Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White got a lot of fans talking when he made predictions of grand expansion over the next ten years. And while White is often as guilty of hyperbole as the next promoter, his plan for global domination isn’t that outrageous. Especially not when you look closely at two of the company’s recent announcements.
UFC ON NBC?
Zuffa’s UFC/WEC arrangement started strange and only got stranger over the last two years. Regarded as a farm club for the UFC, vetting legit prospects before the move up to the Big Show, the WEC thrived as a regional promotion. When Zuffa purchased the company in Dec. 2006, the WEC disbanded its heavyweight and super heavyweight divisions, and then dissolved its welterweight and middleweight divisions two years later. The stated plan was to build up the sub-lightweight divisions through basic cable-televised shows beamed out of Las Vegas and secondary markets like Sacramento and San Antonio.
It made a certain kind of sense in that it allowed Zuffa to extend its reach without overextending the UFC staff while squatting on Versus, a cable channel interested in broadcasting MMA. Why Zuffa decided to retain a 155-pound division in the WEC remains a mystery, but discussions about a 125-pound flyweight division and a contract extension with Versus despite the fact that the channel was dropped by DirectTV pointed to at least a couple more years of promotional independence. These were all counter-intuitive moves – on paper, the obvious decision would be to fold WEC fighters into the UFC and add two (or three) exciting divisions to the sports premier brand. With seven divisions, eight if they added flyweights, the UFC could promote title fights on every major card, have a surplus of match ups for Fight Nights, more options for the Ultimate Fighter and still have some programming left over for Versus.
But then in a bizarre move that put all previous bizarre moves to shame, the UFC announced that it would air events on Versus in 2010. On its face, the deal further jumbles an already confusing relationship between the UFC, WEC, the UFC’s basic cable partner Spike TV, and Versus. But it’s actually a brilliant move for everyone involved.
No one is kidding themselves about the WEC staying independent forever – the promotion will be folded into the UFC eventually, if for no other reason than trying to promote an MMA fighter who isn’t in the UFC is a Sisyphean task. Fighters like Brian Bowles, Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber, Mike Brown and Miguel Torres may be stars within the MMA community but they barely register on the casual fan’s radar. To the guy who loves “UFC fightin’” and “that badass with the Mohawk who knocks people out” the WEC might as well not even exists. And like it or not, those fans represent the largest potential for growth. But by keeping the WEC independent for as long as they have, and maintaining a presence on Versus, the UFC has positioned itself beautifully for future TV deals and given Versus a major bargaining chip in future negotiations with DirectTV.
As MMAJunkie noted late last year, Versus is owned by Comcast, which just acquired NBC Universal. NBC flirted with MMA through it’s late-night Strikeforce show but a UFC card in primetime would deliver NFL-playoff like ratings and ad revenues for a network that is struggling to retain what few young viewers it has left.
UFC IN MIDDLE & FAR EAST
(White and Tahnoon in Morocco.)
Zuffa recently sold a 10% ownership stake (1% from White and 4.5% from each of the Fertitta brothers) to Flash Entertainment, a company that for all intents and purposes is owned by Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. The Sheik is a Renzo Gracie black belt and the man behind the prestigious Abu Dhabi Combat Club submission grappling tourneys. While the oil-rich United Arab Emirates will undoubtedly be a lucrative market for the UFC, Abu Dhabi is more likely to become a staging ground for the promotion’s Asian expansion. The world runs on oil and will continue to for at least the next quarter century, ensuring that the Arabian peninsula will remain a gathering place for heavy hitters from all corners of the globe.
The Emirates – a loose confederation that includes Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain – has strong ties to China, India, Japan, and the Phillipines. These countries represent huge revenue potential for the UFC but are not places where Dana White’s at-times abrasive personality will play as well as it does Stateside. Having the Sheik grease wheels in the Middle East and Asia will accelerate the UFC’s global expansion plans.
Dana White & Co. have a strong foothold in the U.S., Canada and U.K. They have dipped their toes into continental Europe, will do the same down under at UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia and have formed strategic partnerships that might well open a host of new markets to them. Don’t be surprised if the first few years of the new decade see the UFC and WEC merge into a single super promotion that regularly produces shows in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia with titles spanning every class between 125 and 265 pounds and a media footprint sprawling across NBC, Spike, Versus, pay per view, and the web.
If that happens, White might have to revisit his 10-year outlook in 2015.