Sports Entertainment Summit: Dana White Chronicles the UFC’s Coming of Age
Last week marked what was arguably the most successful event in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as UFC 148 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas earned a record gate of nearly $7 million and came close to overtaking UFC 100 as the highest grossing pay-per-view event in the MMA promoter’s history. But ask UFC President Dana White and he will tell you firsthand that it was not an easy road to the top.
“When we bought this company, the [previous owners] had stripped everything away and sold off the DVD, merchandise, video game rights – everything,” White said during a Keynote Conversation at SVG and Variety’s Sports Entertainment Summit last week in Los Angeles. “We basically bought the three letters UFC and an old wooden octagon for two million bucks.”
Today, UFC fights and programming are televised in 175 countries in 22 different languages, and almost a billion total homes around the world – and that is not even counting the additional exposure the promoter receives through its UFC.tv streaming platform (developed by technology partner NeuLion). But this monumental success came from humble beginnings.
An MMA Heavyweight With Humble Beginnings
When White and his casino-owning business partners, the Fertitta brothers, bought UFC in 2001 for $2 million (creating parent company Zuffa) it was on the verge of bankruptcy and was considered the pariah of the sports world by much of the viewing public and, more ominously, by powerful politicians who banned UFC events in more than 30 states.
“The UFC was not allowed on pay-per-view. Porn is allowed on PPV. That was the kind of uphill battle that we faced,” White joked. “So when we first bought this company, everyone thought we were nuts.”
Entering the Live Production Octagon
However, White and company were fighting more than just politicians and bad press. They were forced to learn the television-production business on the fly, having elected to produce all their own pay-per-view telecasts.
“It wasn’t that I just came in with [hardly any] business experience… the other thing was production,” said White. “We had never put on a production before. I didn’t even know what a camera was when I bought this company. Everything was a learning process.”
The Ultimate Fighter to the Rescue
UFC continued to struggle through the four years of Zuffa ownership, relying heavily on strong ticket-sale revenues, but failing to reach mainstream sports fans. That is, until 2005, when the UFC elected to front a fledgling cable network called Spike TV $10 million in production costs for The Ultimate Fighter – a reality show that would help to finally elevate UFC to a legitimate sports entity.
“That changed everything,” White admitted. “We had been trying to get [UFC fights] on television and we finally got them on pay-per-view, but that wasn’t the answer to all of our problems [because] everyone was terrified to put these fights on live television.
“The one thing we really didn’t want to do was a reality show,” he added. “But we thought maybe this will be our Trojan horse – you are watching mixed martial arts but you don’t realize it because it is in a reality show format.”
You Sly Fox: Getting UFC onto Broadcast Television
As The Ultimate Fighter generated solid ratings for Spike TV and helped to build the UFC brand, UFC fights began to make their way into consciousness of mainstream sports fans, generating millions of dollars in gate and PPV sales. By 2007, UFC was finally a profitable business, but one key ingredient was still missing that White believed could push UFC ahead of boxing as the primary combat sport in the U.S.: UFC fights on broadcast television.
That all changed last September, when UFC and Fox Sports Media Group inked a seven-year deal that included moving The Ultimate Fighter to FX, programming dozens of live fights on FX and Fuel, and, most importantly, airing four live fights per year on the Fox broadcast network.
“In my opinion, Fox was the perfect fit for us, as far as their content goes,” said White. “Fox was my big dream. That was the television deal that I wanted and we got it.
“Now we are six months into this deal and trying to work out all the kinks and exactly how to work together,” White continued, referencing UFC’s penchant for producing and programming its own content. “We’ve already started [improving the production quality]. That is what Fox is really good at. These guys have revolutionized many of the sports that they have on their network.”
Outward and Upward: International and Second-Screen Expansion
Even with blockbuster PPV events and the lucrative Fox rights deal, UFC is far from content with its current standing and continues to expand rapidly into new avenues, specifically with international markets and UFC.tv.
“It’s about cultivating these markets,” said White. “The big thing is you need to get a fighter from this country – everyone wants to root for a fighter from their own country.”
UFC.tv and the UFC.tv apps (for Android and iOS mobile devices) provide yet another avenue for fans to consume UFC content. Developed with technology partner NeuLion, the platform provides users the ability to purchase and watch live UFC PPV events, watch VOD from UFC Fight Library, and keep up with UFC news. In addition, the service provides fans with different camera angles, and lets them score fights round-by-round, chat with other fans, and review pre-fight stats and fighter profiles during live pay-per-view broadcasts.
“We have seen a lot of traction with UFC.tv,” NeuLion EVP of Marketing Strategy Chris Wagner said during a UFC.tv case study at the Sports Entertainment Summit. “This last fight with UFC 148, we had all-time high mobile downloads with the iPhone and Android devices. It was the single largest UFC.tv PPV that we’ve had to date. Then we have a lot of new things coming up with multicurrency [functionality], enhanced live stats, and the tablet launch.”