The rising popularity of certain niche sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in the form of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) can be attributed to a mix of marketing and promotional factors which have resulted in a positive outcome. Increased coverage and reporting along with individual star power have also contributed to the growth of niche sports. This essay will take a deeper dive into how the UFC has transformed itself into a mainstream sport from struggling in its early days (Szczerba, 2014).
The emergence of the UFC as a mainstream sport has widened its coverage in the academic community. Greg Downey, an anthropology professor, is one scholar who has examined the sport widely through works such as ‘Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting’ and ‘As Real As It Gets!’: Producing hyperviolence in mixed martial arts. ‘Rather than a barbaric spectacle, Downey argues that MMA rapidly developed into a technically sophisticated event’ (Robbins, 2017). There have also been case studies conducted such as Serafeim and Welch’s (2011) review of the early development of the sport leading up to the 2001 purchase of the UFC by Zuffa, LLC. This essay will expand on the themes discussed in the above-mentioned papers to analyse how the UFC expanded in the modern era.
The UFC was started in 1993, when nobody had ever heard the term “mixed martial arts” (Shea, 2017). ‘Since then, it has become one of the fastest growing sports organisations in the world, generating $900 million in revenue in 2019 and growing more in 2020’ (Tabuena, 2020). Arguably, at least in the beginning, ‘the UFC became a victim to cultural and societal determinism about what should constitute an acceptable (and lawful) fight’ (West,2015). It started off as a no holds barred eight-man tournament. The first event held proved to be successful as there was a ‘huge appetite’ for combat sports in North America (Radmanovich, 2012). With initial success came a lot of criticism as Senator John McCain led the opposition against the UFC, labelling it as ‘human Cockfighting’ (Plotz, 1999). His political influence ensured that the sport was banned in 36 states across the United States.
Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules of Conduct
The ‘no holds barred’ approach proved to be too violent for many Americans and the UFC was gaining a lot of negative press in the early days. At its initial stage, the UFC was not as focused on marketing, but as a company they wanted to ‘minimize the negative or incorrect impressions of the sport that appeared in the mass media’ (Schwartz and Hunter, 2008). This did not exactly work out as they were dropped from several cable carriers like TCI Cable. The UFC was heading towards decline even with a cult following. They had even adopted ‘a standard set of rules, the ‘Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules of Conduct’ that was established in 2000, paving the way for regulated MMA events to be organised’ (Ford,2015). Despite this, the company was going bankrupt and Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) decided to sell the UFC.
It was purchased by Zuffa LLC for $2 million which saved the promotion.Zuffa LLC was owned by the Fertitta brothers and they made Dana White, President of the UFC. The new owners of the organisation were ‘able to anticipate and respond to the market selection forces and adapt their strategies as a result of their learning’ (Axelrod and Cohen, 2000). Professor Merrilees (2005) highlights the importance of brand evolution as a necessary component of successful marketing strategy in his work ‘Radical Brand Evolution: A Case-Based Framework,’. This led to a total shift in marketing strategy, of which the first focus was to change the UFC’s image to make it more sport-like and less like a spectacle with the inclusion of the unified rules and weight classes.
Dana White could not implement his vision straight away, as the pay-per-view (PPV) numbers did not show increased growth ranging between 30,000 to 50,000 buys per event. ‘The only exception was UFC 40 which generated 150,000 PPVs and nearly sold out the Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena for a gate of $1,540,000 (Mahon, 2015) as it included a grudge match between two UFC veterans, Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock’. ‘This also was the inception of super-fights for the UFC where PPVs were driven by celebrity influence’ (West, 2015). This first super-fight initiated the ‘UFC’s desire to create high profile celebrity fighters’ (Robbins, 2017). It also received attention from ESPN at that time, which was considered impossible for mixed martial arts (West, 2015). Despite this star attraction the UFC accumulated losses of $34 million in between 2001 and 2004 (Clow Kenneth E., & Donald Baack, 2012).
The Ultimate Fighter
The UFC needed to bounce back with an idea that would spark the interest of the casual viewers at home. That meant the UFC needed to expand its fanbase and appeal to a wider audience. The ‘Ultimate Fighter’ reality television show was one such idea: ‘a transmedia project that bridged live sports television with reality television to market the former through the latter’ (McClearen, 2017). They struck a deal with Spike TV to air ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. ‘When the show first aired on Spike TV in 2005, the UFC spent $10 million on filming and airtime’ (Miller, 2008). ‘UFC executives believed that the reality TV format would give them an opportunity to educate viewers on MMA, introduce new fighters, and hold its first competition on a TV network’ (McClearen, 2017). Effectively, the UFC employed transmedia marketing— ‘a contemporary media strategy where diverse media content flows seamlessly across multiple devices and platforms in order to bring new audiences to the sport’ (McClearen, 2017). The show featured sixteen young MMA fighters competing for a contract with the UFC. The finale event, freely available on network television, headlined by the show’s finalists Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, is widely considered to be the most important fight in UFC history (Mahon, 2015). The event attracted an audience of 2.6 million (Sherdog, 2005). ‘The light heavyweight champion Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell served as coaches on the series, with the aim of the series also being to provide the two fighters with greater public exposure prior to their planned fight at UFC 52’ (Ford, 2015). ‘The Spike deal gave the UFC an entire new audience and finally put the company, and the sport, on a firm ground financially.’ (Gold, 2007).
The Ultimate Fighter proved to be a significant catalyst for growth, with the new audience translating into commercial success as, UFC 52 headlined by Randy Couture vs Chuck Liddell, set new UFC records for gate receipts ($2.58 million) and PPV sales (280,000). This growth showed Spike TV that there was potential and hence they set up a broadcast deal with the UFC from 2005 to 2011 (Ford, 2015). During this same time, they focused on acquiring other MMA organisations to put themselves in pole position as the leader in MMA. ‘They acquired then dissolved competing franchises like Pride FC , World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) while maintaining Strikeforce’ (Ford, 2015). After doing so, they added the other celebrity names from the competing organisations such as Anderson Silva from Pride FC. This helped in eliminating the competition while making MMA synonymous with the brand of the UFC. The UFC also strengthened its marketing mix by adding to its product with roster acquisitions and eliminating international competition.
‘Advertising revenue and the amount of sponsorship options would also increase substantially along with the benefits of international television deals that the UFC could obtain’ (West, 2015). The company saw geographical expansion as they began to host international events, dominating the global MMA market. The first Canadian event was held in 2008 and it has grown to become a major market for the UFC. The first events in Ireland and Germany were held in 2009, while the UFC continued its international expansion with its first shows in Australia and UAE in 2010, in Brazil in 2011, and in China and Sweden in 2012 (Ford, 2015). When organising events in these countries, the UFC had tailored its fight cards, using a local main event fighter, where possible and including a significant number of fighters from that region throughout the rest of the fight card in order to engage with the local audience (Ford, 2015). Their brand equity may have increased at this point as according to (Stahl, et al 2012) ‘if brands win the hearts and minds of the customer, customer brands have an easier time retaining and acquiring customers’. They also saw national expansion as more states began to legalise the sport in the United States. This helped them to create a ‘unique and valuable (market) position’ (Porter, 1996, p.13) through successful strategic management. In 2016, the Fertitta brother and Dana White sold the majority stake in the company to Endeavour and KKR & Co. Dana White remains the president of the UFC till this date. The UFC did not falter again and went on to create celebrity fighters with the help of their public relations machine, sponsorship deals with major companies, an EA sports video game series, a dominant social media presence and they continued to create beneficiary broadcast deals for themselves.
‘After the Spike TV deal ended, they started an iconic seven yearlong partnership with broadcast television network Fox’ (Ford,2015). This further helped them to reach new audiences in a deal worth around $700 million (West, 2015). In 2018 they struck a five-year long deal with The Walt Disney Company for exclusive streaming of events on ESPN. This was a major landmark for the company as ESPN would not even cover UFC news on their channel at one point (Ford, 2015). The deal also improved their media relations as ‘getting free media coverage is not easy because there is a lot of competition for limited amount of airtime or print space’ (Hunter and Schwartz, 2008). The deal was worth $1.5 billion and ‘these broadcasting rights contracts can be the single largest revenue source for sport organizations’ (Hunter and Schwartz, 2008). ‘Currently, the 42 live UFC annual events are available in more than 150 countries with numbers still rapidly growing due to more international broadcast deals’ (Stan, 2019). ‘The UFC’s decision to provide free streaming on Facebook of their preliminary fights was also particularly innovative at generating an increased coverage and buzz’ (West, 2015).
The UFC’s social media activity is one of the major contributing factors behind their emergence into the mainstream. Holmlund & Törnroos (1997) introduced the theory that social media allows consumers to interact on multiple levels. ‘It can facilitate interactions from consumer to consumer and from consumer to organization’ (Radmanovich, 2012).
July 2015 saw the organisation begin to try and dominate the social hemisphere. ‘The organization unveiled its new identity in its hometown of Las Vegas at International Fight Week, which serves as the Super Bowl of UFC events’ (Shea, 2017). Journalist, Kait Shea reported, ‘the brand connected hundreds of tablets, QR readers, RFID/NFC devices, streaming cams, touchscreens, DSLR cameras, mobile devices, video cameras and more across every corner of Sin City to give fans and attendees access to its brand and its athletes, in a new and unprecedented way’. The UFC also has a versatile content marketing strategy. They have their own branded website, UFC.com. The site contains a subscription service giving fans access to their entire fight library along with other exclusive content. The website is also user friendly with direct access to all their social media platforms and physical UFC gyms. A store is also available on the site where fans can purchase exclusive sports gear. During fight weeks, their social media platforms are flooded with all kinds of fighter content. Lessig (2008) suggests that ‘remixing the content is a generational shift in how users communicate’. ‘When organizations support the creation of the user experience to meet user’s needs, higher user engagement occurs’ (Gangi and Wasko, 2016). Their ‘UFC Embedded: Vlog Series gives a behind the scenes look at the fighters leading up to the fight (Hampton,2007). The UFC’s commitment to providing fans with content was most apparent during the pandemic. UFC 249 was the first major live sporting event and their user engagement exploded massively (Gill, 2020). ‘When compared to their last major PPV, UFC 244, held pre-pandemic, their engagement rate more than tripled from 0.46% (3.9 million engagements on 174,998 posts) at UFC 244 to 1.55% (12.1 million engagements on 272,702 posts) at UFC 249’ (Gill,2020). Being the only live sport being broadcast during the pandemic gave the UFC a whole new audience (Gill,2020).
The UFC has dominated at social media for years now. On any given Fight Night, 60+ UFC-related topics will be trending on various social channels (Hampton,2017). The UFC started an incentive-based social media program for athletes, where bonuses are awarded to fighters who have the most impact with their personal Twitter accounts (Hampton,2017).
In 2011, Dana White hired a PR firm to teach over 300 fighters how to best use social media to build their brand and momentum before fights (Hampton, 2017). This shows how the UFC has been innovative with the different aspects of brand building.
Another road to their mainstream success has been their use of sponsorship. Sport sponsorship is another significant element of the promotional mix as the main goal is to promote a product or service through a third party (sport product or event). Companies need to satisfy their customers by creatively managing their marketing mix in order to have a competitive advantage over others (Jobber 2007, pp. 793-794). The UFC had an exclusive clothing deal with Reebok for the athletes, which is now complemented with an apparel deal with Venum. They have a deal with energy drink company Monster and another one with Modelo beer. The UFC has other major branding deals, but these alone show their reach to mainstream audiences.
The last factor in the UFC’s shift from a niche sport to a mainstream one has been the appeal of celebrity fighters. This has been studied by Thomas R. Robbins and James E. Zemanek Jr.
In their journal article “UFC pay-per-view buys and the value of the celebrity fighter”. The paper discusses how certain stars have cross-over appeal such as WWE wrestler, CM Punk or previously mentioned Ronda Rousey. Their PPV numbers are compared against previous flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson to show the value of star power, despite lacking talent in the octagon. The power of celebrity is vital in any sport but it had been harder for the UFC to create stars in an individual sport. When they saw an opportunity in Rousey, they marketed her massively to increase her star power. She also helped the UFC as there was no Women’s division before her arrival and she brought a whole new audience with her and inspired more female fighters (Macdonald, 2014). Scholars like DeSchriver (2007) examines the ability of a single player to influence game specific attendance in Major League Soccer. Hausman and Leonard (1997) examined NBA television ratings and estimate the economic value of celebrity players like Michael Jordon. This shows the ability of celebrity fighters like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey to draw in crowds comparable to that of Jordan.
The UFC has built itself into a mainstream sport with the use of a strong and diverse marketing mix. Along with Star Power, the marketing machinery employed by the organisation has brought UFC to the masses. The fact that UFC events have even outshone boxing events, cements its place as a mainstream sport, and underlies the phenomenal journey of the sport over the past three decades.
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