The Rise Of The UFC
by Arnab Dey Starting a Business 09 February 2023
The UFC was recently estimated to have a value of around $10 billion, not bad for a company that staged its first fight way back in 1993.
That meteoric rise has seen it become one of the biggest sporting brands in the world, with UFC ranking alongside NFL, baseball, boxing, and basketball, as one of America’s most popular sports to bet on, with UFC fight night odds hugely sought after by fight fans.
Originally founded by Art Davie, Rorion Gracie, Bob Meyrowitz, and Campbell McLaren, the UFC staged its first-ever event in Denver, Colorado in November 1993. The eight-man tournament featured fighters from various mixed martial arts, including Karate, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Wrestling, Boxing, Kickboxing, and Taekwondo.
Fought in an octagon-shaped cage, the idea was to pit fighters from different fighting backgrounds against each other to settle the age-old argument of which martial art was superior. There were no rules, time limits, judges, weight limits, or gloves.
US Senator John McCain famously labeled MMA as “human cockfighting”, which resulted in UFC being banned in 36 US states and on the verge of collapse. However, that move prompted drastic changes in the sport, including the implementation of fingerless gloves, judges, time limits, rounds, weight classes, and a 10-point scoring system.
However, the real change didn’t begin until 2001, when former boxer Dana White discovered that the parent company of UFC, Semaphore Entertainment Group, was looking to sell. He contacted his childhood friend Frank Fertitta, who along with his brother Lorenzo, bought UFC under the name Zuffa for a figure reported to be around $2m.
With White installed as UFC president, they set about cleaning up the sport and improving its appeal. Fewer weight divisions were created to make it easier for fans to understand, while a world-leading anti-doping regime was installed. But it was going to take more than that to bring this sport to the masses.
The UFC slowly bought up most other competing MMA organizations including World Fighting Alliance, Pride Fighting Championship, International Fight League, World Extreme Cage fighting, and Strikeforce. In doing so, they gained new fight fans and built up a brand that attracted the attention of Television.
UFC President, Dana White, along with Spike TV, created ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, a reality television show featuring up-and-coming MMA fighters living, training, and competing against each other in return for a UFC contract. The show was a huge success and drew new audiences to the sport.
After years of rising ratings, TV giant Fox started to take notice, and in 2011 they signed a seven-year deal with the UFC worth $700m. That deal acted as a massive endorsement of the sport and brought it to the attention of the American mainstream.
In 2014, UFC signed an exclusive sponsorship deal with Reebok. Not only was this another sign that mainstream companies were taking the sport seriously, but it helped create a more professional image for the sport.
Current sponsors reflect the rise of UFC, with global brands happy to attach their name to the once-vilified sport.
The “Official Timekeeper of UFC” signed a deal in December 2021, and is offering UFC-branded watches, fitness trackers, and more.
The deal means TikTok provides exclusive UFC Livestream content, such as pre and post-fight access, behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive interviews, and more.
The company has been the ‘Official Energy Drink of UFC’ since 2015, and has now extended that deal to the ‘Official Water of UFC’.
Signed in 2019, this deal is worth $300 million a year, for a total of $1.5 billion over 5 years, and makes ESPN the exclusive rights broadcaster in the US, showing all live events.
Perhaps the biggest factor behind the success of UFC is its use of the internet and social media. When it was first forced underground in the 1990s, the sport took to the internet to promote and show their fights, and subsequently found itself benefitting from the explosion of the internet.
With no mainstream media coverage in the early years, they were forced to become pioneers in the use of social media and the internet. It also allowed them to directly communicate with their fans and create a loyal following who feel invested in the sport.
The most popular fighters currently on Instagram are:
|1. Conor McGregor:
|46 million followers
|2. Khabib Nurmagomedov:
|3. Ronda Rousey:
|4. Israel Adesanya:
|5. Jon Jones:
|6. Nate Diaz:
In 2016, Endeavor acquired a majority stake in UFC’s parent company Zuffa for a reported $4 billion. Currently, Endeavor owns 50.1% of the UFC, with the other 49.9% split between Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and MSD Capital. However, in advance of the company going public via an initial public offering, Endeavor has now agreed to totally buy out the UFC.
The rise of UFC is a truly remarkable story, and its success is an example to other sports in how to stand out in a hugely competitive sector. From its use of social media to the growth of women’s fights, MMA is doing things differently as it sets its sights on becoming the number-one sport in the world.