Why the UFC is Here to Stay
I love the UFC! That’s right; I love it. I am a college educated, polite, responsible, job-possessing, God fearing man who loves the UFC, and I am not ashamed of it either. For those of you not on the UFC train yet, I have news for you: It’s here to stay (and its pretty awesome, too).
I love the UFC for many reasons: the athletic competition including the skill and strategy of mixed martial arts (MMA), the business aspects of this sport/promotion, and the athletes’ stories themselves.
In the late 1990’s the UFC was basically banned on PPV. Read that sentence again. It was banned on PPV. Porn is on PPV. The UFC had a worse reputation than porn in America.
When Dana White and the Fertitta brothers (Frank & Lorenzo) purchased the UFC in 2001, it was a failing company on the verge of bankruptcy. This trio saw an opportunity and bought the organization for 2 million dollars. Then, over the next 11 years, they and many others, including the fighters, worked very hard. Now, its worth roughly one billion dollars—in just 11 years!
This past success does not necessarily guarantee future success, but I am here to tell you, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the UFC. It is here to stay and here’s why:
Dana White and the Fertitta brothers are forward thinking, hard working executives who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Sure, White can be bombastic, aggressive, and foul-mouthed, but he is a visionary leader who will not stop until his bold vision becomes reality. This is not the company or executive team that will just rest on their laurels or sit on their cash. This company thinks and develops globally too. UFC programming is currently available in over 354 million homes in more than 145 countries, in 19 different languages. The UFC has also expanded into a lot of different markets as well (clothing, action figures, video games, gyms, etc.) Its only getting bigger, folks.
In January 2012, the UFC began broadcasting on Fox and its affiliated networks. Its reported that this deal was completed by Fox paying the UFC 90-100 million dollars a year for seven years. This network TV deal is what a lot of MMA promotions have long desired, but despite the gold at the end of the rainbow, White was patient in securing this deal. He was not willing to sacrifice quality or control just to cash in early. This kind of patience lets you know that these guys think long term.
White is also savvy enough to know that fighters who seem superhuman were not enough. He knew that this sport requires discipline and focus, and therefore those who rise to the to top usually have interesting stories. White and the UFC tell these stories so well on their strategic programming that includes the reality show The Ultimate Fighter and UFC Primetime, a sort of documentary leading up to a key fight. These programs let you get to know the fighters and and care about them as people. This draws viewers in and creates and incredibly loyal fan base.
Some of White’s visionary leadership has led him away from the UFC original owners selling points. At first, it was marketed as a renegade, no rules brawl. White new he needed to embrace regulation. He not only embraced regulation, but has actively sought to create it. He also has dealt swiftly and decisively with his fighters who have acted according to the old, dumb, brawler mentality as opposed to his new global, professional sports league.
This regulation has certainly cleaned up the sport, but it has not sanitized it. It is still an aggressive, physical, adrenaline pumping sport that attracts the most desired and elusive marketing demographics: males between 18-34 years of age. FOX chairman David Hill declined to discuss terms of the deal, which he labeled "historic" due to UFC's ability to attract male viewers aged 18-34.
Another reason that the UFC is here to stay is that this company innovates. They do not rest nor do they value the status quo. In order to get more eyes on their sport and their athletes, they created their reality show The Ultimate Fighter. Due to an initial lack of interest from the TV powers that be, they produced it themselves, and then shopped it to networks. Ultimately, SpikeTV bought it. In the finale of TUF season 1 is when the UFC started to gain traction. In April 2005, the two finalists, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar squared off for a six figure contract with the UFC, not to mention a car. At the start of round 1 these two exchanged big punches and didn’t stop until the third and final round. It was 15 minutes of non stop, incredible action. All three judges scored the fight 29-28 in favor of the winner, Forrest Griffin, but because of Stephan Bonnar's outstanding performance, Dana White also granted Bonnar a UFC contract too. This fight was later declared the #1 UFC fight of all time in the UFC Ultimate 100 Greatest Fights program. Eventually, Spike built its channel around this young, male demographic that the UFC delivered. Now, TUF is in season 15, and this year its being broadcast live, yet another new twist from the UFC. They are also filming a separate TUF season in Brazil in order to capitalize on that MMA crazed population.
Perhaps the most creative idea the UFC has put forth is their Twitter contests. Starting June 2011, UFC fighters will be divided into four categories, based on how many Twitter followers they currently have. At the end of each quarter, three fighters from each category will be awarded a $5,000 bonus. The three winners will be based on who has gained the most followers since the start of the quarter, who gained the highest percentage of new followers and who wrote the most creative tweets. They clearly recognize the power of getting their fighters (employees) connected with their fans (customers). At the conclusion of a full calendar year, the UFC will end up paying $240,000 a year to its fighters for their Twitter usage. In addition to their Twitter contests, the UFC has also been putting some preliminary bouts on Facebook. Social media isn’t just for business anymore.
In order to put their best foot forward and to promote highly competitive bouts the UFC rewards fighters with fight night bonuses. Each fight night the promotion awards bonuses for the best knockout, submission, and fight of the night (both fighters win this one). At UFC 129 in April 2011, fight bonuses reached their peak at $129,000!
Perhaps the most significant innovation that the UFC is bringing to the table was their May 2011 announcement that it would provide insurance to over 300 plus fighters under contract.
The organization will pay 100 percent of the premium. So this is a complete benefit to their fighters; they don’t have to pay out of pocket for any monthly fees or monthly dues. This long term (read: expensive) approach is what differentiates the UFC from all others. They aren’t afraid to increase their expenses as an investment to their organization.
We’re not that different from the Romans
Lastly, for everyone who think we as humans have come so far (and technologically we have) over time, we still have a lot of the Roman Coliseum in all of us. Why else do you think that boxing was the most popular sport in the mid-twentieth century? Why is the NFL is so popular now? We’re an aggressive country. Whether we know it or not, we have a love of violence in sports. People love the big hits in football, and they love the knockouts in the UFC too. If you’re looking down your nose at “us” (UFC fans), ask yourself why you stop or slow down when passing an car accident? What are you expecting to see? Most likely it won’t be pretty. But we all do it. We have this innate, insensitive curiosity inside of us.
If this physicality doesn’t suck you in, the competition will. Which technique will conquer which? Will the Muay Thai fighter be able to keep away long enough in order to strike the wrestler? Will the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter be able to submit the striker? We all love to compete in this country. We compete in sports (in fantasy sports), in business, in relationships, everything! The UFC and its fighters compete. They battle any and all competitors, and are skilled in multiple martial arts disciplines. Unlike boxing these days, where the best boxers avoid each other like the plague, UFC fighters regularly face off. What a novel concept?! You know what else is refreshing? In an age where meaningless trash talk and false bravado has become ubiquitous in American sports, their seems to be very real sportsmanship in MMA. When two people step in an octagon and fight each other, genuine respect forms. There’s not a lot of room left for empty, pompous talk. Sure their are some combative words exchanged (and a few bad apples), but mostly that’s to sell tickets and secure pay-per-view buys.
The UFC (and MMA) has been the fastest growing sport the last decade, and its going to continue to accelerate into the mainstream, both internationally and here in the US. This organization is smartly run by forward thinking executives who are constantly improving and innovating their product. Lucky for them, that, like it or not, we have a curious appetite for this aggressive, adrenalized, no excuses sport of the future—and the future is now.