"A crummy commercial?!?"
You may or may not recall that line from A Christmas Story, the movie that now plays continuously on every television channel from Halloween to Boxing Day. Ralphie, the main character, has just learned that a hard-earned and long-anticipated "secret decoder pin" was really just a Greatest Generation-era viral marketing tool for rich, chocolatey Ovaltine.
In watching some of the UFC's recent events, specifically those broadcast from Fight Island, I started to get that "crummy commercial" feeling. Like someone was trying to talk me into something, but I couldn't quite make out the language.
After a closer look, it becomes clear the UFC and Abu Dhabi, the city where Fight Island resides, are rather shamelessly using these events as a promotional vehicle to drive tourism to Yas Island, which holds Fight Island, and Abu Dhabi, which is located in the United Arab Emirates.
In many parts of the broadcast, location takes precedence over the actual fights. This may seem innocuous at first—and no one's suggesting anyone is doing anything even remotely wrong here from a legal standpoint—but when remembering that the UAE is not exactly a beacon of virtue on the regional or world stage, according to human rights organizations, a little extra consumer information may be warranted.
So how is all this happening? Let's take last Saturday's broadcast of UFC Fight Island 2 as an example of the UFC seeming to use key moments of airtime as a venue more for the event location than the event itself. I watched the whole thing to see what unfolded, even if these things aren't entirely quantifiable.
The broadcast began with some very simple words: "Tonight, an unforgettable week on Fight Island continues!" It's the kind of subtle and not-so-subtle messaging—this is exciting because of the island, not the fights—that pops up across the broadcast.
The following examples shouldn't be taken as broadsides directly against the broadcast team, which was a good one. John Gooden is an outstanding play-by-play man and is someone I'd actually love to see do more events. His color guys were retired middleweight champ Michael Bisping and semi-retired lightweight Paul Felder, both of whom bring a lot of insight and collegiality to the proceedings. So consider this not a commentary on them so much as on the UFC's wider marketing or media apparatus, which is not exactly known for straying from company talking points.
The event was headlined by a scrap between Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo for the vacant flyweight title. So, not massive name value, but a title bout nonetheless. Before saying anything about the fight, however, Gooden asked Bisping, "You're almost a resident here on Fight Island. How's it been?" to which Bisping responded, "It's been a wonderful experience, an experience I'll never forget."
When the main card broadcast began, there were more verbal bouquets, and again the locale got top billing over the actual sports part.
Gooden's first words to the main card audience: "UFC Fight Island has become a sporting landmark, blending top UFC action with a beautiful backdrop." Felder chimed in: "The way we're being treated is world-class." Come on, great service too? No way. And Bisping: "The hospitality, the hotel and, of course, the fights." Of course. Only after the praises were sung did the fight talk really begin.
Once I keyed in on it, the Abu Dhabi tourism bombardment was tough to ignore. Did you wonder what that #StayCurious hashtag was all about, the one pasted all across the cage? It meant the same thing as the link that also appeared on the cage: Staycuriousae.com. It's all a link right to Abu Dhabi tourism. See? You gotta stay curious.
The broadcast was sprinkled with tantalizing, gorgeously shot b-roll of, as Gooden put it, "white, sandy beaches" and the island's sparkling Formula One race track. Hey, did you know Abu Dhabi has an F1 race track? Maybe you like that sort of thing. Maybe you'd like to do what Felder did in this video package and hug these curves yourself? Or perhaps you'd like to try some of that indoor skydiving you've heard so much about? Well, Bisping is here to tell you that you can have it all.* Right here, on Fight Island. If you want more on Felder's amazing experience on the Yas Island race track, go to YouTube!
Again, no one's suggesting anything legally wrong has happened. But the reality is this is the kind of thing you'd expect to encounter at a timeshare presentation.
For the record, it's not like any of this is a secret—in fact, when it announced Fight Island, the UFC noted this was an extension of its partnership with the Abu Dhabi tourism bureau, a five-year deal originally struck in 2019. But here's where it gets even more interesting: Abu Dhabi, through government investment arm Flash Entertainment, until recently owned 10 percent of the UFC, selling in 2018 as part of the UFC's sale to the conglomerate now known as Endeavor.
People interested in human rights are already plenty familiar with the capital city's country, the UAE.
With apologies in advance for this being both far too short and far too long, the UAE is an oil-rich constitutional monarchy with a history of hard-line social policies and well-documented restrictions on speech, the press and other institutions. Same-sex sexual relations are criminalized and can be punished by up to 14 years in prison, depending on the emirate, and domestic violence against women and children is legal, among other serious issues.
The picture is dark. Human Rights Watch, the well-known nonprofit organization, also noted in its 2019 World Report that the UAE government has 'launched a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011' and 'continues to arbitrarily detain and forcibly disappear individuals who criticize authorities.' I'm not sure they can make their sand white enough to make me forget that their government 'disappears' people.
The UAE also maintains a leading role in a military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States, that has waged a horrific war in Yemen, with significant evidence of detainee abuse in UAE-run prisons.
The UFC and its partners are free to do this. But so too are consumers who remember the first rule of being a consumer: buyer beware.
*Lol, just a bit of humor, please relax and/or enjoy
Scott Harris is a feature writer and columnist with Bleacher Report.