When the lights come on at UFC 200—the fight brand's biggest ever event—this weekend, one of the sport's most recognizable names will be missing. Conor McGregor may be on late night TV, he may feature prominently in UFC's own internal brand film and the trailer to its latest EA sports video game. But one place the bruising Irish superstar will not be is fighting in Las Vegas.
The reasons have been written about and speculated upon since McGregor missed a scheduled press conference and commercial shoot in April, with Twitter rants, retirement threats and more, but for UFC it clearly comes down to this: No one name is bigger than the brand.
Fifteen years ago, Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank teamed up with their high school friend Dana White and paid about $2 million for a nearly bankrupt company that organized and promoted mixed martial arts fights. They looked at combat sports and saw a massive market opportunity. Lorenzo Fertitta, now CEO and chairman of UFC, says back then, fighting was the only industry that had been around for nearly a century, generated billions of dollars around the globe, but still had no real brand associated with it.
"There was no value essentially in any of the entities involved in boxing, it was always just a one-off event," says Fertitta. "A boxing event was like the ultimate going out of business sale. They make the investment, they do the event, and after that it’s over. There’s no ongoing interest. When we made the decision to go ahead with UFC, it was because it had a structure and a brand, albeit when we bought it in 2001 it may have been the most broken brand in America."
Not anymore. Since then, the three have built UFC into a global sports behemoth that's punched and kicked its way into more than 1 billion homes in 160 countries. The company essentially has taken a page from the WWE in hyping the personalities and talents of its individual fighters with show business bravado under the overall banner of the brand. For Fertitta, while the fighters make UFC, UFC also makes the fighters. There has even been reports over the last few weeks, since denied by UFC officials, that the Fertitta brothers and White had sold the company to a group led by WME/IMG, Dalian Wanda Group, and TenCent Holdings for $4.2 billion.
"We knew at the end of the day, in order to be successful we needed to be a strong brand, and to do that we needed it to represent something," says Fertitta. "Quality has always been important to us, and the product is edgy enough so we never felt we had to market the brand as edgy. Many times we put tickets on sale around the world for an event before we know exactly who is fighting, and we’ll still sell the arena out, because the UFC brand represents quality and people know whoever is fighting will be the best available, and you will get value for your dollar. You would never see a boxing match sold before the fighters were decided on. That said, we do focus a lot on our athletes, but the way we’ve built the brand structure, it actually has allowed our athletes to prosper under that umbrella, and ultimately be more successful."
UFC 200 features "the best fight card in the history of martial arts," is hosting an entire weekend of amateur martial arts events outside the main fights, and the brand's first ever EA Sports UFC championship. They're also broadcasting a championship fight on July 7 exclusively across the brand's Fight Pass over-the-top network. From an event standpoint, to content creation and distribution, Fertitta considers this weekend as the culmination of the past, present, and future of the brand.
Internally, UFC has created eight brand maxims it uses to as its strategic compass.
"We put together the brand maxims because we felt we had to identify what the brand was internally so we didn’t let other people define us," says Fertitta. "Historically we were defined by John McCain calling us 'human cockfighting,' so that was the impetus to make sure everyone in the company understood what the brand was and what it stood for."
With lines like, "We promote passion and determination, and at our core we’re promoters, not just of fights but of human potential," they veer close to coming off as a bloody nosed version of dentist office motivational posters. But beyond internal cheerleading, chief global brand officer Garry Cook says the maxims help the company maintain brand consistency across its many interests outside the octagon, whether that's reality shows like Ultimate Fighter, YouTube series "Looking For A Fight," video games with EA Sports, and its fitness gym chain.
"We look at the four pillars of who we are—we’re in the event business, we’re in the content creation and distribution business, we’re a brand and marketing company, and we have sponsors and partners," says Cook. "Part of our goal over the last 18 months has been to create and build a very common theme, in everything from the aesthetic of the brand, to the tone of the brand, to even extolling the virtues of our brand through our eight maxims that we use internally. They’re becoming part of the fabric of our culture."
Cook says the brand creates more than 2,000 hours of content every year, with more than 40,000 hours of content in its archives, and more original programming made for its Fight Pass over-the-top network. And as any modern brand or media company, UFC has embraced the always-on mentality of TV Everywhere, giving fans what they want, where they want, and how they want it. But Fertitta goes a step further and sees the future shining brightly down one particular path.
"Our vision is we think the future of content distribution is direct to consumer," says Fertitta. "So we invest and embrace that platform and it’s going very well for us. In addition to that we have relationships with about 20 other promoters around the world where we broadcast more than 100 mixed martial arts events that are non-UFC, so we’re becoming essentially an aggregator, creating the dominant combat sports vertical. Really it’s about embracing technology to make the best overall experience for the consumer and enhance the brand."
Some may consider love the international language, but there's another that doesn't require much translation: a punch in the face. Fertitta knows this and UFC has used it to rapidly expand around the globe.
"We’ve never thought about ourselves as just a fight promoter, it’s always been as a global media company," says Fertitta. "No matter where we take this product, no matter what language you speak or what color you are, people understand and appreciate fighting and martial arts. That has given us a leg up."
But despite that early advantage, the brand has taken a localized approach to its international presence, opening offices in Latin America, Singapore, Beijing, Toronto, and London to be a constant presence, and tailor local events to that audience.
"For the content we’re producing, we didn’t want to be looked at as an American company exporting American content, and that really forced us to invest overseas and internationally," says Fertitta. "Not only do these offices do day-to-day operations, they also make sure all the content is localized—from something as simple as language, to having local announcers, and look and feel, because we want it to be easily consumed and not seen as this American product. More than half our athletes are from somewhere other than the U.S., so we’re a global company in many ways."
According to Fertitta, UFC is the second most popular sport in Brazil after soccer. "Which is fine with me—if we could be the second most popular sport in every country, we’d be pretty darn successful," he says. "But in Brazil, I’d say the UFC brand is bigger and more important there than any individual soccer club."
Cook says this investment illustrates that UFC is more than just a traveling circus. "Now we’ve got a permanent presence, looking to continually build on what we have so far, which is building on broadcast relationships," says Cook. "Yes, we host events there still, but it’s about engagement the other 360 days of the year."
The brand's biggest challenges right now is maintaining maintaining brand consistency across its international and content expansion, while also finding new ways to scale growth. That means knowing and properly guiding the pace of the sport in each market.
"Sometimes we forget there is still a lot of work to be done in these international markets to continue to grow the brand," says Fertitta. "I’m sure in some markets we have to go back and explain what the brand and company is, sort of pull out the 2001 or 2002 script to talk about things we don’t have to in the U.S. any more. It’s just to continue to understand where our brand is in all these markets and push ourselves to evolve."
As fighters and fans get ready for UFC 200, Fertitta is excited by not only what it means for the brand today, but the potential it represents.
"The thing that keeps us all going here is that there is so much unlimited opportunity," he says. "It’s just a matter of being able to come up with the right strategy to get it the right way."