The Ultimate Fighting Championship's efforts to market its new heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez, to a Hispanic audience paid off brilliantly at UFC 121 on Oct. 23. Though the UFC does not release official pay-per-view numbers, it is believed that the event sold slightly in excess of one million.
The show was a success in Mexico, where Velasquez's parents were born, and has helped increase awareness of mixed martial arts among the boxing-mad Hispanic population in the Southwestern U.S.
UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, who has been heading the company's international expansion push, was pleased by the results, but said the plan is only in its infancy, though it was hardly new.
"I don't know if people have really noticed or not, but we've been marketing specifically to the Hispanics for at least a couple of years," Fertitta said. "We've allocated a fairly significant portion of our marketing budget to the Hispanic market because it's not one of those things where we intend to jump in and jump out.
"You have to consistently be out there talking to these markets for them to kind of take. It takes a while to build them. It just doesn't happen overnight. Certainly for this fight, because we had Velasquez, we ramped up a little more than normal, but we're going to keep driving away there. The biggest thing is that we're definitely accomplishing similar things to what we accomplished in other markets. We're getting younger Hispanics, the guys in that 18-to-25-year-old group that maybe doesn't have the strong tie to boxing like the 50-year-old-plus crowd. They're definitely sampling the UFC and they're liking what they see."
Top Rank led a wave in boxing about 10 years ago in marketing heavily toward the Hispanic audience because its market research discovered that boxing was one of the three major sports with that group, alongside soccer and baseball.
Ten years ago, Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, was working on its purchase of the company from Semaphore Entertainment Group. When the sale was completed in January 2001, Fertitta and UFC president Dana White focused almost exclusively on the American market.
That took more than four years just to show a pulse. Four years into the Zuffa reign, the company was in excess of $40 million in debt and seriously considering leaving the business.
The company's success internationally has come much quicker. Despite the fact that many fans complained that UFC 120 in London on Oct. 16 was a weak card, it sold out in nine weeks and set a European attendance record of 17,133 at the O2 Arena. That is the ninth-largest attendance at a UFC event.
But six of the top 10 best-attended fights in UFC history have been outside the U.S, including five of the top six.
|Best attended UFC fights|
|1.||UFC 97||21,451||April 2009||Bell Centre||Montreal|
|2.||UFC 83||21,390||April 2008||Bell Centre||Montreal|
|3.||UFC 68||19,079||March 2007||Nationwide Arena||Columbus, Ohio|
|4.||UFC 110||17,831||Feb. 2010||Acer Arena||Sydney, Australia|
|5.||UFC 115||17,669||June 2010||General Motors Place||Vancouver|
|6.||UFC 113||17,647||May 2010||Bell Centre||Montreal|
|7.||UFC 103||17,428||Sept. 2009||American Airlines Arena||Dallas|
|8.||UFC 101||17,411||Aug. 2009||Wachovia Center||Philadelphia|
|9.||UFC 120||17,133||Oct. 2010||O2 Arena||London|
|10.||UFC 111||17,000||March 2010||Prudential Center||Newark, NJ|
It's a testament to the success Fertitta has had in laying the groundwork for the company's international expansion. The formula that has worked repeatedly in places like Canada, England and Australia has been to begin with television broadcasts of UFC programming to establish a presence in the country, and then ultimately deliver a live event.
China, India and Brazil are next on the radar, though Fertitta said that it is a long process toward profitability in many of those markets.
In Asia, in particular, Fertitta sees an exceptionally long developmental period. In August, the UFC announced the hiring of former NBA China executive Mark Fischer as president of UFC Asia.
"I absolutely believe [we can match the success we've had elsewhere], but it's going to be a much longer route," Fertitta said of the UFC's venture into the Asian market. "We're going to have to invest a lot of money and it could be a 10-to-15-year cycle before we see any benefit to the groundwork we're … laying right now.
"We hired Mark Fischer, who was with the NBA for 13 years and did a great job with them. He understands not only the Chinese market but the overall Asian market. … It's no secret that people in China have a strong martial arts background and are going to love the product. It's just a matter of formulating the right strategy, getting it out there and getting it on the air."
For all its success, the UFC is still very much in the building phase. Even in the U.S. MMA is not covered as a professional sport by many major media outlets the way the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball are.
Results of major out-of-market MMA fights are rarely, if ever, reported on local television news broadcasts. In many markets, MMA is covered as a curiosity more than a sport.
Many newspapers still devote extensive space to horse-racing results and entries, but fail to acknowledge MMA exists. In New York, MMA remains illegal with some of the state's politicians clinging to outdated and clearly disproved notions of what the sport is.
When results are routinely included on the 11 o'clock news and in sports sections of newspapers across the country, then will it be fair to consider the UFC nearing the mainstream. It's moving in that direction, but still has a long way to go.
"It's one of those things that we have to remember that, even in the U.S., people look at us now and say, 'Oh my god, you guys are so successful,' " Fertitta said. "But it really was not an overnight success. There was a good five or six years of really spending a lot of money and seeding the market for the thing to take hold.
"We've been in Europe, which is more of a developed market and we've been in the U.K. and now we're starting to spread out to, obviously, Germany [where UFC 122 will be held on Nov. 13], Italy and France. We've been there for two or three years on TV. Now, we're starting to see a tick up in the ratings. In both France and Italy, we did nearly 300,000 viewers for the last fight. That's a massive number when you think about the overall television households in those markets. That's as many viewers as Showtime does here in America. The wave is starting to come."
The UFC is putting its second live show in Germany despite opposition from a number of German politicians. Fertitta said UFC 99, which was held in June 2009 in Cologne, Germany, attracted fans from throughout continental Europe. And so, despite the opposition, the UFC is going to forge ahead and try to develop the market.
In March, the German equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission banned UFC programming from the Munich-based network, German Sports Television (DSF). The key to reversing that opposition is to continue to try to educate those in the market about the sport. The best way, Fertitta said, is by bringing a live event.
"What we're dealing with there is a vocal minority," Fertitta said. "The UFC has historically been an easy opportunity and platform for politicians to be able to get press by standing up and saying, 'Hey, they shouldn't be able to do this.' They don't see a lot of downside to doing that. The reality is that we have a very strong fan base in Germany, but it's not just about being in Germany. We're talking about continental Europe, but think of the surrounding countries we're servicing. At UFC 99, there was huge diversity and we got people from France, from Croatia, from Denmark, from Scandinavia …
"We could face some issues again, sure, but we're not in a situation where, for the lack of a better term, we're going to pull out. We've gotten all the approvals it takes to do the live event. We have the local approvals, the state approvals, so the event is going to go on. We feel in a lot of ways it's like the U.S. when we got a lot of pushback. The best thing is to bring them the product. They get over all the misinformation and all the stuff people put out that 'Oh my god, this is dangerous. It's a blood sport.' The best thing we can do is bring the product and let them see it. Quite honestly, after a lot of the politicians and regulators saw it, they came to us and said, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' "
There's a certain segment of the population that is going to oppose fighting of any kind and won't ever think it's remotely close to cool. But the vast majority of people don't feel that way and aren't opposed to combat sports. To win over those fans, it's going to simply take time.
And that's why Fertitta continues to travel the globe preaching the gospel of the UFC and mixed martial arts. He recently completed an around-the-world trip, flying from Las Vegas to London for UFC 120, then continuing to India for meetings and then flying back home to Las Vegas.
He's literally laying the groundwork for a major international sport. It's still years away, but with every fight card in each new market, Fertitta's vision inches closer to reality.
- Lorenzo Fertitta