Few sports have enjoyed as rapid a rise as UFC, which was founded just 24 years ago and has generated some of the most lucrative and talked-about sporting events of the last few years. Having emerged onto the scene when more established fight sports were in their heyday, with larger-than-life characters like Mike Tyson and Hulk Hogan dominating the ring and the media, the tables have turned and now it’s the challenger that looks ready to take the heavyweight crown.
Unsurprisingly, its enthusiastic embracing of new technologies and digital marketing opportunities have played their part in making UFC the king of the ring. This growth, of course, culminated in this summer’s all-star boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jnr and UFC champion Conor McGregor, which brought the sport to a huge global audience, including over a million paying PPV customers in the UK. To find out how this amazing rise has happened, let’s put the spotlight on UFC’s marketing strategy.
UFC – The History
UFC’s current status is a world away from what has subsequently become known as UFC1, the first UFC event, which took place in Denver, Colorado in November 1993 and was watched in person by 7,800 people and on PPV by 86,000. By contrast, UFC 200 took place in Las Vegas in front of 18,200 spectators with over a million PPV customers in July 2016, even though it took the hit of Conor McGregor pulling out a few months before the fight.
The early years of the sport saw it struggle to establish mixed martial arts in a world already besotted with boxing and wrestling. It was – and often still is – seen as violence for the sake of violence rather than a competitive sport with the grace and skill of, say, boxing. It came with a disclaimer for TV audiences and advertised itself as having ‘no rules’, but this failed to draw an audience and instead led to US politicians like John McCain trying to ban it.
These hurdles, plus the low viewing figures on the minor pay TV platform it was screening on, could have been enough to see UFC fade away, but instead, around the turn of the millennium, it began to introduce more rules about code of conduct to clean up its image. With a change of ownership, new cable PPV deal and increasing sales of DVDs, things started to look up for UFC at last.
Hitting The Big Time
One of the first really successful ideas the new owners – the Fertitta Brothers – had was leveraging the increasing popularity of reality television in the early 21st Century. The Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV after WWE Raw to pick up some of that audience and the show focused on up-and-coming fighters who compete for a contract. It was so successful that Spike also started to show UFC Unleashed, UFC Fight Night and UFC Countdown, while Ultimate Fighter eventually moved to FX.
Another big step the Fertittas took was hiring marketing agency PETROL, who identified ways to make the sport distinct from its competitors. PETROL president Alan Hunter explained to Forbes how his agency went about it: “Most fight posters are just two half-naked men staring at you. We try to come up with a reason for them to be there,” Hunter said. “What has been the guy’s journey? What makes this more than just a fight? The first thing we do is get into the backstory, what it means to them, what it means to fans, how fans will get invested – that all informs how we build the visual identity.”
Whereas wrestling builds up the backstories of its fictional characters, UFC began to do it around the real lives of its fighters and this was perhaps best seen in the promotion for UFC 200. After Conor McGregor had criticised the way he was portrayed in a poster for UFC 196, Hunter saw a new idea for promotion: “My immediate inspiration was to make it into a campaign and send it to Dana [White, UFC president] to use as a Twitter campaign.
“We wanted to cover his body and make up his entire being out of these quotes about how great he is,” said Hunter. “When Lorenzo [Fertitta] and Dana saw the pitch and shared it with their internal team, they said they really loved it, but that it was bigger than Conor McGregor – they thought it would be great for UFC 200.” By creating such a unique poster campaign, PETROL helped UFC forge a bold and distinct identity far removed from boxing and wrestling.
Taking The Fight To Social Media
Hunter wasn’t the only person to see the potential for marketing UFC around some of its more explosive stars, with Dana White’s own Twitter account offering content that’s a far cry from what you’d typically get from a senior sporting figure. He saw the potential for social media to grow the sport’s fanbase by giving them direct access to the fighters, even setting up a three day boot camp his stars improved social savvy. His instruction was apparently: “I want you to Twitter your asses off.”
As well as training his stars to use social media to their advantage, White has ensured that fans feel like they have access to all areas of UFC through technology innovations such as virtual reality (VR), which the brand introduced earlier in 2017. Further ground-breaking plans are afoot too, with real-time stats being incorporated into the offering via the use of in-ring sensors. It’s an idea driven by social media, the second screen experience and the idea of tapping into the speed and reactivity modern sports fans expect.
“We’re working on a lot of stats. We want to see the best knock out – it’s perfect for social media,” said White. William Morris Endeavour’s co-CEO Ari Emanuel added: “We’re going to start creating videos from it that will be shareable with emojis. We’re about six months away from that.” By engaging with digital innovation such as this, UFC can ensure it’s ahead of the game, delivering the kind of visceral and immediate experiences those at the fight enjoy to those who are watching from home.
From Demetrious Johnson live streaming his video gaming – even during a routine drug test – to McGregor’s colorful personality and controversial outbursts, UFC isn’t short on characters to highlight in its social media accounts and its 4m+ YouTube subscribers are never short of new content to digest. By embracing its characters, the technology available to showcase them and digital innovation as a whole, UFC has rocketed to the top and shows every sign of staying there.
Are you a fan of UFC? Has the brand’s embracing of digital technology brought you into the fold? Tweet us @mporiumgroup to let us know your thoughts.