June 14, 2016

It seems like one of the strangest equations in modern sport.
One of the most opinion dividing and intense sports on the planet is also one of the fastest growing, and one of the most successful brands around – Ultimate Fighting Championship.
UFC is the envy of many more traditional sports. It has tapped into the 16-30 demographic with ease, owns its own media rights, and is usually regarded as the gold standard of what digital content should look like.
James Elliott, General Manager of EMEA, explains why the brand has managed to move so quickly and successfully across the digital environment:
“It’s a bit of a cliche for us to be honest, but we’re teenagers ourselves, the business itself is only 15 years old since the current ownership bought it. So for us, we grew up in that digital world. We didn’t have to change any of the processes to try engage with it. We didn’t have TV deals that restricted us with the way we interact with that digital space, and engage on a social level. We’ve been able to be flexible and to adapt, to change and develop with that market as the social media space has exploded.”
One of UFC’s nearest rivals, boxing, seems to frequently miss the mark, in terms of the fights it offers, and how fans can access content. Elliott thinks that UFC’s great strength is something boxing has always struggled with: getting the two best fighters in the world in their class in the ring together.
“We have a lot of control over our business, because we are just a promotor in the sport of mixed martial arts. I think one of the frustrations people have had with combat sports is that you wait too long for the best to fight the best, and sometimes they don’t, or when they do, it is too late. For us, that ability to matchmake and to have the best fighters fighting the best fighters on a consistent basis, has really been the catalyst that has driven the growth of the sport, and the live event is second to none.”
But what has really impressed the sports business industry is how well regarded the brand is. What makes UFC’s rise so remarkable, is that at first glance, it’s an aggressive combat sport. The fighters attack with an intensity rarely seen in other combat sports.
UFC’s success has come through educating their audience to understand what they are watching is not violence, but rather two skilled fighters taking part in a contest where every move, attack and defence, is thought through – like chess. For Elliott, and for UFC, an educated audience is vital.
“I say it all the time: it’s very easy to look at mixed martial arts and only see the bits you don’t want to see. What we have embarked upon, in Europe particularly, is the process of educating people on what the sport actually is. There is a lot of nuance there, a lot of subtlety to it. I know it doesn’t look like that sometimes when you are watching it, but when people actually take the time to engage with it and understand it, they can see the skill level. Everybody understands, fundamentally, what’s going on. They don’t necessarily see the subtlety. Our success has been in translating that subtlety to people.”

UFC have also tapped into secondary markets; to bring in fans who wouldn’t ordinarily engage with them. Their gaming strategy feeds back into their goal of educating their audience and drawing in more people.
“E-sports is a big part of what we are looking at as we continue to develop and continue to engage with that youth demographic. Our EA Sports game is, I believe, their second biggest selling title on a global basis. There’s a real opportunity there as an educational piece, but also to engage with people who don’t necessarily want to engage our content on TV, or participate in it. It’s a natural avenue for people to come into our world.”

So what does the future hold for UFC? They are growing rapidly, and have Europe firmly in their sights, led by Elliott.

“We’re looking to grow everywhere. We’ve made a significant commitment to the European market, we’re putting on bigger and better cards than we ever have done before, that will continue. We’re working to expand across as many territories as we can. There are 145 territories that fall under my remit, and we’ve been to eight! So we have a lot of work to do, we have a lot of new territories to break, a lot of new arenas to go to, we’re working very hard, we just wished there was a bit more time.”