Occupy The Throne – Edition #35

In this edition of Occupy The Throne, Samer Kadi and I look at the UFC’s plans for global expansion.

Jeremy Lambert: Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar 1 is the fight that put MMA on the map. Just ask Dana White. Without Griffin vs. Bonnar at the TUF Finale, the UFC might not be here today. While that’s a debatable point, no one can say that Griffin vs. Bonnar didn’t dramatically help MMA reach current heights. Since that fight, the organization has gone from running almost exclusively in Vegas casinos to traveling all over the world. Their latest stop comes this weekend, when the company heads to China for the first time in history.

In 2012, for the first time ever, the company traveled outside the United States to hold over 10 events. That trend looks to continue in 2013 with talks of hitting the usual markets (Canada, Brazil, England) and exploring new markets (Asia, Africa) in the UFC’s everlong quest to conquer the world.

Dana White once stated that, “The UFC will be bigger than soccer.” Usual Dana hyperbole aside, for the UFC to reach those heights, they obviously need to continue to break into new markets and not rely solely on US PPV buyrates. And with MMA seemingly plateauing in America, global expansion can’t come soon enough.

Samer Kadi: While some of Zuffa’s business decisions over the course of the past two years have been rather questionable, they have managed to maintain a steady march forward in their quest for global expansion. After their earlier successes in the United Kingdom and Canada, the UFC’s venture into new markets was a remarkable success. While some of their trips could be regarded as an “every once in a while” deal (such as UFC 99 in Germany), others have had a far more profound effect.

Brazil is fast becoming one of MMA’s hottest regions, and at this rate, could soon surpass Canada as the UFC’s second most prolific market. The latter is still largely dependent on the returning Georges St-Pierre, whose eighteen months absence marked a huge blow that was reflected through subdued interest and slow ticket sales. Meanwhile, the sheer number of elite MMA fighters coming from Brazil – many of whom are currently competing at the very top of their weight classes – means the Brazilian market is less dependent on a particular name.

In newer markets, the UFC has the benefit of being somewhat of a novelty. That is not to suggest that MMA has not long been prominent in Brazil, but high profile fights taking place on Brazilian soil was unheard of eighteen months ago. This has been reflected through the enthusiasm and eagerness of Zuffa’s target audience in newer markets in general, and Brazil in particular. In fact, this very sense of novelty is why “The Ultimate Fighter,” which has long overstayed its welcome, could still work abroad.

This weekend, Zuffa bid to continue what they started last February, as they continue to take on the Asian market. Following the success of UFC 144 in Japan, the UFC now ventures into China.

Jeremy Lambert: While The Ultimate Fighter has been given a new lease on life thanks to international editions, sooner or later fans will be just as burnt out on the show as Americans are due to uninteresting coaches and lack of actual talent being produced.

Whenever a high profile company ventures into new territory for the first time, fans are going to go crazy and eat whatever is fed to them. The true test of staying power is going into a market for a second or third time with a weak line up and still drawing rabid crowds. We’ve seen the UFC draw less than stellar crowds in certain US cities because, after getting a title fight or a stacked card the first time around, the UFC came back with a one fight card or relatively unknown fighters.

When it comes to overseas markets, fans like to have fighters that they know. This presents a problem though as MMA is being dominated by North Americans and Brazilians. The UFC has scaled back their events in England, because without Michael Bisping, the events aren’t drawing as well. The other problem is that many high profile fighters don’t like fighting on overseas events because they get a PPV cut and it’s been proven that non-North American shows draw significantly less on PPV.

The UFC will likely draw a significant crowd this weekend in China because it is their first trip, but with no Chinese superstars in the pipeline and the chances of someone like Jon Jones (who is clearly a business first fighter) headlining a future event being slim, how well will they do when they decide to come back? The same goes for markets like Asia, Africa, Philippines, etc….

Samer Kadi: Thus far, Zuffa have been wise enough to differentiate between certain markets and how they approach them. They recognized just how big they can be in Brazil and capitalized accordingly, and now seem to have gathered huge momentum in the country. Meanwhile, following the failure of the Dan Hardy experiment, the UFC’s progress in the UK has hit a roadblock, as the lack of British stars proved to be crucial. Nevertheless, if and when Michael Bisping receives his seemingly inevitable title shot, a mega fight in the UK becomes a no-brainer.

The real challenge however, lies in how they handle smaller markets where their potential growth is relatively limited. Try as they might, the Asian market will not reach the highs of Brazil, or even the United Kingdom. Efforts to revitalize MMA in Japan have all been in vain in the past two years as DREAM and other companies fell short. And while the UFC are better equipped to succeed in the land of the rising sun, the Japanese audience who watches the UFC consists of hardcore MMA fans, whereas a far greater percentage used to be invested in PRIDE.

In large part, that is why the Zuffa’s plans for a UFC event series in Japan have been met with skepticism. The idea of UFC shows geared around upcoming Japanese talent is good in theory, but risks ultimately becoming a waste of money if the sport fails to regain its footing in the country. The same fears surround “Ultimate Fighter India” idea, where the UFC may have grossly overestimated the sport’s popularity.

For its part, MMA in China has been limited to the local “Art of War” promotion, where sub-par foreign fighters are brought to get beat on by slightly less sub-par Chinese talent. For the very few MMA fans in China, the UFC will represent a breath of fresh air. Maintaining any sort of long term popularity however, will prove to be Zuffa’s real challenge.

Jeremy Lambert: While global expansion is key for the growth of the company, the UFC knows that America is where their bread is buttered. Opening up new revnue streams in foreign countries is nice, but if it comes at the expense of the US market, it could put a dent in the Zuffa bottom line.

The UFC will never be bigger than soccer and anyone who tries to say different is an idiot. The sport isn’t fully accepted in America yet, so asking other countries to accept it on a consistent basis will be a very long proccess. Let’s not forget that MMA is still young and has plenty of room for growth, especially overseas, but that growth can’t be rushed or forced.


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