Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dana White and the UFC go primetime

Saturday night represents a giant big step forward for Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The mixed martial arts (MMA) company goes mainstream, the first in a series of events that will showcase the company on the Fox network.

The seven-year agreement is worth a reported $100 million and includes the UFC product to air on other FOX channels, including 32 fights on cable channel FX, and programming on Fuel TV.

Countdown shows and older fight will be useful to promote future Pay Per Views just as they did on Spike TV.

According’s John Morgan, FOX Sports Media Group chairman David Hill recounted a story from UFC owner Lorenzo Fertittafrom ten years ago,

“He said, ‘What boxing was to your generation, UFC will be and is to the next upcoming generation."

"There's still a large group of media and large group of just what I'd call sports fans, casual sports fans, that maybe kind of know what UFC is, but they're not saying, 'Hey, right now I have to be home to watch this fight,' " Fertitta, whose company owns UFC and Strikeforce, told USA Today. "That's what we're hoping, is to bring millions more people in to see the UFC."

UFC has come a very long way in a very short time however there is still a sentiment shared by many that MMA is nothing more than human cock fighting. A brutal and unmanaged combative event were men fight each other in cages in a no-holds barred battle.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Mixed martial arts is a full contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, including boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, kickboxing, karate, judo and other styles.

Saturday night is traditionally a grave yard for prime time television. This weekend, however, will see Fox and Dana White’s UFC air a fight usually reserved for Pay Per View. Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez will defend his title against Junior Dos Santos.

Fertitta, White and company could have made tens of millions of dollars but believe it makes better business sense to offer the event on free television.

"If I can convert 100,000 of those millions that will be watching for the first time into customers for the next 20 years, then our investment on Fox has paid off," Fertitta says.

The most marketable brand the UFC has is the passionate, charismatic, entertaining and interesting president Dana White. He’s not a fighter but he’s is the company’s best spokesperson.

With a keen sense of competition and strong business acumen, White has achieved unrivalled success in the mixed martial arts industry. In fact, White has built the UFC into one of the fastest growing sports organization in history.

University business professors are paying attention in order to understand and impart the strategies White has deployed so successfully in such a brief period of time.

The company was acquired for $2 million in 2001 by White and his business partners and in 2009 the company received a qualified offer exceeding $1 billion.

The UFC’s popularity exploded when the first season of the hit reality series The Ultimate Fighter, that White co-created, delivered record ratings on Spike TV. Now 13 seasons later, The Ultimate Fighter franchise is a staple of TV and popular culture. It has launched the careers of many including Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, Michael Bisping and Josh Koscheck. Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans have gone on to become champions.

Thanks to White’s vision the UFC has gone from 5 live events per year to 30, produces over a dozen different TV shows and accounts for thousands of hours of broadcast and cable programming in 21 different languages in over 132 countries. Ancillary businesses now include the UFC Gym, branded apparel, trading cards, articulated action figures and other media including best-selling DVDs, videogames, books and a national bimonthly magazine.

In 2008, Business Week named White as one of the most influential people in sports. In 2009, the United States Armed Forces Foundation presented White with the Patriot Award for his contribution to injured military servicemen and women.

That same year, White was named “Nevada’s Sportsman of the Year” by the Caring Place, a nonprofit organization dedicated to relieving financial concerns of cancer patients. This year, White was named as one of the most influential people of 2010 by both Time and Esquire magazine.

In addition to the UFC brand, Zuffa owns and markets under the names of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and PRIDE Fighting Championship® with programming available to 597 million homes worldwide.

Alongside Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, White is directing a worldwide expansion of the business from the company’s headquarters in Las Vegas.

“The world is ready for us," said White. "And for those of you who aren't, there are a thousand channels out there. Change the channel if you're not ready."

If you don’t believe in what Dana White has to say – he could care less. His belief in MMA and UFC is nothing short of amazing. He lives, eats and breaths the UFC, stands by and lives for this product and his fighters.

“These are the most media-savvy dudes in sports," Fox sports chairman David Hill recently told the Los Angeles Times. "We will be No. 1 in our time (slot), without a doubt."

For those who have enjoyed a UFC pay-per-view event White makes it clear the product that Fox will be offering Saturday night will be a combination of what they’ve come to expect from the UFC and how Fox showcases sports coverage.

“We’ve been doing this for over 10 years now and the day of an event we rehearse the thing like we’ve never done it before, every time. So you could imagine the fact that we’ve never done this before and we’re adding a lot of new things to this FOX show. We’re going to be rehearsing this thing like crazy. We’re going to start rehearsing on like Thursday to pull off this fight on Saturday. And we’re kind of using our model and what we do as far as shooting and producing fights and FOX’s model for how they handle and cover sports,” White added.

“It’s a work in progress. I’m telling you, we’ve been working hard on this thing man. We’ve been working hard on kicking this first one off, figuring it out and then it’s going to be, like I said, a work in progress.

“All of the changes that I told you are going to happen to our production and everything else won’t start until January. But this show is going to be a lot different, first fight on FOX, different format and for the first time ever one fight and the heavyweight championship.” White said.

From what amounted to barroom brawls to more than 57,000 packing Toronto’s Rogers Centre for an event last April UFC has come a very long way in what is a very short time. White has had opportunities to showcase his product on network TV before but was waiting fore the right opportunity.

"Fox is putting our athletes on the same level as the NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and all the other major sports in this country," White said. "It's about time."

"If you really want to grow a sport and fertilize it so that it becomes a major part of the consciousness, you gotta have it on free TV," said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "And it sure doesn't hurt if it's on one of the major networks."

Thompson told The Contra Costa Times he sees similarities between MMA and another niche sport that used TV to build a wider audience -- NASCAR.

"UFC has serious brand identity, and they have a roster of interesting personalities," he added. "Sport is like any other drama on TV. The cast of characters is crucial to success. The key will be getting people to care about these people."

Fertitta reiterated that the time was right and Fox is the perfect fit for his organization.

“I think that all the networks were interested in us since 2006 when they saw the success with us on Spike TV.

“In the early days, we made countless trips to Hollywood and to L.A. to meet with all the different networks. Nobody would talk to us. Nobody had any interest in putting us on television.

“When we started on Spike TV and we had such success, all the networks started calling, but we were locked up with Spike TV; they had an exclusive on our content.

“As the expiration on that deal started to wind down, it was no secret that this Dec. 31, 2011, was basically going to be the end of our relationship if Spike didn't re-up their contract. Once that happened, all the networks started calling and we sat down with all of them.

“We're happy that Fox really was the one that came out and made the most sense for us. That's always kind of been our No. 1 dream network to be with is Fox. So it worked out good, I think.”

Tens of millions will see a UFC event for the first time Saturday night. The production will be outstanding. Doing a series of interviews in the days leading up to Saturday’s event White has made it clear he controls whatever happens on the broadcast up to and including the moment the fight begins.

Many watching the event won’t understand what is taking place once Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos go at each other, but whoever does take the time to watch the event can be rest assured they’ll be entertained.

Fox has been a very good partner in promoting the event. They had a series of spots during their World Series coverage. Velasquez was featured on a recent Fox NFL pregame show and an hour long UFC Countdown showcasing the fight was televised on the full Fox Network two weeks ago as part of Fox’s Sunday NFL coverage.

White doesn’t believe Saturday marks the UFC going mainstream.

“We have definitely carved out our market and our niche, but we are not mainstream. We've had a lot of success, but you certainly can't say, at least here in America, that we're on the level of an NFL or anything of that nature.

“But the good news is we have room to grow. I think this is a platform -- a platform like Fox is what can get us there.

“I think there's still a large group of media and large group of just what I'd call sports fans, casual sports fans, that maybe kind of know what UFC is, but they're not saying, "Hey, right now I have to be home to watch this fight." That's what we're hoping, is to bring millions more people in to see the UFC.

“I know that we've had some controversy from some of the boxing promoters, like Bob Arum, saying we're stupid; why would we put the heavyweight championship on free TV; that's a stupid move.

“The reality is this: Our model has been very successful for us, as far as putting our product on free TV to generate new fans, and that's the way we look at it. I'm not concerned about what our bottom line looks like in November; I'm concerned about what it looks like five years from now.”

If you ask Dana White about boxing and other big promoters he always has great things to say. The UFC holds pay-per-view events every three or four weeks.

One might believe that’s too many but the success speaks for itself. Indeed it appears Dana White has captured magic in a bottle.

Are you ready? Let’s get it on!

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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