'Our goal is to make UFC the No. 2 property for Six after IPL': UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta

Founded in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has gone on to become the largest Mixed Martial Arts brand in the world. Having established itself in markets like US, Canada, and Brazil, the UFC has made its first big push in India through a broadcast deal with Sony Six.

Apart from having a television presence in the country, UFC also plans to build the sport with on-ground activities and talent hunt initiatives. Its ultimate aim: to make UFC the second biggest property for Sony Six after the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL).‘s Ashwin Pinto caught up with UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta to find out the organisation‘s plans for India and the strategy it will be following to grow the sport in the country.


Q. When you bought UFC in 2001 what was the aim and to what extent has this been achieved?

A. At that time what we wanted to do was create a combat sport organisation that had some structure and brand around it. We looked at boxing as we have always been boxing fans. Big fights occur in Las Vegas.

But what we found is that boxing was very fragmented. There was no brand and structure which a lot of times prevented the sport from putting on the fights that fans wanted to see. So we saw an opportunity in the UFC to take combat sport to a new level because there would be an organisation, structure and a brand.

Our vision was to take the UFC from a niche sport to a global brand. We wanted to create a great entertainment product for the fans. We have accomplished our aim. We are the largest combat sport organisation. We are broadcast in 150 countries to a billion homes in 22 languages.

Q. You once said that when you bought UFC it was the worst brand in the US because of all the negativity. Could you talk about the strategy followed that helped the company turn things around?

A. Firstly we developed rules and regulations that we now call Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. We worked with various state governments to have them recognise those rules and UFC as a sport. The third thing was really promoting the athletes and presenting them as being world class. The previous owners really focussed on the violence and spectacle of the sport.

We focussed on the athleticism of the fighters and the competition. The aim is to have athletes compete in a safe way. The sport is a combination of martial arts like Judo, Jujitsu, Boxing and Taekwondo.

Q. As per research how is the UFC brand perceived in India and globally today?

A. Globally we are looked at as the market leader in mixed martial arts. We are seen as the premier organisation. In India it is too early to tell. I don’t think that there is a lot of awareness in India about mixed martial arts. I think that people are intrigued about the success that we have had around the world. The question is can we replicate that success here?

Q. What would you say is your USP vis-a-vis other events like Bellator and boxing?

A. Relative to other sports, what we do is put on fights that fans want to see. All fighters are contracted by us. It is easy to put matches together. Our aim is to never have a mismatch. So we put fighters in an event who are evenly matched. Most fights don’t go to a decision. Matches are fast paced and you have outcomes that are very definite and defined.

Boxing is one dimensional. In the UFC, on the other hand, you can grapple, kick, punch and put the opponent in a submission hold. It is interesting from a strategic standpoint and more fast paced. That is why younger people like it. In 2006 UFC overtook boxing as the biggest provider of pay per view events. Last year in November over nine million Americans watched a heavyweight fight on Fox. Bellator would be lucky to get 90,000.

‘We liked the approach that Sony was going to take. We also liked being affiliated

with the IPL. And we wanted to be on a sports channel‘

Q. So is MMA more mainstream compared to a decade ago?

A. Without question! In the markets where we have a presence in, it is a mainstream sport. We produce more than 30 live events in a year.

Before we acquired the UFC mixed martial arts was a fringe attraction, largely unregulated and unable to appear even on pay per view platforms. All that has changed.

Q. MMA like soccer is a sport that works everywhere, unlike cricket which works in some markets, NFL which is only present in the US and baseball which is only present in the US and Japan. Is that because viewers can identify with the aggression and competitive nature of the fighters?

A. I think the reason is that it is simple and easy to understand. A lot of other sports have rules. If you have not grown up watching cricket or the NFL, you will never understand how the game is played.

When you put two athletes in the Octagon and make them compete everybody gets it. It is not hard to explain.

Q. Is there an entertainment quotient in the UFC or is the focus just on the sport?

A. The way we present the product is very important. We spend a lot of money putting on a big show. At the end of the day it is the fighters, the action and the quality of the fights that sells. We broadcast all our events in HD. We have aired some events in 3D. We look at emerging technologies to make the viewer experience better.

Q. What revenue growth does UFC expect this year and how much comes from television fees?

A. Sixty per cent comes from television fees. Then you have live ticket sales. Beyond that you have sponsorship.

The US accounts for over half our revenue. Canada would be second, Brazil third and Europe next.

Q. Which are the top three markets for UFC?

A. The US is number one. Canada is number two and Brazil is number three. We see a lot of similarities between Brazil and India. Both are emerging economies. There is a growing educated class of younger people who are looking for a new and exciting sport. We think that is what the UFC represents.

Q. How big is Europe?

A. Europe is big, particularly the UK as well as the Baltic states like Sweden and Denmark where the UFC is very popular. We are just starting in Italy, France, Spain and Germany and we plan to bring events to

Central Europe sometime next year.

Q. Where does Asia fit in the scheme of things?

A. 2013 and 2014 are important years for us in Asia. We did our first event in February in Tokyo and it was a success. Our second event was in Macau in November. Then we want to do events in the Asian capitals like Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

Q. How did the deal with Six come about and what are the terms of the deal?

A. This is a four-year deal. Hopefully we will be able to extend it and make it a long term relationship. Our goal is make UFC the number two property for Six after the IPL.

We came to India two years ago. We started looking here and have worked for a long time. We have had interest expressed from every major media company here. We have had discussions with companies like Zee, NDTV and Star.

We liked the approach that Sony was going to take. We also liked being affiliated with the IPL. And we wanted to be on a sports channel.

Q. What is the gameplan to grow the UFC brand in a country where WWE is hugely popular?

A. When we started the UFC, WWE was popular in the US. But people figured out quickly that while we were real, the WWE was fake. We were, thus, able to migrate a lot of fans over to the UFC.

In India, we see the same thing happening, particularly with the younger demographic base. Once they see how exciting the UFC is and that it is real, they will migrate from WWE.

The gameplan is firstly using the distribution of Six and airing live events. They also use our library to educate fans on what is going on in the UFC. Then there is the reality show ‘The Ultimate Fighter’.

This will develop Indian fighters and is the most important thing for us. In order to be successful, we have to have Indian fighters that can compete at an international level. We appreciate Sony‘s dedication in producing ‘The Ultimate Fighter: India’ with us.

Q. Could you talk more about Ultimate Fighter?

A. This is a reality show which is in its 17th season. We have done versions in the US, Australia, Brazil and the UK. It is about 16 young fighters who live in a house together. They train together. At the end of each episode there is a fight and the winner progresses. The event takes place over 13 weeks.

The Indian edition takes place next year. The two semi finalists fight together to determine who gets the UFC contract.

Q. When does the first season kick off?

A. We are looking at a time frame of September next year. We will spend the next six months looking at different fighters around the country and do casting calls. In terms of venues, Mumbai and Delhi will be important. We will be looking at facilities that a city can provide.

Q. How did the idea of doing reality television come about?

A. When we bought the brand, it was tarnished. People associated it with violence. We knew that we needed to do something that was different that explained why it was not about violence and why these athletes were so special.

We created the reality show so that people were not just watching a fight. They were watching how these guys lived, interacted, what their background was, their family life, and how they train. It helped change the perception of the sport. This show has changed the face of mixed martial arts.

‘When we started the UFC, WWE was popular in the US. But people figured

out quickly that while we were real, the WWE was fake. We were, thus, able to migrate a lot of fans over to the UFC. In India, we see the same thing happening, particularly with the younger demographic base‘

Q. Is there cross viewership happening between UFC and WWE as athletes like Brock Lesnar and Ken Shamrock have competed in both?

A. There is some cross viewership. Our TG is males 18-34. WWE skews a little bit younger - teenagers. I see UFC’s appeal spreading across India including in the wrestling belts in the rural areas.

Q. Has UFC considered launching its own TV channel?

A. Not yet! We felt that we needed to make an investment and grow the brand before making this move.

Q. What growth has there been in the amount of content UFC offers in the past three years?

A. We have increased it significantly. A lot of this is driven by our television deal in the US with Fox. We went from being on a one cable channel which was Spike TV to being on the Fox platform which includes programming for four networks that they own. Our programming has tripled year on year.

We felt that there was a demand that people wanted to see more fights. We wanted our product on multiple platforms in the US. We are on a free to air channel Fox, on a cable channel FX and on a smaller sports cable channel which is called Fuel TV. Hitting every tier within the US media market was important to help us continue to build our brand.

Q. What challenges does the economic slowdown pose for UFC?

A. We have been fortunate that we have not been affected very much by the economy. The reason for that is that no matter how bad things are, people still want to consume entertainment. All sports whether it is

the UFC, NFL, NBA are doing well.

Q. Sports entertainment outfits like Super Fight League have come in. How do you think it will push the sport in the country?

A. It will boost popularity. Competition is a good thing. We come in as a premier organisation which if we succeed will help other leagues.

Q. There is a view that UFC has followed NBA’s approach to grow which lies in buying rival promotions. Is that a fair assessment?

A. I don’t know that we are following anybody’s strategy. We have over time acquired a number of leagues to get their athletes over to the UFC. We also got their library. Strategically it made a lot of sense. The biggest acquisition was Pride Fighting Championship which was based out of Japan.

We also bought Strikeforce which was based in the US. Female fighters take part here. We could license these rights to Six as well. There is potential for that. As all these athletes are under one company it allows us to put on fights that fans want to see.

Q. How do you view new media platforms like Internet and mobile?

A. Our core customer base is very proficient online. They consume a lot of their entertainment on YouTube. They are on Facebook and Twitter; it is important to our strategy. We have a large portion of our library online. You can subscribe and go back and watch fights, interviews, updates etc. We try to use Facebook, Twitter to market UFC and spread the word about the upcoming fights.

Q. Has China been a difficult market to crack due to government regulation?

A. We are taking it very slow. We have not had any issues or any problems. China is the birthplace of martial arts. There is a huge appetite for this sport there.

Q. Where do you see the UFC in India five years down the line?

A. I think that we could be the number two sport after cricket. In Brazil we are not just the number two sport but are also getting close to the popularity of soccer. Many times we get more viewership than the Brazilian national soccer team does.

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