampen the spirits of ONE's roster though, think again.
"Literally all our athletes have said they want to compete," Sityodtong said. "No one has come to me and asked to be taken off cards. This is what they love. This is what they were born to do. They've given ONE Championship a ton of love and support so far on the decisions we've made. It's ironic. In many ways, tragic circumstances create more unity. People are rallying together. We all want to do something, so let's see what happens."
ONE has never faced a situation like this one in its decade-long existence, and one of the most affected constituents are broadcasting partners that no longer have the drive of live sports with massive viewership numbers and advertisement dollars behind them. What helps ONE though is, unlike the airline and hotel industries that struggle when flights and rooms aren't being booked, the promotion is simply "delayed" in Sityodtong's words.
"We obviously have broadcasting commitments and live sports content is the king of all content, but when sports properties don't host events, they don't have any cost aside from what's going on day to day in their facilities. In that regard, I'm very optimistic ONE will be back shortly in a huge way. I know several other sports properties are shuffling behind the scenes to see what they can do to pull off live sports for fans. I think as sports properties, everyone's pausing but everyone also has an unbreakable will to say that the show must go on. That's the mindset of the peers around the world I've spoken to and ONE's as well.
"As a business, we have to be very prudent with our financial performance. At the same time, we want to excite and delight our broadcast partners, wow our fans and give livelihood to our athletes by showcasing their skills on a global stage."
Everyone's at home right now wanting to be inspired by entertainment and to forget about their problems. Sports are an incredible way to do that. For many at ONE, the show must go on. Fans can only hope the show continues sooner rather than later.