Monday, May 28, 2007

Critics aside – UFC is having an amazing impact

Friday afternoon Primetime Sports, a Canadian nationally syndicated sports show, featured a roundtable discussion between host Mike Toth, Toronto sports reporter Doug Smith (NBA beat reporter for the Toronto Star), James Deacon (a freelance writer), and Gord Kirke (renowned NHL agent). The four well spoken and knowledgeable industry veterans spent the final part of the first hour of their program collectively pounding mixed martial arts and in particular the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The four men (three of them fathers) suggested their sons never watched the UFC and went as far as comparing UFC athletes to animals in cages. Toth admitted the conversation would have been more balanced if someone had taken the other side of the discussion but was an active voice in the 15 minute debate that insulated mixed martial arts and the UFC on every possible level. (Note, yours truly has appeared on the same show and I personally and professionally know the four men).

Saturday night the UFC held their latest PPV, UFC 71. Four young men, the strongest demographic who enjoy and support the UFC and MMA (men aged 18 to 34) got together to watch UFC 71. They have all made their fathers very proud of what they have accomplished and what they will accomplish. What made the comments Smith, Kirke and Deacon offered on Primetime Sports their suggestions how they were bringing up their sons was a big reason why their sons (at least as far as Smith, Kirke and Deacon were aware of) knew little if anything about the UFC or MMA. The four young men I speak of are all students of mine at Ottawa’s Algonquin College, two are student interns who have helped produce Sports Business News this year – all four are outstanding people any man would be very proud to call their sons. The fact that they enjoy the UFC has nothing whatsoever to do with their parents and their fathers (all good citizens). So why then did Toth, Smith, Kirke and Deacon besmirch the UFC and MMA, one word and one word alone – ignorance on their part. All too often when we don’t understand something we choose to do exactly what these well respected gentlemen did – insult the product.

The growth of the UFC in the last few years has been remarkable. If you haven’t been paying attention you are missing what clearly has become one of the hottest trends in the sports industry. Last week Sports Illustrated (you can’t get more mainstream than the cover of SI) featured the UFC on its cover. ESPN the Magazine featured Chuck Liddell on the cover earlier this month. Liddell who lost the UFC Light-Heavyweight Championship to Quinton "Rampage" Jackson Saturday night at UFC 71 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It’s hard to argue Liddell may have been the UFC’s “Golden Boy” but unlike the world of professional wrestling the UFC is very real and impossible to predict. It may have been in the UFC’s best interests if Liddell had won but more often than not the best man always wins and Saturday night Jackson was the better man.

UFC features a monthly pay-per-view labeling each one in numerical sequential order. According to one media report: Ten of the last 11 UFC pay-per-view shows (dating back to May 2006) have produced live gates in excess of the US$2 million Dana White and his two partners -- brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta -- paid for the ailing company in January 2001. And those live gates don't even take into account the accompanying eye-popping pay-per-view revenue, reportedly worth US$223 million in 2006.

The UFC is ever-present on Spike TV, where it is hammering other sports in TV's 18-34 male demographic. A deal also with HBO is in the works.

UFC merchandise is red-hot. A company official reckons the UFC had 17,000 to 18,000 branded items for sale at UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio, in March.

White is the face of the UFC, and is the spokesperson at virtually every UFC media conference. To suggest White is abrasive would be an understatement. But that might be part showman (borrowing a little from the persona Vince McMahon has created for himself within the WWE) but to not believe White doesn’t care deeply for the UFC and its image would again suggest you haven’t been paying attention.

One of the biggest success stories associated with the UFC has been their Ultimate Fighter series. Currently Ultimate Fighter 5 is being televised on the Spike Network. The fighters all live in the same house. During the latest episode three of the participants became embroiled in a ‘street’ fight in the backyard of the house with one participant slamming another into the ground opening up the head of the fighter who hit the pavement.

White had could have edited out the material but choose to not only show what had taken place but allowed the producers to film and show his reaction. The next morning, White entered the house, and again, the UFC boss wasn’t happy. He told of his disappointment that the fighters didn’t conduct themselves as professional athletes, and he made his point even clearer when he booted Sims, Thomas, and Allen Berube (one of the ringleaders of the house fight) from the house. A small moment, but an important message sent out by White – you want to be treated as athletes, you want to be seen as athletes, you had better act like athletes. Not a defining moment but White offered a clear understanding how focused he is when it comes to the UFC’s image.

Saturday night’s UFC 71 followed the recent mega boxing event between Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. Also held in Las Vegas, the boxing event is everything the Vegas of old is about. High rollers filling the town, big celebrities vying for ringside tickets and a record pay-per-view with well over 2 million buys. That said big boxing events are the Las Vegas of yesterday, they are few and far between. Boxing as a sport has few if any marketable names, the UFC clearly has made a connection with males who enjoy the combative sports.

Before Saturday’s PPV the media savvy Dana White held a national conference call as he often does. In what shouldn’t come as a surprise – boxers are looking at moving from boxing to the octagon (MMA compete in an eight sided octagon). Two of the names that have been bandied about from the boxing world -- Kermit Cintron and Tommy Morrison. However for his part – White doesn’t seem interested.

“I’m not really interested in that. Floyd Mayweather is probably the greatest boxer ever. You might think what you want to think about his personality and he might not always put on exciting fights but there is no doubt that he is the most talented guy, probably in history. A challenge by somebody like that means something. Every guy that boxes and wants to put out a challenge doesn’t really mean anything to me.”

Nor should he, as White suggested should he pay attention to every guy that boxes looking at the UFC but as is so often the case with the bombastic White its how he delivers his message where he becomes his own worst enemy.

White made it clear he’s very happy with the mainstream media coverage the UFC enjoyed in the days leading up to UFC 71, but didn’t have a great deal to say about the UFC’s much anticipated agreement with HBO.

“It’s over. It’s the last nail in the coffin for the media that has not given us the credibility and not looked at us as a real sport. It’s over now. I mean, ESPN is covering us constantly now. Sportscenter just did a big thing on Chuck. The weigh-ins are being covered live by ESPN, etcetera, etcetera, the cover of Sports Illustrated, talk shows … I mean, we’re there now. We’ve finally arrived.”

“We’re still negotiating (with HBO). Nothing has been finalized, yet.”

The HBO agreement is a key when you look at the UFC’s future. HBO is instant creditability when it comes to pay-per-view and combative sports. When the deal was first reported White allegedly had ceded creative control of any events HBO was involved with to HBO, but the deal has yet to be signed and there are now reports White wants control of the creative presentation. White knows what he’s doing, watch for the deal to happen and expect HBO to have control but White to have a strong say (as he should) as to the talent HBO selects and how the product is presented. White knows his audience, HBO knows how to present a pay-per-view, and working together they’d be a very strong team.

Remember Chuck Liddell lost Saturday night making the comments White offered Thursday (before he lost to Jackson) that much more prophetic on the impact Liddell losing would have on the UFC.

“How it all happened is we’ve been at the tipping point for a while now. We finally got to the point where we couldn’t be denied anymore. We’ve been kicking boxing’s (butt) and (pro) wrestling for the last year and a half. We’re selling out venues. We’re breaking records everywhere we go. … It’s to the point now where we can’t be denied anymore. We were at that tipping point and here we are.

“As far as Chuck goes, there is always going to be new stars. There is always going to be new champions. If Chuck loses, it depends on how the fight goes, then maybe, there is a third fight between him and Rampage. I don’t know. It’s definitely a tough fight for Chuck.

“Chuck is a big superstar. What Chuck has right now is that Mike Tyson aura about him. You know. He seems invincible. People love to show up to see how fast he is going to knock people out. I think what makes this fight so intriguing is this is the only guy to beat him in the last three-and-a-half or four years. I don’t think the UFC is going to collapse if one guy loses.”

That clearly is the challenge White and the UFC face in the coming months. Liddell’s loss Saturday night follows Mirko Cro Cop the Serbian former ‘secret policeman’ who was knocked out last month, but as far as White is concerned is up, up and away for the UFC, especially in their battle with boxing, and as far as White is concerned boxing has many issues the sport has to deal with.

“Boxing has a lot of problems. It’s more than just one problem. They’ve got a ton of problems. The thing with boxing is it’s all about the money. It’s all about money. At the end of the day, every decision that gets made, everything that they do, it’s all about money. I don’t talk about money. People always want to know how much are you making? How much are they making? How much is this and how much is that? Who gives a (darn)? Who really gives a (darn) at the end of the day, what the financials are, how much is everybody making? I want to talk about the next fight. Who does everybody want to see fight? Why do we want to see them fight? The big problem with sports today is everybody talks about (stinking) money. You’ll never hear me talk about money. Ever. It’s not because we’re trying to hide everything. It’s just that’s not what we’re about.

“Three guys bought the UFC when the UFC was dead. It was over. The sport was dead. Nobody cared. And we didn’t buy it because we thought we were gonna turn this thing around and make billions of dollars. We saw something in this sport and in the fighters that we thought was incredible and we thought was amazing. We thought if we got it to the mainstream people would enjoy it and would like it. I think that’s one of the things when you go to a UFC event live you see the energy in the place. It’s crazy because people are there because they are passionate about it.”

Six years ago on the brink of bankruptcy, Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) then the owners of UFC was approached by Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, and boxing promoter Dana White in 2001, with an offer to purchase the UFC. A month later, in January 2001, the Fertittas and White bought the UFC for $2 million and created Zuffa, LLC as the parent entity controlling the UFC. With ties to the Nevada State Athletic Commission (Lorenzo Fertitta was a former member of the NSAC), Zuffa secured sanctioning in Nevada in 2001.

“Originally, me and my partners, the way we got into it is we started taking Jiu-Jitsu, and I was a boxing guy. I thought the UFC was (bogus). I thought it was everything that the rest of the world thought it was. Then we started to meet some of these fighters, and these guys weren’t just a bunch of gorillas that rolled in off of bar stools. These guys were educated guys. They were great athletes. When we started to do Jiu-Jitsu we started to realize what an incredible athlete you had to be to be good at that sport.

“When we went to the first UFC event, there was a small little event outside of New Orleans. We started looking around and watched some of the matches. We were like this really is an incredible sport. Imagine if they did this and imagine if they did that. Then it ended up we owned the company not too long after that and we started implementing all the things we thought could make the sport great. We started putting these incredible athletes out in front and telling there stories.

“You know Vince McMahon and the WWE, he creates a guy and he builds a persona for him and gives him a name. They go out and act a certain way. These guys (in the UFC) have their own different personas and they are interesting and real. In boxing, you always hear the same old story: “I came from the mean streets of such and such. If it wasn’t for boxing, I’d be dead or in jail.’ These guys in the UFC, I mean, Chuck Liddell is an accounting major from Cal Poly. Matt Hughes graduated from college. Randy Couture and they all have these great stories that are real. It’s refreshing in the fight game to deal with people that are in the UFC.”

The gigantic chip on White’s shoulder – never more apparent when asked how he felt about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“Yeah, Bob Arum’s office called me 675 times yesterday. Bob’s mad at me. Let me tell you what, and I’m serious when I say this, when we started doing this we wanted the rest of the world to see this as the amazing, incredible sport that it is with amazing, incredible athletes. You dream of certain things when you start doing something like this. One of them is to be written up in Sports Illustrated and the other is to be on Sportscenter with all the other sports and in a million years we never dreamed we’d be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Seriously, we were in New York yesterday, me and my partner Lorenzo, and we were walking around with Sports Illustrated all day in our hand. I can’t tell you what it means to us. The story was fantastic. Six years ago, if you would have thought, even ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated, Chuck on the cover of the magazine would have been him covered in blood and it would have said “Crazy Ultimate Fighter,” and it was “Ultimate Fighter: What’s Not to Love about Chuck Liddell.” And you guys write the story you wrote yesterday. It was a great piece and it was an educated piece and it’s very refreshing.”

White’s boasting aside (he’s earned his day in the sun) one clear challenge White and his partners face – keeping what makes UFC and MMA unique and ensuring the sport doesn’t become too mainstream for the taste of its supporters.

“People ask that. I met with the Spike guys yesterday, and when you think about this, and you think about all the sports networks, ESPN, ESPN2 and Fox Sports Net, those are the three and if you are a sports junkie you are flipping between those three. People don’t really think of Spike TV as a sports network, but let me tell you what, and HBO because they put on boxing, Spike TV has the best fights on television. They are the best fight channel on television. You wanna see great fights. The thing about Spike TV is we’ll take some of our big caliber fights that should be pay-per-view, because I believe in giving big fights to people for free. It’s not that greedy boxing model where every great fight has to be on pay-per-view and I’ll put a bunch of (bad) fights on ESPN or Fox Sports Net. High quality, high caliber, big-time fights for free on Spike TV. I don’t worry about it at all. Is there too much football on TV? Is there too much baseball on TV? Are they too main stream? This is a sport. It’s a great sport with great athletes and I think anytime you can put together a great fight between two guys that people want to see, they are going to tune in.”

White has to be concerned is UFC the flavor of the day. A few years ago poker was hotter than ever. Network television fell all over itself in buying or creating made-for-television events. Still White and has partners have to move their business model forward, strengthen their brand or face the problem of the UFC and MMA being branded a niche sport stuck forever between a bright future and its reputation of being called ‘human cock fighting’ by Arizona Senator John McCain. The good news for White and his partners – they’ve paid attention to what’s gone wrong with boxing and don’t want to make the same mistakes that have crippled professional boxing.

“Pretty much every UFC fight is damn exciting. The difference is we showcase nine fights that night, not just one. Let me tell everybody on this call something and go off on a rant for a second. I always talk about how much trouble boxing is in. Boxing is in trouble for one reason, and one reason only … Greed. They are all greedy. Everybody in it is greedy. Bob Arum and Don King have absolutely destroyed that sport, stuck their hands in there, ripped the life out of it and stuck it in their pockets. OK, and Bob Arum can call me 500 (more) time tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing. That’s the reason boxing is in trouble. Oscar De La Hoya had the opportunity. I’m sure a lot of people thought Floyd Mayweather was going to beat Oscar De La Hoya. There were people wishing and hoping Oscar De La Hoya would win, but reality tells you Floyd is going to win this fight.

“Now, Bob Arum and Don King weren’t promoters of this event, Oscar De La Hoya was and, apparently, his career after boxing is going to be a fight promoter. Now, he has Winky Wright, Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins and a bunch of other talented guys that he has fighting under his promotion. We got a lot of press the week of the De La Hoya fight because everybody was saying could this be the fight that saves boxing. Hell no, it couldn’t be the fight that saves boxing because Oscar did the same thing that Bob and Don did. All he wanted to do was shove the money in his pocket. He should have stacked the card with Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins and Winky Wright on the undercard. The promotion for that fight should have been, ‘Boxing’s not dead. Golden Boy Promotions is going to bring it back and we’re going to go head-to-head with the UFC. We’ve stacked this card and put all these guys on the card.’ But they won’t do it because they are too (darn) greedy.

“It’s never going to change and it’s never going to end. They could have built storylines underneath with all these fights, and let’s say half the people came back for the next fight. They just did 2 million buys. Maybe, they could have done 1 million or half a million or 750,000 with these other fights. This is what I’m talking about, about these boxing guys. They don’t think about the future. It’s how much money can I make right here, right now. Anyway, sorry guys.”

One key decision White and his cohorts need to make – ignore the mainstream media who ridicule, insult and offer ignorant statements about mixed martial arts and the UFC. Whether or not sports media types appreciate the athleticism offered by UFC athletes isn’t the issue. If media members choose to berate White and the UFC move forward. Those who choose to ridicule MMA and the UFC seem to have forgotten the cherished demographic group the UFC has found – men aged 18 to 34. That’s a group advertisers and companies want to associate with. That’s where their dollars are heading.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom.

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