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UFC President Dana White roughly a week ago was in Hawaii to watch local promotion Trinity Sport Combat for an upcoming episode of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s YouTube series “Lookin’ for a Fight.” Naturally, the possibility of a UFC event in Hawaii was broached. Backstage, he told my colleague at KHON2 News the following: “Max [Holloway] wants it bad. We want to come here. We love this place. We got to get this thing figured out eventually. We’ll see what happens. I want it. Does the tourism board want it? Do they or do they not? If they do, we’ll come. If not, we understand.”
This sentiment isn’t new. The UFC met with the Hawaii Tourism Authority in 2018 to discuss holding a potential event in Hawaii and was unable to make a deal. The UFC asked for a $6 million subsidy, but the HTA was only willing to offer $1 million. Neither side budged, so they parted ways. The narrative that took place afterward and resurfaced again this week essentially goes like this: The greedy UFC is trying to exploit the hapless HTA. On a cursory glance, it certainly seems this way. For starters, it’s not as if the HTA is some island bouncer preventing anyone from coming. It isn’t necessary to get a subsidy from them to hold any kind of event in Hawaii, whether it’s a Bellator MMA card or a Snoop Dogg concert.
More to the point, $6 million is a lot of money, more than the HTA gave the NFL for the Pro Bowl ($4.2 million) or to have the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Shanghai Sharks play preseason games a few weeks ago ($2 million). Plus, part of the deal in those cases was for the NFL and NBA players to participate in community outreach programs, something the UFC can’t do because fighters are not employees and are only contracted to do fight-related activities, like open workouts and media conferences. In this way, paying more money for one event that offers less than what other cheaper investments offer does seem ridiculous.
That’s not the full story, though. Organizing a fight card in Hawaii is not like the Pro Bowl or an NBA preseason game because the necessary facilities for those -- a football stadium or a basketball arena -- are already here. Nor would a UFC event in Hawaii be like hosting one in other parts of the country for the simple geographical fact that you can’t drive here. Shipping the necessary materials to Hawaii requires extra money, and when the UFC encounters similar situations elsewhere -- when it holds events in Australia or the United Arab Emirates, for instance -- those governments offer subsidies in the range of what the UFC is asking from the HTA. Hawaii is not a country and does not have a country-sized economy, but due to its isolation, it’s functionally more comparable to other countries than other states.
On top of that, the UFC typically leaves its equipment in those other countries for future events, spreading the upfront investment across multiple paydays. That would not be the case in Hawaii. The negotiations for UFC Hawaii were for a single event, mostly because Holloway is an increasingly popular figure in the promotion. To even consider making this happen, it would require a Holloway-headlined card at the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium -- as opposed to a UFC Fight Night-level card at the roughly 9,000-seat Blaisdell Arena, where Bellator hosts its events -- which comes with all the attendant problems of an open-air venue where it rains a lot. This would almost certainly require additional expenses on the UFC’s behalf, especially as the stadium prepares to undergo significant renovations. All that to say, if the UFC accepts less money for fewer events in Hawaii, there will definitely be repercussions for its dealings elsewhere.
Then there’s the HTA’s side. The HTA has an annual budget of a little more than $108 million. It elects to spend $5.8 million of that budget on sporting events, which is its decision to make but is by no means set in concrete; it has the autonomy to allot different amounts of money to sporting events if it so chooses. The HTA is, however, under significant scrutiny now after a scathing audit last year reported that it “reimbursed millions of dollars to contractors without receipts and other required documentation; reimbursed costs, such as first-class airfare, luxury hotel accommodations, and other extravagant expenses, that were expressly prohibited by contract; and consistently failed to enforce contract terms that are intended to protect the State.” For those of us who have been paying attention, the HTA’s dysfunction is no surprise; the Pro Bowl contract was a huge boondoggle that the HTA justified with deeply flawed economic impact analysis.
Offering the UFC a $1 million subsidy is an indication that the HTA is adjusting its internal procedures to spend its money more prudently. That’s a good thing overall, but it also means the HTA is less likely to be flexible in negotiations and less likely to peddle bogus economic impact statements, like the one the UFC presented it for a potential Hawaii event.
This isn’t charity. Both the UFC and the state government are entitled to do as much as they can to ensure they’ll make money. Whether you agree with their rationale or not, it’s there, and it’s not as simple as “the UFC is trying to extort the HTA” or “the HTA doesn’t want it to happen.” It’s logistically complicated, with a lot of moving parts and multiple considerations to make on both ends.
Of course, I want it to happen. It would be an appropriate homecoming for one of the most important locales in the sport’s short history, and it would be an incredible visual spectacle. Now, with a beloved and exciting champion like Holloway, it seems like the best possible time to make UFC Hawaii happen. Unfortunately, the way things are is the way things are, and no matter how cool it is or how much the fans or the fighters want it to happen, it probably won’t.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.