What does the future hold for the UFC under new leadership?

The UFC is under new ownership, but does that mean changes are in the works?

It’s been widely reported that the Fertitta brothers, who bought the UFC for just $2million 16 years ago, have sold the company for $4billion. That’s quite the return on their investment. The new owners are WME-IMG, one of the world’s largest talent agencies. Don’t expect to have heard of anyone involved in WME, or anything they’ve ever done- I certainly hadn’t. They don’t make money by being famous, they make money by successfully managing famous people, famous products, and famous companies. We’ll come back to WME-IMG later.

Back in the year 2000, the UFC was the definition of a fringe sport. It didn’t have writers like me covering it, it didn’t have athletes able to make a living wage, and it certainly didn’t have the worldwide audience that it now does. So kudos to the Fertittas- they, along with Dana White, knew that the company had an inherent appeal, and they were able to grow the UFC until it has essentially become synonymous with the sport of MMA.

The sport was always going to grow, because people have always wanted to know the answer to the questions ‘Who is the best fighter in the world?’, and ‘What style of fighting would the best fighter in the World use?’ Even back in 1976, Muhammed Ali fought a kickboxer, named Antonio Inoki. This particular fight was a complete mess, with stupid rules, but the point is: these questions have always been there. This sport was ALWAYS going to exist- we just needed a company to emerge to make it professional, to legitimise what the naysayers used to call ‘cagefighting’ and ‘human cockfighting’.

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Dana White understood this. He’s a divisive figure, and although I often disagree with his approach and his handling of individual situations, his overall approach has been wildly successful. So probably the biggest point to note of the UFC sale is that Dana isn’t going anywhere. Love him or hate him, WME-IMG know that to remove him would bring risk and fan alienation, and few benefits. Indeed, this point can be expanded to their approach in general. Don’t expect to see sweeping changes in the UFC. When one buys a product from someone who improved the company’s net worth by 2,000%, one would be foolish to ignore their predecessor.

We can assume that the new CEO of the UFC, Ari Emanuel, is a smart man. At least smart enough to know that right now is an excellent time to buy the UFC. Its support base is young- 45% of the UFC’s viewership are millenials. New York State, the last blockade to MMA in the US, has come on board, and big things are expected to happen at Madison Square Garden. And finally, emerging markets are there for the taking- with the right approach. Across Asia MMA is burgeoning, but no single promotion has truly gripped the continent yet. I would expect the new owners to take a strong aim toward the gigantic potential profit that lies in China. It’s a country with roots steeped in martial arts, and a country that has so far not found true love in any western sports franchise (outside of Manchester United, that is!).

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Finally, I would expect the new owners to expand the relatively new angle the UFC have been pushing- streamlined ‘branding’. It used to be that a fighter wore whatever they wanted, and were sponsored by whoever they chose. The much-maligned Reebok deal saw an end to that. It’s all linked to this question of ‘legitimacy’. Dana wanted the UFC to seem more professional, more akin to major sports franchises, like the NFL, NBA, etc. The Reebok deal was to try and stop MMA’s sometimes amateurish nature from rearing up. For example, I remember one particular moment that made Dana White’s blood boil. Now ex-UFC fighter Cody Mckenzie came to Vegas for UFC on Fox 9 back in 2013, but forgot his fight shorts. So before the event he bought some basketball shorts- the closest thing he could find. If I recall correctly, I believe they still had the tag on them during his walk-out.

Now that the UFC does have Reebok as their sports kit brand, as well as their own online streaming service (called ‘Fight Pass’), and every pay-per-view televisual event is as slick and shiny as the Superbowl, I’m not exactly sure how WME-IMG will continue this branding vision. But I’m certain they’ll already have plans. The difficulty is this: the more you appeal to new audiences, the more the core fans will think you’re watering-down the sport- changing and messing with what made them love it in the first place. And the more you appeal to the core audience, the less a first-time viewer will care. It can be one thin tightrope, and one I’m glad to be commenting on instead of walking.

Laurie Williams

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