The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is preparing for its Super Bowl moment.
International Fight Week is just around the corner, building up to UFC 200, which takes place on July 9.
The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is playing host to some huge fights, including current champion Daniel Cormier and former champion Jon Jones’ rematch, WWE star Brock Lesnar versus Mark Hunt in the heavyweight division, and Cat Zingano and Julianna Pena fighting to win the women’s bantamweight bout.
Garry Cooke, UFC’s chief brand officer, told Business Insider UFC 200 represents the culmination of 20 years of work, building from a small fight promotions company to mixed martial arts becoming the world’s fastest-growing sport, and the UFC brand gaining reach of 1.1 billion households worldwide.
Cooke thinks the “seminal moment” that got UFC to where it stands today was the launch of “The Ultimate Fighter” US reality TV show, which first aired on Spike TV in 2005. It ran for 22 seasons and now it is airing in Japan.
Ronda Rousey enabled UFC to redefine the word “fighting” — and she’s going to be back very soon
He also extends a lot of thanks to Ronda Rousey, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, who went 12 fights undefeated before suffering a surprising loss to Holly Holm in November. The first female UFC star, Rousey has gone on to be a Sports Illustrated cover model, has hosted “Saturday Night Live,” is the highest-paid athlete in UFC, and was the eight highest-paid female athlete from any sport in 2015, according to Forbes.
Cook said Rousey changed the landscape of women in sport. And she also helped move UFC’s fanbase from hardcore fight fans to a mainstream global audience.
“We have a very strong male audience that wants to watch Ronda Rousey and, if you look at the history of sport and women in sport, that hasn’t necessarily been the same, whether you look at women’s soccer, or women’s basketball — tennis is probably more similar on a sort of gender equity basis — we have seen that the audience for Ronda Rousey is strongly male and I think what it has done is it has heightened our ability to take UFC and the equity it has built across the audience and has enabled us to redefine the word ‘fighting’,” Cook said.
Not only is Rousey a proven fighter, but she lost her father to suicide when she was 8-years-old. In her words, she has “always been fighting,” Cook explained.
Cook added: “We are rolling out our social responsibility agenda under the term ‘We Are All Fighters’ and she is a massive ambassador and changing the way people think about women in sport and she is, of course, one of the great athletes of our time.”
Unfortunately, for UFC, Rousey is currently out of action, having suffered a mouth injury during her stunning head-kick knockout loss to Holm in November. Rousey also said she was so upset about losing, she even contemplated suicide.
Cook said of Rousey’s return: “We are in those discussions now and we have a very clear plan for Rhonda, so I think the fans are going to be very, very excited … we have our 200 event in July, Colin McGregor will be fighting in 202, we have our [first ever] New York event in 205 [at Madison Square Garden], so you will see Ronda feature in one of those. One of the things that becomes really enticing for the fan, I think, is that anticipation of ‘when’.”
How UFC deals with complaints that it is barbaric
As UFC continues to grow its global audience, it is also expanding the amount of commercial partners it works with.
It has signed big deals with companies like EA Sports, which has produced a popular UFC video game, Bud Light, and Harley Davidson. The company said it generated $600 million in revenue last year, thanks in a small part to these commercial partnerships. Pay-per-view is its biggest revenue source, then there are also media rights, digital subscriptions, ticket sales, and merchandise.
But Cook admits UFC is “not for everybody” and agrees that one of its biggest challenges is convincing people — commercial partners and audiences alike — that the sport isn’t barbaric.
He said: “I think what we are trying to do, and do a good job of, is educating people and making people aware of what the truth is. We do a lot of that through the eyes of the athletes. The athletes don’t see it as barbaric; they see it as strategic. The athletes don’t see it as violent; they see it as combat sport. I think sometimes, if we look at it through the lens of a different generation, and what they think of it versus the next generation and the athletes that are involved in it, we get two very different views. It’s our job to continually work to educate.”
Part of that education drive has involved work with other popular sports and entertainment vehicles. For example, UFC is hosting WWE stars Brock Lesnar and CM Punk at its upcoming events. Previously, Ronda Rousey has also made a surprise, brief appearance in the WWE ring.
Speaking to Business Insider earlier this month, WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said allowing Lesnar to fight in UFC 200 was a “really special case” and that WWE would not be supporting the fight with any promotional activity. We put this to Cook.
Cook said: “Mrs McMahon has every right to have her view on how she wants to protect the WWE brand, and I fully respect that. We have done some cross-promotional activities [before] and we can choose to do more if we wish to pay for it [such as paying for advertising around WWE TV broadcasts] and there’s nothing wrong with either of those scenarios because they are commercial propositions. You can always buy media, right?
“Maybe one day it will become an Olympic sport”
Another way UFC hopes to improve understanding about the sport is through its 200,000 square foot performance center in Las Vegas. What began as a health center for its own athletes has become home to other sports stars looking to improve their fitness.
Everyone from the Detroit Pistons, to the New Jersey Devils, to Red Bull Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo have popped by, using mixed martial arts techniques to become stronger physically and mentally.
Cook says it’s a sign that UFC is becoming a mainstream, respected sport.
“Maybe one day it will become an Olympic sport,” Cook said.
On that front, he admits there is a lot of work still to do. While UFC is the commercial entity, an International Mixed Martial Arts Federation is being developed to hold discussions with governments across the world.
“We have a long way to go in that space and we are fully cognisant of that. However, I can see a day because as we know, it goes back to one of our maxims — ‘the fans will decide’ — and if people want to watch that sport, they will do that the same way as they wanted to watch snowboarding, skateboarding, and golf now in the Olympics. If people want to watch, we should always be cognisant of that and we should provide access for them whenever possible,” Cook said.
“Our past is unforgettable, we are undeniable, and I think we are relatively unstoppable,” he added.
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