UFC 291: New NBA owner’s call to Ari Emanuel ‘greased the wheels’ for Salt Lake City

With UFC 291, Salt Lake City is hosting its second UFC pay-per-view event in two years.

By: Nate Wilcox | 2 weeks ago

After struggling as a UFC Fight Night host city, with UFC 291 and UFC 278 Salt Lake City has booked UFC pay-per-view events twice in two years. The Salt Lake Tribune has a fascinating piece asking the question “So how is it — with UFC 291 coming to the Delta Center this Saturday — that humble little Salt Lake City has managed to host two pay-per-view events in a span of less than 12 months?”

The Delta Center will host UFC 291 in Salt Late City, Utah.
IMAGO | Sports Wire

UFC’s Dana White: ‘This place is on fire’

If you ask UFC CEO Dana White, it’s a no-brainer. As he said when he brought UFC 278 to the city, “This place is on fire right now. It’s continuing to grow, it’s booming, and becoming one of the better global destinations in the world. It’s that place now. Listen, Salt Lake City is on the map.”

However, things are rarely as simple as Dana White makes them out to be.

According to Mark Powell, the Delta Center’s Senior Vice President of Events, “Last year — and I don’t blame them — they still felt like it was a huge risk.”

There were two main factors working against Salt Lake: demographics and history.

Salt Lake has struggled to host the UFC in the past

Not only is the Salt Lake metro area, with only 3 million residents, not one of the bigger cities in the United States, the city also has a checkered past when it comes to hosting the UFC.

In 2010, the city was set to host UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko in August, 2010 but things didn’t work out.

For one thing, the event was booked on a Sunday night. Secondly, the event was lackluster and only drew 8,000 fans in San Diego.

They tried again in 2016, hosting a UFC Fight Night that only sold “about 6,000 tickets” a weak performance that came back to haunt them.

“I think their reservations were based on 2016 — Pete (Dropick, UFC’s Executive VP of Event Development & Operations) said [it was] sort of underwhelming. It didn’t perform to our goal. So he had reservations about that. And I had to convince him, ‘That’s because you didn’t bring us a pay-per-view,’” said Powell. “And they had reservations about our overall population — they’re looking at it like, well, Phoenix has 10 million people and Salt Lake has 2.8.”

NBA franchise owner pushed to host a UFC PPV

“The UFC bid got a boost from a heavy hitter with juice when Ryan Smith purchased the Jazz and the arena in 2020.

“’He asked me at the time, ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, call your friends at [UFC parent company] Endeavor and see if we can get a pay-per-view,’ Powell said with a laugh.”

“Salt Lake City was suddenly ticking a lot of Epstein’s boxes. Viable venue? The Delta Center’s 2017 renovation and 2022 upgrades sufficed. Check. Track record of well-staged events? The Jazz have sold out every home game for three straight seasons. Check. Local partnerships? The Utah Sports Commission paid an undisclosed sum in sponsorship fees to entice the UFC, and Smith Entertainment Group put the cherry on top by guarding against low-ticket-sales fears with Smith putting up some of his own money in a multi-seven figure gate guarantee.”

UFC 278 drew a crowd of 18,321 setting a “then-Vivint Arena live gate record of just under $4.3 million” and UFC 291 seems positioned to do even better.

‘Utah is not a fly-over state’

Jazz owner Ryan Smith explained his interest in promoting Salt Lake City and hosting a UFC last year in a conversation with The Tribune.

“Salt Lake City is not a flyover city, and Utah is not a flyover state,” he said. “That’s manifesting through concert tours, that’s manifesting through events like this. It’s becoming a destination.”

“Though not a huge UFC fan himself, Smith recalled accompanying Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Raul Neto in August 2017 to the massive crossover bout featuring boxing legend Floyd Mayweather and UFC star Conor McGregor, and being awed by the spectacle of “The Money Fight.”

“And so, he said that he and his Smith Entertainment Group team had talked for the past few years about potentially trying to bring the UFC back to Utah following the disappointment that was the underwhelming “Fight Night” event held back in 2016.”

UFC 291 features stacked card

Main card

  • Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje: BMF Title
  • Jan Błachowicz vs. Alex Pereira: Light Heavyweight
  • Tony Ferguson vs. Bobby Green: Lightweight
  • Michael Chiesa vs. Kevin Holland: Welterweight
  • Stephen Thompson vs. Michel Pereira: Welterweight


Early prelims

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of BloodyElbow.com. As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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