Dana White doesn’t get his Fight Island. At least not yet. So for now, the empty arena a few blocks from the St. John’s River will suffice for the impresario of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
And for sports bettors eager for something else familiar.
The UFC’s bout is scheduled for Saturday, May 19 at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, FL, the first of three cards planned for the venue. The premier bout at UFC 249 will be a tussle between Tony Ferguson and replacement Justin Gaethja, who took the fight just two weeks ago because Nurmagomedov hasn’t been able to return to the United States after retreating to Russia when his previous card was canceled.
UFC 249 will mark the re-emergence of major professional sports in North America, preceding a Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson charity golf match and NASCAR’s return on May 17.
Thoroughbred horse racing has continued at a handful of venues, but that sport’s grip on mainstream America’s attention span was tenuous even in what would have been the run-up to a Kentucky Derby that should have been held on May 2.
UFC, while still a niche, is an ardent one and the weekend card marks a return to some semblance of normalcy for fans watching on television, as none will be allowed inside the arena. Bettors are finally presented with something more recognizable than table tennis, far-flung pro soccer leagues or Korean professional baseball.
“As one of the first major sporting events since COVID-19 caused a nationwide cancellation of major US sports leagues, we could not be more excited ahead of this weekend’s UFC 249 fight,” DraftKings Sportsbook Director Johnny Avello told PlayUSA. “Thus far, the card has seen significant volume and as the week goes on, we expect to see continued engagement around the highly anticipated match up.”
William Hill US trading director Nick Bogdanovich told PlayUSA that UFC betting volume has been “okay” through Tuesday, but also expects it to heighten as the bout approaches.
“I firmly believe come Friday and Saturday, action will be heavy,” he said. “It’s a great card in a great time zone and it’s the first step to having sports fans get excited about U.S. sports again.”
Sports and betting public has been awaiting UFC 249 card
White had originally balked at all attempts to curtail his business plan even as major pro and college leagues responded with varying speed and vigor to government moves to mitigate the spread of a COVID-19 virus.
He first planned to hold UFC 249, featuring a lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, on April 23 at Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in California when the Barclays Center in Brooklyn became unviable.
This so-called “Fight Island,” a tribal island property on which the hotel is built, is exempt from the surrounding county’s shelter order, but White was eventually forced to yield to pressure from ESPN, which was to broadcast the event, and parent company Disney.
Though he still plans to field matches on an island, Florida became an amenable stopgap because of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s declaration that professional sports are “essential” services – the WWE has held fanless events in its Orlando Performance Center – meaning that the Florida State Boxing Commission also will oversee the proceedings as a regulated event.
What are the popular bets in UFC249?
Top-ranked Ferguson has won 12 fights consecutively and is a -177 favorite at DraftKings.
Gaethje is listed at +150 underdog at DraftKings, with the fight at -400 to last less than 4.5 rounds. Ferguson, who has won six of his last eight bouts by stoppage, is +260 at DraftKings to win by knockout, technical knockout or disqualification.
FanDuel has Ferguson as a -174 favorite (with Gaethje at +148), and at +260 to win by knockout or TKO. He’s at +600 there to win on points.
Reflecting Ferguson’s run of stoppages, FanDuel has Gaethje at +1400 to win in points.
In the co-main event, bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo (-220) is favored over challenger Dominick Cruz (+183) at DraftKings. Cejudo is listed at -210 at FanDuel, with Cruz at +176.
— Kelsey McCarson (@kelsey_mccarson) May 5, 2020
UFC takes its swing (and kick) as the next best thing for sports betting
When North American sports began shuttering on March 1 after NBA when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, sports fans, sports bettors and sportsbooks began groping for alternatives.
Most options, including the incredibly popular and lucrative NCAA Tournament, were quickly gone, replaced by the likes of Nicaraguan soccer, briefly Australian rules football, table tennis and eSports, notably eNASCAR.
The NFL Draft was a well-received return to taste of home, with anecdotal evidence from gaming operators claiming business was brisk. State revenue reports should reflect those assumptions after being a crushing April.
UFC now takes its turn with additional events: May 13 with a main event between Anthony Smith vs Glover Teixeira and May 16 with a main event between Alistair Overeem vs Walt Harris.
While not as much of a mainstream diversion as the NFL – but honestly, nothing is – the bloodsport brings a fervid fanbase hungering for content and a community of sports bettors who will likely feel more comfortable handicapping a mixed martial arts bout than Oleg Kutuzov vs Igor Smirnov in table tennis.
“These are still early steps in a gradual process towards the safe resumption of sports across the world,” theScore founder and CEO John Levy told PlayUSA. “That being said, the return of MMA, NASCAR, and golf are definitely highly anticipated events – not just for sportsbooks, but also sports fans in general who’ve built up pent-up demand. We’re also closely following the progress of other major leagues and events, as they formulate their own plans for a safe and practical return to action.”