Etihad Arena UFC event set a precedent

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

Set on the vibrant waterfront of Yas Bay, the Etihad Arena (UAE) in Abu Dhabi is the Middle East’s largest state-of-the-art indoor entertainment venue. A huge range of events, from electrifying concerts, exhilarating sports and sophisticated corporate functions, to intimate community celebrations will be hosted in the scintillating Arena.

Brint Jackson, General Manager, Etihad Arena, gave ‘Coliseum’ an exclusive insight into how the newly-opened Arena successfully pulled off the UFC Fight Islands amid the COVID-19 clobber and how the authorities concerned left nothing to chance – during the recently held Coliseum Online Week MENA.

The 18,000-capacity Etihad Arena opened in January 2021. Informed Brint Jackson, “We had planned the opening of Etihad Arena last year. But last year exactly has not been anyone’s plan due to the coronavirus curse. We did get there in the end. The opening was how we had to pivot and change and still push forward to the core principles of what the Arena is all about.”

Jackson said that people will have to learn to live with the new normal in a COVID-struck world. Referring to the people associated with the sports venue sector, he stated, “We have to stay together as a group and continue to learn from each other. It is good to know the world in a similar boat. It is very important that we all get together to share our experiences to insure the future of the industry.”

Pulling off UFC Fight Islands

Fans in restricted numbers were welcomed back to Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena as it staged its inaugural events in the month of January – three Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight cards.

UFC Fight Night cards was held on January 16th and 20th, 2021, before the main event on January 24th. UFC 257 was headlined by the return of Irish mixed martial artist Conor McGregor in a rematch against American mixed martial artist Dustin Poirier.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is an American mixed martial arts promotion company based in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is owned and operated by Endeavor Group Holdings along with Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and MSD Capital via Zuffa, LLC.

Informed Jackson, “This was the first event hosted in Etihad Arena. The event itself was made possible through three key stakeholders other than the Arena, of course. It was the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), the tourism authority, Miral and Flash Entertainment. The event itself was three UFC fights. The first two were under their ‘Fight Night’ banner and the third one was the big one – it was UFC 257. In total, we hosted just around 4,000 people across the three events. It was not due to people not wanting to come, but due to the requirements for social distancing, and that was really the maximum that people were allowed to get in to the venue.”

COVID safe bubble

Jackson and his team pulled out all stops to ensure that visitors felt most comfortable and could put their hair down while watching the bouts. COVID-Safe Bubble which time around included the UFC team, the support team from production to venue. Plexiglass was put up almost like a hockey ring in order to block off the ring with sidelines for those next to the octagon.

The top arena official stated that from a venue standpoint, staging the UFC Fight Islands was definitely was not the standard event that everybody is used to. In Etihad Arena, it was the first major public event due to which stringent COVID protocols were put in place.

Jackson opined that some of the COVID protocols laid down will be the new normal and some “hopefully will ease back as we get through the vaccine distribution and things we all are looking forward to. It was a new venue and the COVID situation was something unforeseen It has been a year since we have really done a major event. So, a lot of people are new – we rely on part-time labor across F&B and guests services and security. So, it was not only training kind of new people in the venue but new people in general. That was a big learning curve for everyone and certainly it is a testament to kind of our team and everybody to pull everyone together.”

Five pillars

The five pillars of health and wellness – Guest Entry, Reduced Capacity, Sanitization, Contactless and Inform – were the key mantras adopted by the Etihad Arena authorities to smoothly conduct the UFC spectacle.

  • Guest Entry – Thermal checks were done at the ingress point, compulsory wearing of masks and keeping a safe distance. No valet parkings were allowed, and small bag policy – “We did not have any thermal check issues because we required PCR test for all guests within 48 hours before the event,” he informed;
  • Safe Distance – Heavily reduced event capacity for all areas – not only the bowl but suites and lounges in keeping with Government guidelines which was essentially about 2 meter distance. It was done in a creative way – 2 meters between people, between groups, limited capacity in concessions and implementation of seat delivery;
  • Sanitization – It is a part of everything that we do not only in the high-traffic areas but pre-imposed event, kind of dousing everything down, fogging everything and floor scrubbing constantly. Seat sanitizing prior to each event as well and it was a huge labor-intensive process.”
  • Plans were already in place – pre-COVID – to make Etihad Arena contactless – “We were really able to push these things and people were very receptive to it. We were able to transition to e-tickets, scan one’s phone to the turnstile pretty easily because of everything that happened during the time and how normal it is to use your phone for payments and entry. Contact payment as well and then installation of contactless hand sanitizers,” added Jackson; and
  • Inform – One of the important pieces of the whole framework is informing everybody what’s going on. Sending out clear instructions on how to do the test, how to park, what to bring and what not to bring – “All of the normal things became so critical in this instant because if someone missed the test they were not allowed into the venue. Barring few cases, most people knew the criteria based on which entry would be allowed into the Arena. We also had what was important from the communication perspective, designated wellness ambassadors willing to answer questions, health and wellness guest services – to offer guidance, to talk about what was available and people were very receptive to that.”


Deep dive

  • Touchless ticketing;
  • Visitors were given a 3D view of where he or she will be seated and what will be the view;
  • Hi-tech seating – The seats were blocked off and the distancing was done without putting black trash bags on every seat – “We came up with these Velcro banner systems we can put around the seats that still stayed with the color patterns of the seating, were very easy to see and difficult to remove. On each seats we also had unique QR code which allowed scanning into the system which also allowed order to seats from restaurants. Each seat was specifically put into the bar code for the delivery guys to know where they were sitting specifically,” informed Johnson; and
  • Messaging – Telling people where to go, what to do, have they accessed the order to seat?


End result

Jackson maintained that it is only three weeks past that the UFC bouts were held in Etihad Arena, “but everyone from the stakeholders to guests seem to be very happy and receptive and most of all feel safe. The Government was happy with the safety of the guests and the things we implemented the guests felt comfortable and happy coming back to live event.”

The way forward

Johnson concluded on a positive note, “We have a long way to go looking past what’s next. Basically, how do we successfully keep getting more attendance and getting the authorities more comfortable with us doing that. We believe that towards the second half of the year we will be back to hosting major attended events again. When we are allowed to have events, everyone should trust us to come back to the Arena and feels comfortable doing so. There is light at the end of the tunnel (read amid the COVID gloom and doom).”

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